Category Archives: exotica

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Don Tiki

Don Tiki

Official Site

South of the Boudoir, Taboo Records 2009

I first became hooked on Don Tiki after hearing the spooky Tiki track “The Natives Are Restless.” Further research on the band led me to discover that they had done other songs with kinda creepy titles, such as “Axolotl” and “The Hypnotizing Man.” Their debut album, The Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki also depicts creepy idols, green fire and a human skull (carrying over aspects from the cover of The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter). Not that it effects my enjoyment of the band, mind you. Don Tiki could have never done any of those things and I’d still love ’em.

The booking agent for Don Tiki had an interesting observation about Ritual of the Savage, the same album whose cover art inspired the creation of the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari. He said that the spooky idol images were “…meant to stir passions within the safety of suburbia,” or as the band likes to say, “where sensual fantasies exist…especially after that third mai tai.”

Sex is an aspect of Tiki culture (that link is NSFW, by the way), although said aspect is often toned down in general pop culture. Don Tiki has embraced this aspect of Tiki, as evidenced by this album’s title and Skinny Dip With Don Tiki. Speaking of the album, they’ve really gone all out and have assembled quite a selection of talent. In addition to the core members:

Jim Howard: Flute
Sharene Lum: Harp
Hai Jung: Lead & backing vocals
Sherry Shaoling: Lead & backing vocals
Delmar deWilde: Lead & backing vocals
Carlinhos de Oliveira: Brazilian percussion
Perry Coma: Keyboards percussion & backing vocals
Noel Okimoto: Vibes, marimba, drums & percussion

They also brought in:

Ryoko Oka: T’rung
Dean Taba: Basses
Jason Segler: Drums
James Ganeko: Congas
Starr Kalahiki: Backing vocals
Rockford Holmes: Saxes & flutes
Yo Ma-Ma (Jimmy Borges): Lead vocal
Lopaka Colon: Jungle percussion (of The Waitiki 7 fame)

The album’s opening track is actually a cover of the exotica classic, “Friendly Islands” by Ethel Azama. Bird calls lead into guiros, vibes, and keyboards under female vocals singing of a tropical paradise that’s perfect for love. The drums and cymbals are very soft and low and add to the song’s soft smoothness. There’s a vaguely jazzy vibe and guiro interlude at one point, and more calls appear as the singer takes us out. There’s a very “Bali Hai” feel to this.

The instrumental “Odd Man Out” uses congas and vibe strikes to form the main beat. A harp soon joins in and the vibraphone use gets more involved, as do the guiro and piano-like keyboards. Light bass is also used at points and then the vibes liven things up again with percussion, which leads us out. There’s a definite jungle feel to this one.

Despite the name, the light vibes and fast congas of “Turkish Delight” provide more of a tropical feel as they play over the occasional keyboards and harp. It only feels vaguely “Middle Eastern” later, where some exotic percussion is also added to increased keyboard use.

The very catchy “The Forbidden Finger” starts with male vocals which join congas and vibes, and female vocals and flute soon follow. Keyboards, congas and vibes make up much of the song, but the flute gets some decent roles at times. In classic Don Tiki style, the singing cheekily implies both the “shh” usage of a finger and another possible meaning for the title.

The band’s interpretation of G. Lane’s “Bla Bla Cha Cha” has a very Latinesque, Arthur Lyman feel. A piano-style keyboard openings things while a female singer explains (in a low and sultry voice) that the tune has no lyrics that could fit, so she’ll say “bla bla cha cha” instead. After a brief pause, it suddenly bursts into lively singing backed by a saxophone, drums and light vibes. This leads to a brief instrumental segment that’s very tango-like at times. I love the ending sequence of this track.

I thought “Tinfoil Hats” would be one of the album’s horror-related songs due to the possible alien connection, but I was wrong. The keyboard, t’rung, marimbas that sound like cartoon mice running, soft cymbals and vibes all come and go at different times and sometimes overlap. This creates the effect that the song is taking place in a madman’s head.

Cymbals and ringing bells softly open “In Thailand (Yo-Ma-Ma Mix),” as funky keyboards, congas and saxophone form a great soft beat. Sadly, the (in my opinion) awful lyrics ruin it for me. It’s a shame, as the sax and keyboards get a great solo at one point. I just wish this had been an instrumental…

“Chinatown Bar Cha Cha Cha” has a tango-like keyboard and percussion opening, then male vocals sing of evening at a Chinatown bar and his flirtations with a female patron over the course of a few weeks. Light vibes and flute use comes into play and we later hear an interesting pick-up line of sorts about buying her clothes to pose in while he takes pictures. Drumroll, keyboards and camera clicks cleverly give way to vibes. Percussion and others pick up as vocals return to sing of the relationship’s progress.

“Pussyfooting” is another instrumental that uses light, slow percussion and keyboard to give the impression of carefully tip-toeing. The keyboards are the star of the show, as they’re the only instrument to stray from main beat. The vibes get an interlude too, though. The use of bird calls returns in “Jungle Julie,” soon followed by congas and bass. Keyboards and cymbals aren’t far behind and get Peanuts-like at times. Flutes also appear, as do harps. Said harps give this a far more Middle Eastern feel than “Turkish delight” had. More calls get layered in briefly and the music slows down for a keyboard solo of sorts, later joined by cymbals and flute. There’s a return to form and then more harp use. Light marimba use takes us out with harps and light, soft bird calls.

“Billions of Brazilians” begins with wild Brazilian percussion and organ-like keyboards. Mixed male and female vocals sing of the wonders of Brazil. The “Ya ya ya ya ya ya” chorus is very catchy, you will be whistling, humming or singing this after hearing it. This is followed by vibes and speedy cymbals. The singing returns again, but there is drum solo after the and chorus returns with keyboards and vibes. I love the wonderful instrumental outro.

Congas and light keyboards form the beat “Pajama Tops,” which are soon layered under the vibraphone and flute. A female voice gives humorous explanation for the title at the end. Horns, congas and crowd sound effects give “The Palanquin” the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar. Female vocals act as spice before male vocals over keyboard and congas sing of a search for Don Tiki’s hidden bar in an ancient catacomb. The keyboard and harp outro nicely leads into the next track.

“Pagan Lust” is the sole co-production by Don Tiki song scribe Kit Ebersbach on South of the Boudoir, which he did with Lauritz Hasenpusch. I honestly thought this would be about what the title implied and that I could discuss how such lust appears in both Tiki and horror culture. Instead, it turned out to be the name of a fictional drink! Funky keyboards and male vocals (plus several female vocals) sing a warning not to order said drink. Light vibes appear, as well as drums. They explain that the drink is dangerous and provide humorous descriptions like “red hot lava in a cobra skin.” After a Middle Eastern horn and drum interlude, followed by vibes and light wordless female vocals, it returns to the original style for the end.

The first of two bonus tracks, “Rapture of the Deep,” is both the longest track and the surprise horror connection of the album! Bubbling sound effects increase in volume while congas and “Music from the Heart of Space”-style mystical keyboards follow. Processed, whispering female vocals that sound like a sea witch tells a tale of seduction called “The Age of Love.” The overall effect is like sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean, especially if you listen in a dark room. The vocals can be hard to understand at times (Did she actually use the term “member” like I think she did?). A heartbeat effect is added over the soft keyboard solo, followed by the occasional congas and gong usage. Maracas and more bubbling lead us back to the story (over more bubbles). Be warned, though: The sea witch’s orgasmic moans towards the end will have anyone playing this at a party making a mad dash to the stereo’s off switch.

