Friday, March 23, 2012

So what, exactly, is tiki?

It's become clear that most midwesterners have a very narrow view of tiki. When I tell people I'm an entertainer specializing in exotica, there's a long pause and a big question mark over their heads. I'll say, "It's tiki bar music" and they'll smile and say, "Oh, ok!". The silence and question mark returns, however, with the mention of Martin Denny.

The average person's tiki experience is limited to a bar & grill with an outdoor deck they call a tiki bar. There are some plastic palm trees, umbrella drinks and "Cheeseburger in Paradise" playing on satellite radio... it bears little resemblance to the tiki bars of the '50s and there's not a tiki to be found. So what exactly is tiki and how did it enter the lexicon of modern society?


Where's the tiki?

Tiki is a large, wooden, human-like figure carved by Polynesian natives. They can be found from the Hawaiian islands to New Zealand. While the details of its mythology vary from region to region, the story remains basically the same... tiki represents the first human. In Hawaii there's a tiki representing Kumu-Honua, who made a woman from one of his ribs. As you might guess, this story has been partially or completely Christianized.

The author at Chin's


The stone heads of Easter Island (Moai) are part of tiki culture but are not themselves "tiki". They were carved by Polynesian colonists to represent deceased ancestors and former chiefs.


"Gum-gum"

Africa, Asia and Latin America are also part of tiki culture but how did all these things get thrown into the tiki pot? Well, let's go back to the early '50s...

Three things came together to create a craze in the United States. First, advances in aircraft design made during WWII created an explosive demand for civil air transportWorld travel took hours instead of months. Around that same time, soldiers were returning from the South Pacific with exotic souvenirs and Hawaii had become our 50th state.


Hawaii Calls

We'd entered the jet age but most middle-class Americans couldn't afford to fly. To meet this new demand for the exotic, restaurants like "Don the Beachcomber" began opening around the country. They featured artifacts from the tropics, Cantonese food and rum drinks. It was an affordable way to visit remote, primitive parts of the world. Large carved tiki statues were placed outside to attract customers... hence the name "tiki bar".

Front of Chin's Livonia

This new movement also came with a soundtrack. Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman were A-list entertainers with chart topping records. They created exotic sounds without being too authentic, making it accessible to the masses. In 1959 Martin Denny's "Quiet Village" reached #2 on the charts and his album Exotica was number one!

The record that created a genre.

Throughout the '50s and '60s many Americans had tiki bars in their basements and listened to exotica records. But as Mr. Zimmerman pointed out, "The Times They Are a-Changin." The Beatles reinvented popular music and issues like civil rights and the war in Vietnam consumed our collective psyche. It was time to pull our heads (and feet) out of the sand and get back to work.

The world famous Chin Tiki in Detroit.

Next post I'll blab endlessly about popular tiki bars and the extremes they went to in creating an immersive, exotic experience!

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