The second bonus track, “In Thailand (Delmar’s Deluxe Mix),” is a repeat of track #7 with new material added to to intro and outro. Said material is mostly vocals and the sound of a bottle being uncorked. Sadly, the lyrics are still there.

My issues with that one song aside, I highly recommend both Don Tiki and this album. Just be sure to leave your inhibitions at the door…

Special thanks to Don Tiki for the review copy!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Robert Drasnin

Robert Drasnin

Official Site

Voodoo II, Dionysus Records 2007

Martin Denny. Les Baxter. Arthur Lyman. They are the greats of the classic exotica world. However, I think there’s a name missing from that list: Robert Drasnin.

Granted, he’s only released two exotica albums, Voodoo and Voodoo II, but I think their quality and importance more than makes up for the lack of quantity.

The Voodoo series actually has an interesting history. Back in 1959, Drasnin composed Voodoo for Tops/Mayfair Records. Tops re-released it a year later with new cover art and under a new title: “Percussion Exotique.” It wasn’t until 1996 that it was reissued onto CD by Dionysus Records. That same year, Pickwick Records (then owned by the now-defunct video company Simitar) released a CD called Exotic Excursion which was made up of 10 of the original album’s 12 tracks. However, while the Dionysus release was mastered from a previously unplayed record, the Pickwick release used the original master tapes from the 50’s. Why two different companies released CDs of the same material using different masters (and why the one using the master tapes didn’t use two tracks) is a mystery to me.

After the original release of Voodoo, Drasnin performed as a musician in numerous other albums, did work on television shows like Lost in Space and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He even became CBS’ Director of Music in 1977! According to the liner notes, the idea to create a sequel to his hit exotica album came in 2005, after the tremendous response to his liver performance of selections from Voodoo at the Hukilau Tiki festival. Two years later, Voodoo II was released.

Not only did Mr. Drasnin compose, conduct and arrange the entire album, but he also played the clarinet, flute and saxophone! One top of that, he recruited:

Mike Lang: Piano
Jim Hughart: Bass
Billy Hulting: Vibes
Amy Shulman: Harp
Peggy Baldwin: Cello
Howard Greene: Drums
John Sawoski: Keyboard
DJ Bonebrake: Marimba
Stephanie Bennett: Vocals
Bobby Shulgold: Alto flute, flute
Brad Dutz and Scott Breadman: Latin percussion

As you can see, this was a true labor of love and not a quickly slapped together cash in. In fact, the resulting sound is so rich (thanks to the use of so many instruments) that my write-up can’t cover them all!

“Habanera In Blue” opens with claves, bongos, quick vibraphone beats and sirenesque female vocals. Light keyboard notes play, then the piano takes us to vibes layered over cymbals or maracas. The cello joins in, along with a harp and more wordless vocals. We hear the piano again, along with the ever-present claves and bongos. The vocals reappear with cymbals, only to be temporarily replaced by the saxophone. They return with the harp, while claves, bongos, piano, chimes and gong form the ending.

“Moorean Moonbeams” starts off with bongos and guiros, then the piano brings in the female vocals (with lyrics) that give this track a beautiful, otherworldly feel. Bongos, drums, cymbals guiros, cello and vibes are added as the vocals and piano disappear and reappear. The guiro, bongos and vocals are “on top” after the piano. The cello is layered as well, then later goes solo until the gongs and quick guiro at the end.

As the title might have you guess, “Sambalerro” has a distinctly “Latin” sound. Our old friend the piano is mix with maracas, marimba, vibes, cello and maracas at first. Later, a flute or clarinet joins the piano, drums and vibes and this transitions to a sax over maracas and cowbell. Drums and piano turns into a piano solo and the like TV show end logo-type finale featuring a gong and light chimes.

In “East of Xanadu,” the cello and light bongos are quickly followed by vocals, piano and marimba. Vibes transition to bongos, cello, marimba, and clarinet. The returning vocals are sung over vibes, drums and cymbals that to lead to a saxophone over maracas and bongos. The vocal join in and compliment the beat, then takes everything over. Piano flourishes are layered atop vibes, cymbals, bongos, and cello before the piano and harp outro.

“Kahluha Mist” has a catchy “bongos and clave” beat layered under a piano, light cymbals vibes and cello. It might look like a mess on paper, but they actually go really well together. The piano gets more varied before the sax appears over bongos and percussion, which gives way to piano, vibes and cello.

“Polynesian Bolero” starts off with chimes and drums, with dash of vibes and light vocals that form a slow march of sorts. The vibes get larger role with drums, then the track becomes more like a Latin dance. The saxophone and percussion beat make things jazzier before the march resumes, only to become a jazzy sax version of march layered on top of vibes.

The slow vibes of “Luz de la Luna” merge with claves and cymbals (or is it maracas?). The cello plays very lightly under vocals, and drums briefly appear. These drums then give way to vibes and piano notes over bongos. Light sax notes drift in and then we get a piano solo. Bongos, sax and vocals return over the occasional bongos before the jazzy ending.

The energetic exotic percussion opening of “Puente Doble” forms the track’s beat and is joined by a marimba cameo of sorts. The cello and vibes transitions to piano and keyboard breaks. Speaking of which the keyboard offers varied sounds throughout this song. There’s a neat “Peanuts exotica” feel at times to this. The marimba gets a larger role accompanied by the piano and cello and everything gets more dramatic and drum-filled towards the end.

“La Mer Velours” has a wonderful piano opening with cymbals and claves, followed by vocals going in and out of the song. Bongos play in background at first, but vibes replace them later for a nice solo of sorts. The harp appears from time to time, as do the vocals.

The bongos, claves and flute of “Reminiscence” are soft, slow and light. The occasional vibe work is followed by piano and is very evocative of memories. Cymbals and the cello pick things up a little bit with the vibraphone Some light, magical-sounding chimes sometimes pop in and vanish as quickly as they appeared. The cello and vibes over the back beat goes well with the piano work.

“Siren Song” opens with a piano and claves backed with soft, but steady cymbals and vibes. Vocals follow soon after and are joined by the cello. It’s easy to see why Odysseus begged to be untied from the mast of his ship if this is the sort of singing he had heard. Vibes take over and the beat picks up. A quick cymbal hit takes thing back to normal and vocals return, along with a vibe flourish. Before you know it, the beat picks up again and we hear some fine cello work. Light harp strums and vocals come in, then the piano takes over but eventually yields to those it replaced.

“Tahitian Dream” begins with slow cymbals and bongos. The piano and vocals join in, along with vibes, cello, and slow, smooth vocals. The piano takes the reigns again, then the vibes and cello take over. The saxophone jazzes thing up until it’s replaced by the vocals. Light gong strikes and cello bring the song (and the album) to a close.

Many of you are probably wondering, “Why is the album called “Voodoo” if it has nothing to do with Africa or Haiti?” In fact, I thought something similar back when I first saw a scan of the album’s original cover art years ago. At first I wrote it off as someone suffering from cultural confusion, but that seems to not be the case. You see, during the time period the album was released, the term “voodoo” had long since been catch-all slang for the exotic and forbidden. This is evidenced by the rather unfortunate lyrics of the song quoted here. Thankfully, Voodoo II has none of that example’s potential offensiveness and is instead a wonderful listening experience.

Special thanks to Dionysus Records for the review copy!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Stereophonic Space Sound Unlimited

Stereophonic Space Sound Unlimited

Official Site (Label)

The Spooky Sound Sessions, Dionysus Records 2009

After Kava Kon, we have one more stop in our Freaky Tiki Surf-ari side trip through the world of neo-exotica, which also takes us further into the world of space age pop.

Stereophonic Space Sound Unlimited is something of a mystery to me. They don’t have any official website or social networking pages that I can find and what few tidbits of information about them I managed to find online are very brief. Their Wikipedia entry refers to them as a “Swiss instrumental band” that’s been releasing albums since the late 90’s, along with references to some projects that have used the band’s music on their soundtracks. This calls them a “Swiss instrumental/exotica/space age duo,” which makes the mention of a third musician on the CD’s back cover a bit confusing. Are they a new member or a special guest? I honestly can’t say that I know. All I do know is that these people are credited are:

Karen Simpson: Guitar and percussion.
Markus Maggiori: Bongos, congas, and percussion.
Natz Maeschi: Guitar, bass, organ and keyboards (He also wrote the music).

Reading the CD also resulted in my realizing that the album’s title was due to the music being recorded at the “Spooky Sound Studio.” This initially did have me worried that this wouldn’t be a good fit for Freaky Tiki Surf-ari but as soon as I played the first track, I knew everything was going to be all right…

“Sitar Jerk” starts with magical-sounding chimes that lead us into a spacey, sort of Middle Eastern beat. More chimes are sprinkled throughout the space sounds, laser effects and funky beat. True to its name, a sitar does make numerous appearances and there’s even a Hammond organ coupled with more space sounds at one point. It only slows down before the final fade out. Overall, this sounds like what would play in the background of a porno starring George and Jane Jetson.

In “Do The Lurk Around,” a rocking, wailing guitar and organ open things and said things get funky fast. The organ builds up to hand claps, which reappear throughout the song. The organ usually is the main instrument used in the track, but the guitar occasionally fills that role as well.

In “Robotheque,” chimes lead into keyboards and a funky beat. Said chimes reoccur throughout the track. Guitar and cymbals soon join in, along with robot-like, beeping keyboard notes. These “beeps” are often the focus of the song, followed by guitars (both of which are backed by the previously mentioned funky beat).

“The Whistler Returns” starts with eerie bongos and guitar riffs, which gives way to a funky cymbals and organ beat. The beat feels like a lonely, mysterious walk which I suspect is an intentional tribute to the old radio series The Whistler, which opened with the sound of the spooky host’s footsteps. Although it was mostly a mystery show, there were the occasional horror aspects in it and the spin-off film series. More wailing guitar riffs follow the “walk” segment and more percussion appears toward the end.

“Gilera Baby” has a surf guitar opening with a slight Italian feel and congas further add to the beat. The rest of the song alternates between the surf riff and back beat until the reverb-heavy ending.

“Record Shop” starts off with chimes and percussion, along with a clacking sound of some kind over a keyboard beat. A vibraphone occasional cameos throughout the song, as do the chimes and knocking claves. “Contract Killer” offers a funky space beat with occasional, minor chimes. However, it also has serious undertones conveyed through the keyboards. Organ parts occasionally appear as well.

“la fille dans le train” gets things going with wild use of congas, a funky keyboard beat and minor use of some surf guitar (and a touch of mystery). The guitar gets louder and more focused later on, but it’s still only a small part of the song. It’s also coupled with keyboards, but goes back to the original style (and musical companions) soon after until it echoes out. “Re 307” has cymbals, congas and keyboards coupled with space sounds and the occasional use of chimes. A guitar later joins in with a somewhat subdued, but loud, performance. This cycle repeats itself but never bores the listener.

The guitars which start “Action Scope” have a Latin feel to them. Organ music and guiros join them, while the guitar gets more downbeat in tone and light conga use occurs throughout the track. Later, the guitars get a Latin, vaguely Carlos Santana feel to them. The opening of “November Morning,” which is comprised of maracas, chimes and keyboards, feels like a cold early winter morning until the guitar spices things up. Said guitar’s surf riff can be downbeat at times, as can the beat itself (the majority of which is formed with maracas).

The title “Chicken Skin” is slang for goosebumps, and the use of guitars and the accompanying springlike effects remind one of such bumps appearing. The guitar riff is a constant factor, as is the vaguely Middle Eastern at times beat. Congas and keyboards also play roles in this, as do the mysterious theremin-like parts.

The name “La Casa Gialla” means “The Yellow House” and is bound to remind horror fans of giallo films with titles like The_House with Laughing Windows. Organ music and guitars, followed with light congas and chimes, open the song. The interesting organ work is combined with both a loud and slow guitar for great effect. The two guitars make their use the most noticed in this particular track, with one light and in background while other is louder and more focused on by the listener.

A funky conga beat starts “Sad City,” the album’s final track, which sounds like toned-down version of first track at times. An organ and keyboard combo forms beat, chimes sometimes show up and keyboards also play a role. Although the keyboard use is often layered under the other instruments, it does get a chance to shine on own later. Similarly, the guitar riffs get solos of sorts at times. Just as the title implies, the song does have a touch of sadness to it at times.

As one of the Amazon reviewers here wisely noted, the music feels very cinematic and fits a variety of genres (including horror and science fiction). However, words only scratch the surface of this album’s greatness. It’s amazing how its unique, space age pop sound makes very little use of computers and is instead the result of the artists’ talent with “regular” instruments. You simply must listen to it in order to truly understand what I’m trying to get at. Hopefully, this won’t be the last we hear of Stereophonic Space Sound Unlimited.

Special thanks to Dionysus Records for the review copy!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Chaino


Official Site (Label)

Eye of the Spectre, Dionysus Records 2008 (Original release date: 1957)

One of the most striking things about this CD is the cover, the artwork on which looks like something from a horror comic by Eerie Publications. It features an African tribesman strangling and preparing to whip a native woman in practically see-through clothing, who is in turn struggling to reach a dagger. Pretty bold stuff for a 1957 release and it is nothing short of amazing that Dionysus Records (under their Bacchus Archives imprint) was willing to use it in our modern times.

But don’t let your feelings about the cover affect your opinion of the artist or the music. If anything, let it provoke your curiosity…who or what is Chaino? According to the liner notes, producer Kirby Allan had recorded the sounds of tribal wedding ceremonies in Africa and attempted to build interest in his “new sound.” After receiving numerous complaints that the music was too repetitive, Allan decided to rework the music a bit to make it more palatable for American listeners. To this end, he teamed up with a musician whose real name is lost in time and is known only as CHAINO…

Eye of the Spectre is the first of six Chaino albums and its odd name is (according to the back cover) a reference to the “unbridled passion of love’s eerie spectre.” But that, along with the scary Tiki figure art on back cover aren’t Chaino’s only horror connections. The liner notes reveal that Chaino songs were used in low budget chillers like Night Tide and The Devil’s Hand.

Now that I think about it, those films have been released through many “public domain” DVD labels. As Atomic Mystery Monster often points out, even if we assume the films themselves are truly PD, those companies could get sued if the Chaino songs on their soundtracks weren’t created especially for the film as works for hire. If the Chaino material was created before those films, it would copyrighted separately. You see, you have to replace or license music that’s still under copyright even if it appears in a public domain work. That aside, the use of Chaino’s music in those films is still not the final horror connection…

As the title implies, “Bongos Whistling” opens with slow bongos backed by whistling. It’s eerie at first, but becomes somewhat birdlike at times. The bongos then pick up pace, with the occasional hard strike punctuating things. There’s brief harsh, angry male chant-yell before fading out…then we get a whistling solo and a big bongo finish.

“Woo Din Ese” features two bongos: one soft and steady while the other is wild and loud. Quick finger pats are mixed in with thew usual pounding slaps that fade out for the end. “Bongo Semba” has a more energetic opening than the last track, although both make use of two bongos. However, the dominant one is rather peppy in tone. It’s amazing how varied and musically pleasing the use of one type of instrument can be.

“Temba Lero” combines bongos and maracas for a pleasing beat. The bongos start out steady, but gets a bit varied in play. A few quick slaps close things out. “Sumac” offers faster, medium volume bongos and whistling followed by an angry yell, laugh and chanting. The secondary bongos get slower and more whistling appears. Not long after, more chanting and striking of bongos appears to form a very catchy beat. In fact, it sounds like the player is hitting the side of his bongos at times. The familiar angry chant returns and turns into singing…with some suggestive moaning.

“Don’t Do It To Me” has less angry chanting in small, sparse bursts while bongos build and the maracas return. We also get more moans, chanting and more bongos. It gets uncomfortably suggestive at times, but that soon turns into chanting. The bongo use more steady by that time and is soon followed by chanting and singing. A few strikes signal for the chanting to get softer while the bongos rises up and down. Things get back to normal and a chant seemingly takes us out…only for the listener to be surprised by faster bongos and singing. Things get silent, but then we get a repeat of the past events before the real ending.

“Bim-Boo” starts with an ominous gong. Maracas are combined with bamboo poles being hit to create unique sound (hence name). Mere words cannot do this justice. “Zombie Bamboos” opens with native chanting, but it’s not done by angry guy. The bongos are striking and softish, kind of like heartbeat at first, but then it gets a little louder and has more variations. You just might find yourself air bongoing at times. After a final bamboo strike, we get an eerie silence followed by a chant and a scream.

“Mating Calypso” offers a variety of percussion: steel drums, bongos, maracas and even claves. The angry guy’s chanting is fairly calm this time around. The drums soon become the focus, with clave strikes and light maraca use helping out. The chanting builds toward end with the final pounding of the drums. “Seis Nueve” features insect-like guiro use, claves and bongos. In fact, the bongo use is more varied than you’d think. There’s chanting by you-know-who at times, complete with suggestive moans.

“Afri Cuban” has a classic bongo opening. The two bongos changes up once the chanting starts. There’s also a neat echo effect on the chanting towards the end. Trust me, the song is better and more complicated than this review makes it sound. “Secret Jungle Path” begins with bongos and claves, whose strikes bring the sound of fire crackling to mind. A brief bird call or man chanting is heard, followed by bongo beats that sound like footsteps down a path. The beats are soft at times, presumably to imply secrecy. The track (and album) closes with bongos coupled with a shriek and groaning.

After finishing the album, the back cover’s reference to the “unbridled passion of love’s eerie spectre” makes much more sense. Thanks to its basis in African wedding ceremonies, Chaino’s music is alleged to have aphrodisiac-esque properties. Some might suggest that’s why Chaino tracks were used in modern TV shows and movies like Forces of Nature and Sex and the City, but I like to think that it’s because good music is timeless (even if I didn’t like what it appeared in). Sure, it might take a little getting used to, but it’s worth it.

Special thanks to Dionysus Records for the review copy!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Kava Kon

Kava Kon

Official Site

Departure Exotica, white label detroit 2005
Tiki for the Atomic Age, Dionysus Records 2009

For this installment of the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari, we’ll be taking a side trip into the world of neo-exotica. What is neo-exotica? From what I can tell, neo-exotica is exotica music made using synthesizers and other electronic music equipment in addition to classic exotica instrument standards. It’s a close cousin to another exotica offshoot, space age pop, and the bands that make it tend to have fewer members than old school exotica groups.

Although the term is never used in the following Amazon writeup, I still think it also helps describe how Kava Kon is a neo-exotica band: “Kava Kon is an electronica lounge duo. With heavy influences in exotica, bossa nova, electronic, cocktail lounge, western, and 1950s-60s hollywood sound. They make music for the lounge crowd and all of the Tiki heads.”

According to the band’s Myspace blog, Kava Kon was formed by Nels Truesdell and Bob Kress in 2004 as “a magical escape from the urban decay surrounding them in their former home city of Detroit.” In 2005, they released their first album Departure Exotica and followed it up with Tiki for the Atomic Age in 2009. The cover art for both was done by the talented Heather Watts.

Departure Exotica starts things off with “9 Hours,” which features two guitars: one slow and plodding while the other is much faster. The music eventually stops for the sounds of seagulls cawing and rolling surf, which leads into the next track. “Chineses Pirate” continues the sounds of gulls and waves and fades into a synth beat. This is soon joined by a guiro and either a bell or vibraphone. Dreamlike and spacy sounds com into play, along with more seagulls. It gets very Hammond organ-like at times before it launches into a funky beat. Said beat is joined by light vocals, a gong, vibraphone, organ and snapping. Finally, seagulls lead us out into rolling surf.

“Oceania” continues the surf sounds and carries us to a strange synth sound I can’t identify (horn?) and percussion. There’s light use of spacey keyboard and a ukulele or steel guitar comes in later. “Laserblast” sounds and mixed with bird calls and sirenesque female vocals until the beat fades out into…you guessed it…surf sounds. It definitely seems faraway and as exotic as the name/locale implies.

“Moon Mist” begins with the ever-present sound of rolling surf, along with animal calls. Echoing vibes, like ripples in water, and bongos come into play soon after while a gong cameos at times. Light female vocals and space warp effects come in later. The vibraphone beats and vocals play off each other to give the song a “nighttime” feel. It’s like a cool, relaxing evening by the shore.

“Zombie” is obviously of great interest to readers of this website. The opening growls, strange calls and soft crickets lead into bongos, chanting and snapping claves. Said snapping sounds like sparks from fire. The organ returns as the percussion use rises, while something howls in distance. Monkey shrieks and a mournful horn join in, then maracas and vibes get added to beat and leave before it all fades out. It’s like ceremony to raise or summon something from the depths of the jungle.

“Build Your House Underground” begins with a strange tune that leads into an echoing bongo beat, guiros and female singing. Space sounds and odd, vaguely electric bagpipe-like sounds take the stage for awhile until the females vocals repeat and crackle, like a stuck record. I wonder if this was intended as a house music reference of some kind?

Rather than starting off with something associated with the desert or mummies, “Pyramid Point” begins with what sounds like crashing waves. Fast, rhythmic guiros and a funky beat soon come into play. It reminds me of a video game at times and it really picks up about two minutes in. Then it turns into dance music or something off a Kinkysweet compilation (which is not a complaint).

“Sakau Bar” pairs bongos and background tone/hum variations. Light space sounds and whispers vocals are also scattered throughout. This would be great background music at a real bar, and the effect of being at one is created by using whispers to simulate snippets of overhead conversations. Eventually, the tone pulses and overwhelms the bongos and the sounds of thunder and rain closes things out.

“Nan Madol” is a very short tune using a horn and either light chimes or vibe strikes. This is followed by “Six Eleven,” which makes excellent use of a Latin-sounding guitar coupled with clicks/snaps and spacey notes. This is followed with intelligible lyrics sung by Trisha Shandor (who provided vocals on the other songs on the album). Another spacey note underscores and replaces the lyrics while a drum machine leads the music out.

“Tiki Sunrise” is bookended with surf sounds, which is appropriate since it’s the album’s final track. The opening sounds lead into female chanting, guiros and new-agey music. Male vocals (which appears to be a clip from something) and a guitar also come into play. I think this definitely feels like an early morning at beach. In fact, one can easily imagine that the album is made up of the dreams someone who dozed off at the beach is having, hence the heavy use of beach sounds and “space” material. Not that I minded those things, mind you.

As you might surmise from the title, Tiki for the Atomic Age should be of great interest to sci-fi/horror fans. It also seems to be a reference to the neo-exotica style. At first glance, the cover merely depicts a hula dancer holding a ray gun. However, closer inspection implies that woman might be more unearthly than she appeared at first glance. After all, the flower in her hair seems unlike any blossom on Earth…

Not only does the talented vocalist Trisha Shandor return for this album, but she is joined by:

Arianna – vocals
Ceeca Star Begley – vocals
Lalena Malloian – vocals
Terry Herald – ukulele
Ali Lexa – bongos
Ryan Gimpert – pedal, steel guitar
Mark Stone – exotic percussion

“The Atomic Clock” starts things off with drums that lead into a mysterious tune and click-clacking, like a countdown. The female vocals give the song a symphonic tone at first, but a heavier synth tone later dominates it. However, the drum machine and returning vocals revive the symphonic sound. An explosion ends everything…everything but the surf and seagulls.

“Chinese Surfer” continues the use of surf and seagull sounds, then shifts into a variety of sounds. Bongos, steel pedal guitar, guiros, chanting and grunts all come into play. It also gets rather “space”-sounding at times. It alternates between these and has a surf/exotica fusion feel to it. It all stops suddenly, only to be followed by rain…

“Cherry Rain” appropriately couples the sound of light rain with a soft tone. The sounds of a ukulele and piano are joined by female vocals (complete with lyrics), drum machine, bongos and the occasional animal call. There’s an interesting piano riff sprinkled through song that’s like falling rain and it plays off the real sound effect well.

“Turkish Honey” has flutes and animal calls lead into guiros and a Middle Eastern beat/feel. A horn joins in, as do a guitar, the Hammond organ sound and more calls. There’s a great percussive beat throughout as well.

“The Exotic Traveler” starts with chirping crickets, wind and crackling, like a dying fire. It’s very eerie, especially the accompanying organ music and vocals. Things get happier due to the space sounds and drum machine beat, although the space stuff goes in and out (as do vocals). After a distant booming, it all goes back to eerie stuff at start. Taken as a whole, it’s very much like a journey.

In “The Killing River (Without the Sun, Moon, or Stars),” a slow surf guitar starts things off and is followed by female vocals. Said vocals remind me of the deadly siren of Greek myth. The song/trip down the river then starts its beat with light, subtle bongos that continue throughout the song and are joined by vaguely Middle Eastern percussion at one point.

The sounds of a vibraphone and drums bring us “Behind The Sun,” with magic-sounding chimes and exotic percussion kicking in next. The ever-present female vocals and further chimes add to the song’s otherworldly feel. After we hear the sound of something being lit is heard, maracas and a guitar appear. Whipping and horses are heard, along with gongs. This all fades out as rumbling of thunder fades in, then guiros and drums take over. Although we get more vocals, they later stop for the rumbling of thunder in distance and rain. The title and mood of the song bring thoughts of parallel worlds populated by strange creatures behind the sun.

“Palace of the Tiger Women” opens with bird calls and chimes. Bongos and guiros plus a harp form the backbone of opening tune, with a gong taking things in a ceremonial direction. Light vibe strikes play out like tiptoes approaching the magical-sounding harp and low female vocals. The echoing end is quite powerful. We’ve clearly entered the lair of the Tiger Women in the midst of a sacred ceremony, but are they Leopard Society-style cultists or half-human creatures?

“Pacifica 66” gives us the classic (and pleasant) opening of waves at a beach. Soft, dreamy vibes are backed by upbeat bongos and birds chirping. Some form of percussion that I can’t recognize appears and it all has an old school exotica feel until the space sounds kick in. Female vocals join Lymanesque vibes and percussion. Then we are taken back to the beach for the ending. Right before the track ends, we hear light guitar work that sounds almost as if it is playing on a radio.

“Polynesia Poppies” is appropriately dreamlike, like Dorothy in the poppy field. In addition to chimes and a gong, the vibraphone and bongos make it very much like the previous song. Those are combined with a smooth blend of maracas (or is it a guiro?), gong, vibes and later a ukulele pops in. Female vocals join in with chimes for the conclusion.

Despite the name “Zero Gravity Lounge,” there are very few space sounds in this song. A guitar and drums, along with faint bird chirps get things rolling. Suddenly, here comes the organ and the chirps become calls. Similarly, the female vocals are soft at first and then everything picks up, including a theremin-like melody followed by the Hammond organ sound. All in all, it has a very lounge feel. Things wrap up with birds and a countdown, followed by a rocket launching.

In contrast with the last track, “Journey Home” is filled with spacey sounds. Bongos, a drum machine beat, keyboards and synth sounds make for a pleasant trip through space. There are even bird calls and Christmas-like bells at one point. The sound of what seems to be wind and slower-paced music, along with background chatter, wrap things up.

The music on both albums is all very soothing for the most part, although there are touches of excitement and creepiness. Based on the unexpected shifts and effects in many of their work, it seems that the folks behind Kava Kon enjoy playing with listeners’ expectations. Although it takes some getting used to at first, you’ll come to appreciate it as you listen. Hardcore Tiki purists might turn up their noses, but they’re seriously missing out on some great stuff.

Special thanks to Kava Kon and Dionysus Records for the review copies!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Shag! and The Art Of Tiki

With all of the focus on Tiki music here at the Local, it’s all too easy to forget its artistic side. Thankfully, Google Books makes it just as easy to jog one’s memory on the subject.

Let’s start with Tiki Art Now! by Otto Von Stroheim and Robert Williams. In addition to its great information on all things Tiki, it kicks off the art with Dr. Alderete’s “Acapulco Tiki,” wherein an El Santo-style luchador kicks back with a Munktiki brand “Kreepy” mug. It’s the perfect way to unwind after a hard day of wrestling monsters! The other pieces of art in the preview are a mix of cool and spooky, normal Tiki and horror Tiki.

The book’s striking cover art is by one Josh Agle, better known to his fans as “Shag.” In case you’re wondering about the name, it comes from the combination of the last two letters of his first name with the first two letters of his last name. Supposedly he adopted that alias in order to make it look like his band at the time, The Swamp Zombies, could afford to hire someone else to do their albums’ cover art. In fact, a large part of the band’s creation was due to his desire to make the album art!

His simple-yet-detailed retro style has made him a smash hit, both in the world of Tiki and the art world in general. There’s even an exotica CD devoted to songs inspired by his work! Which is quite appropriate, seeing as how he was a founding member of The Tiki Tones.

But there is more to Shag than Tiki. As noted here, Mr. Agle does not want to be known as “just a Tiki artist” as they are only one of the many aspects of his work. His official website describes artwork as a “blend of hot rods, tiki heads, skeletons, voodoo lounge, and kustom kulture all rolled up in a swanky package.” His long list of influences also includes (but isn’t limited to) 60’s culture (mildly NSFW), spies, thieves (I’d love to see Shag’s take on Lupin III), blaxploitation, horror, and martial arts movies. And, as noted earlier, he often combines these to create unique and interesting (and spooky) works. If anything, Shag is a “rooms you wish you had in your home” artist.

For more on his work, please check out the following links:

Shag: The Art of Josh Agle
by Josh Agle, Colin Berry, and Billy Shire.

Bottomless Cocktail: The Art of Shag
by Shag

Shag, ltd., fine art limited editions: a catalogue raisonné
by Shag, Douglas Nason, Jeremy Cushner, and Greg Escalante

Don’t just look at the art, either. Those books are filled with fascinating interviews and writings on Mr. Agle’s work. I especially liked his observation on Tiki bars in Bottomless Cocktail: The Art of Shag.

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: The Waitiki 7

The Waitiki 7

Official Site

New Sounds of Exotica, Pass Out Records 2010

Waitiki is dead, long live The Waitiki 7!
After their 2005 debut album, Waitiki released two more albums, 2007’s Rendezvous in Okonkuluku and 2009’s Magic Island Sounds: The Wedding Album, before departing from this mortal coil (figuratively speaking). However, its mission and spirit lives on in the Waitiki 7. Confused? Perhaps I should let band leader Randy Wong clarify the matter:

“We were asked by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Germany to assemble an all-star group for their Wassermusik festival that summer, and The Waitiki 7 was born. Second we wanted to expand our scope beyond music, because we were starting to do tiki consulting, mixology (craft cocktails), and other stuff. Lastly, with The WAITIKI 7, we wanted to go after the jazz/world market which meant a more “serious” approach to the music. We need to create a separate identity for that sound because a lot of “serious” music critics etc. would scoff at a band that was as “silly” as our previous quartet work.”

Whereas the original band’s lineup consisted of:

Tim Mayer
Brian O’Neill
Abe Lagrimas Jr.
Randy Wong

The Waitiki 7 consists of:

Tim Mayer
Helen Liu
Zaccai Curtis
Jim Benoit
Abe Lagrimas Jr.
Lopaka Colon
Randy Wong

Despite the sharing of members from Waitiki, this is a new and different band. But although the tone may change, but the music is still great either way. Think of Charred Mammal Flesh as an impromptu jam session among friends at a private barbecue while New Sounds of Exotica is how the same friends (along with a few who missed the party) play for a big club gig.

Following their 2009 release, Adventures in Paradise, New Sounds of Exotica offers takes on both classic and original material and a wide variety of exotic instruments. In addition to the standards like the guiro and vibraphone, there’s a hulusi, guiro, claves, xylophone, glockenspiel, and more!

Things start off with a bang thanks to Coleman and Clar’s “Similau.” Vibraphone beats, coupled with wild monkey shrieks and cymbals, lead into a bongo/vibe fusion. Next comes a piano and bird calls. It should be noted that the band member responsible for the animal calls, Lopaka Colon, is the son of Augie Colon (who provided such effects for Arthur Lyman). It then launches into a fast-paced, clave-filled “Latin” melody pops that’s further enhanced by a violin before returning to the original style.

This album’s version of “Flower Humming” is even smoother than the first Waitiki version and is one of several musical ways The Waitiki 7 shows they aren’t Waitiki anymore. There’s more drums this time around, as shown by the opening, as there’s a distinct lack of reeds/saxophone play. Guiro and piano come into the mix, while a flute helps bring it to a faster pace in middle and towards end of the song. Cymbals come into play there as well, along with a vibraphone or xylophone.

“Bali Ha’i” is quite expanded compared to the original, especially the opening. Said opening has a “happy tropics” feel to it. However, there are no vocals this time around. Chimes then bring us to a good approximation of the “sci-fi” sounding bit in the original via vibraphone. Bongos come next in a funky, almost Latin at times, beat. It’s definitely not like slow, seductive pace of the original, but it’s still great. Besides, it does slide back into style of original towards the end.

Their version of Martin Denny’s “When First I Love” has a slow build of bass and bongos to the use of a violin and the occasional piano riff. There’s also use of maracas or guiros along with a piano/vibe combo woven in and out of song (guest musician Greg Paré provided vibraphone duties for this song). It definitely has the feel of looking back on old memories.

Next is a take on another previously heard song in the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Les Baxter’s “Tiki.” Bongos, piano and later, a vibraphone and horn of some kind offer a slow, “sneaky tiki” feel. Occasional chimes are heard, and a drumbeat kicks in later that plays off the sax and bongo. This is followed by a piano solo, more vibes and bongos, and then reprise of opening beat. All in all, it’s a quite jazzy take on the matter

Martin Denny’s “Voodoo Love” kicks off with a cymbal clash and quickly starts a fast, frenzied bongo beat. The bongos, piano and sax get overlaid and the saxophone later dominates. That is, until the bongos come back for awhile and team up with drums/cymbals.

M. Parish’s “Ruby” makes light use of a violin, coupled with chimes, vibes, and maracas. Lopaka Colon’s bird calls and monkey hoots add to the effect of a relaxing jungle stroll and must make his old man proud.

“China Fan” kicks the original up a notch in its opening. Said opening consists of gongs (or is it ocean drums), bongos, an Asian flute, violin and subtle guiro use. Chimes are scattered through Paré’s vibe work, including an amazing vibraphone solo, while the ever pervasive saxophone and piano also come into play. It’s the same song as before, but different and still as relaxing as ever.

The drumbeats and fast-paced vibraphone of “Firecracker” (another Denny classic) sound like running cartoon mice. The use of cymbals is also speedy and wild, like the fuse on a firecracker. The pace slows down with drums and cymbals for a bit, but the drumbeat builds up to heavy use of cymbals. This is followed by a vibraphone beat that builds up to big bang…just like a real fireworks display.

The final track, “Sweet Pikake Serenade,” has soft opening piano accompanied by bird calls. Light vibes and new (to this version) piano flourishes add to the beautiful play-out. It really is like a memory of days gone by. Doing this series has exposed me to multiple versions of the same (or similar-sounding) songs and I must say that it’s very interesting to hear how something can be familiar and yet also have a unique take on it.

As a special treat, the album’s packaging also includes two cocktail recipes, which also acts as a promotion of the drink-making aspect of Waitiki International. I’ll let Randy explain:

“It also allows us to release all kinds of other tiki stuff, music, etc. under the Waitiki umbrella without it interfering directly with The Waitiki 7…Merch-wise it’s comic books, some apparel, handmade fruit butters from the Big Island of Hawaii, and graphic stuff—collectible drink menus, place mats, posters. We also offer consulting services for event organizers & bartenders (custom cocktail recipes, handmade exotic liqueurs and syrups) and do work-for-hire arranging/orchestration, production i.e. someone might want tiki music but not have it be Waitiki-branded.”

As you can see, there’s more to the brand than just great music. So if you loved Waitiki, get New Sounds of Exotica. If you hated Waitiki, get it anyway. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you hear.

Special thanks to Randy Wong and Waitiki International for the review copy!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Waitiki


Official Site

Charred Mammal Flesh, Pass Out Records 2005

In our last exotica installment, I shared a story about the origin of the song “Bwana” (and about the use of animal calls in exotica) that had been told to me by an exotica musician. Since he went unnamed in that in order to help build interest for this particular installment, it’s time to give the man his much-earned credit: Randy Wong, the founder of the band Waitiki (and Waitiki International LLC).

Waitiki was formed in 2005 with the goal of introducing (and reinventing) classic exotica music for the listeners of today. Their debut album, Charred Mammal Flesh (subtitled “Exotic Music for BBQ”) shows the band’s method of going about this: a mixture of covers and original music.

And what exotic music it is! The liner notes instruments including (but not limited to): upright bass, vibraphone, marimba, melodica, and reeds. Given that I have no idea what some of those instruments sound like, some of my music descriptions are based on my best (careful) guesses. But while I don’t always know what I’m hearing, I do know what I like!

The album opens with Waitiki’s take on “Bwana,” which they call “Bwana, Bwana A” here. Not only does its use act as a tribute to Arthur Lyman’s music, but I was also informed that it was also a reference to how Lyman used it to open his shows. After the mysterious-sounding flute introduction, we get the drums and cry of “Bwana.” Due to the band’s numbers being smaller than Lyman’s the returning cry lacks the “oomph” of the original. This has the unintentional effect of making it sound like a tribe in a B movie, where a handful of actors and actresses have to seem like an entire village.

However, this does fit in with the humorous tone of other material on the album and what comes afterward provides a great sense of power. Gone are the happy melodies, native chatter and bird calls of the original. In their place are heavy-sounding, warlike drums. This ties in with the loose storyline connecting the songs that’s given in the CD’s liner notes, where it is explained that a tribe is getting ready for battle.

Also according to the previously mentioned storyline, tribesmen are investigating the “Cave of Uldo” due to the sinister sounds they hear coming from it. Although there are occasional creepy notes at beginning, the rest of “Cave of Uldo” has a somewhat symphonic feel to it and makes great use of a Cajón drum and vibraphone. Next comes Waitiki’s version of “Manila,” Martin Denny’s tribute to the capital of the Philippines. Both bird calls and monkey cries come into play here, along with a flute, vibraphone and some light drum work. The complete effect is very smooth and soothing. Denny’s “Primativa” is a little more energetic and faster paced than “Manila.” The percussion and vibraphone beats mix in with bird calls, monkey calls and primal cries.

“Satyritar” makes great use of guest violinist Helen Liu’s talent, along with the chanting and “magic” sounding chimes interspersed through it. A violin might seem like an odd choice for an exotica instrument at first, but let’s not forget that one was used in Arthur Lyman’s performance of “Beyond the Reef” Despite being inspired the lusty Greek goat-men of myth, it can have a “Middle Eastern” feel at times.

“Fuzzy Mammoth Breath” is an intentionally funny song that starts with the singing/chanting of the title (and noting the eating of charred mammal flesh) with similar chanting about watermelon sacrifice overlapping. We then get an instrumental break featuring percussion and reed work followed by the “Mayor of Exotica” doing sacrificial ritual with natives hooting and hollering. Drums come in and it later returns to style of the beginning, only with some of the lyrics mixed around. Some might complain about the silly tone but let’s face it, you simply can’t do a serious song about sacrificing watermelons.

“Dew Drop Inn, If You Please, My Humming Flower” starts with a quick performance of “Chopsticks” and several gong strikes, which then leads to drums and jolly, jazzy feel. “Plamingo Flagoda” has somber opening featuring percussive beats enhanced by occasional vibraphone use. The mood then gets peppy for a little bit and goes back to original tone then gets happy again with its use of a vibraphone and reeds. Lather, rinse and repeat until we reach the reed-heavy ending.

“Flower Humming” by Don Tiki songwriter Kit Ebersbach starts with some drums and the dreamy mix of vibraphone and reeds does sound very similar to humming at times. In fact, it has a jazz feel to it. There’s also minor use of maracas or guiros and it really revs up toward the ending phase. “Merry Adventures of the Sleepy Space Kadet” is a light and pleasant tune made up of drums, vibes, an upright bass and a ukulele. Nothing in the song itself sounds spacey, but it is like a sweet dream. Apparently, it was inspired by Auntie Alice Namakelua’s “Fourteen Figures.” “March for Chief MauMau” is an honest-to-goodness exotica funeral march, complete with the sounds of marching feet! The mournful clarinet appropriately expresses the sadness over his loss, while militaristic drum beats celebrate the status and power of the deceased chief.

“Mr. Ho’s Yummy Hut Yee-Haw” is a super goofy tip of the hat to the “Yummy Hut” restaurant in Somerville, MA. The opening drums and light use of gongs or cymbals soon give way to chanting of “Yummy Hut” followed by a high-pitched “Yee-haw!” This is followed with cartoony sound effects, silly lyrics and puns about menu items at Chinese restaurants mixed in with some minor vibe work. “Pan-Xotik-Da” is a very, very catchy song whose refrain is a reference to a classic pun about a panda’s diet. Drums mix with overlapping singers, and a vibraphone break brings us to an instrumental section. Guiros and reeds mix with the occasional “Bam-boooooooo” chant up until the big closing.

“China Fan” is a tune that’s just as relaxing as a fan on a hot day. Percussion leads in to reeds and vibes, along with dreamlike chimes and the sounds of waves that lead in to the final track. Said track, “Sweet Pikake Serenade,” is a very Lyman-style work where the sounds of waves and seagulls vibes both lead into and are mixed in with the sounds of a vibraphone. According to the liner notes, a “pikake” is a “Hawaiian flower whose scent is a nostalgic reminder of old Hawai’i.”

When you think about it, the titular phrase “Charred Mammal Flesh” is an accurate and yet somewhat spooky way of stripping down a barbecue to its basic elements (along with the huge pig skeleton on the back over). It also signifies a musical way to add a little extra fun to your next cook-out. That way, you and your guests can both enjoy fine music and chant along with the Mayor of Exotica while you sacrifice a watermelon of your own!

Stay tuned, because there’s still more to this story…

Special thanks to Randy Wong and Waitiki International for the review copy!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: Arthur Lyman

Arthur Lyman
Bwana á/Bahia, Collector’s Choice Records 2008 (Original release date: 1959)

During my last exotica album review for the Freaky Tiki Surf-ari, I briefly touched on the use of sound effects in exotica music. To quote the Wikipedia entry on the genre:

“Additionally intrinsic to the sound of exotica are bird calls, big-cat roars, and even primate shrieks which invoke the dangers of the jungle. Though there are some standards which contain lyrics, singing is rare. Abstract, sirenish ululations, chants, vocalized animal calls, and guttural growls are common.”

The horror connection is rather obvious. How did such sounds make their way into the style? Well, there are a couple different stories on the matter. This says that it all started at a Martin Denny band performance at the Shell Bar at the Kaiser Hawaiian Village (now known as the Hilton Hawaiian Village). During one of the performances, frogs from a nearby pool began croaking and stopped only when the music did. When the frogs started up again, some of the band members began responding with bird calls. Denny knew they was onto something when someone asked about the song with all the animal noises the day after and soon incorporated them into the act. In an interview with Time magazine, Arthur Lyman said that he started doing bird calls after getting a little tipsy during one of the Denny group’s performances and according to the product description here, percussionist Augie Colon started doing calls (which he learned to use while hunting) after joining the Denny band in order spice things up and quickly got the other members doing it as well.

One exotica musician I spoke with while preparing notes for a future review commented on the situation, noting that both men did bird calls for the group and felt that it was a case of spontaneity. He also humorously noted that any arguing over who started the bird calls is akin to “arguing who’s older when you’ve got a set of identical sextuplets.”

In 1957, after several years of working with Denny, Lyman left to start his own band. He released his first album that same year, Leis of Jazz. The CD I’ll be reviewing is a reissuing of his fourth and sixth albums, Bwana á and Bahia.

Those who take a look at the back of the CD case might be surprised that Lyman only wrote a few songs and that the rest are versions of songs written by others. Several of the songs on Bahia were written by jungle exotica master, Les Baxter. However, Arthur Lyman and the group he used from 1957 to 1965 (Alan Soares, John Kramer and Harold Chang) all make them their own.

The first track is “Bwana á,” where drums and vibraphone beats soon give way to a male crying out “Bwana, bwana á,” who is in turn answered by many other “natives.” This gives way to light, happy music, animal cries and the occasional lone native chattering. The “Bwana” call reappears at the end to close the song. It communicates a feeling of power and strength due to the number of “native” voices. The musician that I spoke with about the use of animal calls (who I won’t name in order to build interest in his band’s appearance in the next exotica review) also had an interesting story about the origin of the song. Apparently Arthur Lyman’s bassist (John Kramer) wrote the song as a cheeky tribute to the band’s then-employer, Hawaiian Village owner Henry Kaiser. You see, whenever he’d dropped by, Kramer would call out “Bwana,” the Swahili term for master or chief.

Next comes “South Pacific Moonlight,” a soothing piece which makes great use of the sound of waves. The reproduction of the album’s cover claims that recordings of real waves were used, while the liner notes by Kim Cooper and David Smay (best known for their work in Scram magazine) claim that the effect was accomplished using grains of rice moved atop a drum. I’m inclined to believe the rice version, as the sound effects are close to-but not exactly like-the real thing. If those effects are really from recordings, then I’d say there’s some hissing that ruins the effect. Speaking of effects, I liked clever use of horns to mimic those of passing ships and the magic or “flashback”-style opening.

“Moon over a Ruined Castle” is a traditional Japanese folk song, performed without any lyrics here. Both the original packaging and the modern liner notes point out its spooky themes. After an ominous opening, the sound of wind chimes quickly gives way to a peaceful melody. Said chimes may make some listeners recall the opening of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” Are they there to symbolize magic, dangling metal charms used to keep spirits away or something else entirely? I cannot say for sure. What I can say, however, is that my interpretation is of a person’s initial frightened reaction to seeing ruins at night and gradually becoming more relaxed and enchanted by its moonlit beauty as they tip-toe past.

“Waikiki Serenade” is a reworking of Schubert’s “Serenade” with a decidedly Latin feel, foreshadowing the style of several other songs on the album (and Bahia), and makes nice use of a guiro. For example, there’s “La Paloma” (translation: “The Dove”), although its opening is very similar to the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and makes much use of the vibraphone. “Otome San” is a Japanese drinking song by Kasuga Hachiro, whose jolly tone is aided by rhythmic clapping and a piano. Interestingly enough, the song’s title is actually “Otomi-san” (translation: “Miss Toni”) and is named for a kabuki show character.

In “Canton Rose,” guest musician Chew Hoon Chang gets to showcase his skills with his unusual-sounding bamboo flute and moon harp after the opening sequence. Similarly, “Blue Sands” allows Lyman to show off his vibraphone skills after the drum-filled opening. “Malagueña” is go-to song for anyone looking for “Mexican” or “Spanish” background music that makes great use of a tambourine (or finger cymbals, I’m not quite sure), guitar and piano. Perhaps guest pianist Paul Conrad was at work here? I suspect the final guest contributor, Ethel Azama, lent her talents to vocal work on “Bwana á.”

Despite the use of bird calls and other exotic touches in “Vera Cruz,” the song’s double pianos (and drum beats) have a rather melancholy tone. In sharp contrast, “Pua Carnation” (Rough translation: “The scent of carnation”) offers a much happier Latin beat after the “character in a TV show having a flashback”-sounding opening. Here, Lyman demonstrates the vast musical range of a vibraphone. The album closes with a rousing performance of “Colonel Bogey’s March,” best known for its use in Bridge on the River Kwai and its being altered into “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” and the infamous “Comet song.” It starts off light and cheery after a bunch of animal cries and occasionally launches into a bombastic military march.

Although the use of animal calls in the last album was sparse, they return with a vengeance for his Bahia album. Ary Barroso’s “Bahia” shows this quite well, also using maracas and a guiro to form a jazzy Latin beat. This slowly builds up to s pounding piano, which then gives way to a happy beat with occasional shout of something in what may or may not be Portuguese. Bird calls, a piano and a few other instruments take the listener on a merry ride in a “Jungle Jalopy.” “Legend of the Rain” starts off with a bang (thunder) and then uses soft music that’s just as relaxing as real rainfall. Then a percussive crash gives way to a somewhat more energetic (and sometimes “Latin”) tune. There’s also minor use of steel guitar at the end.

Unlike the song of the same name in “The Sound of Tiki,” this album’s “Bamboo” doesn’t have any bird calls that sound like someone retching. The ever-present guiro sounds particularly cicada-like here. There’s a minor, waltz-like part in this and the piano and vibraphone work together to great effect. Latin vibes (get it?) make up Lyman’s take on Carmen Lombardo and Danny Di Minno’s “Return to Me,” as made famous by Dean Martin in 1957. There’s a nice use of cymbals at end. Although several instruments are used in “Caribbean Nights,” the bongos dominate it.

Listening to “Quiet Village” without Don Ho’s singing is like listening to it for the first time. It’s easy to see why the original instrumental version was a smash hit back in the day. Like “Bamboo,” parts of it have a waltz feel to them. The guiro is at its most insect-like here and may remind some listeners of the Kamacuras from Son of Godzilla. “Tropical” is a light and fast tune making use of bells and other instruments, including but not limited to maracas, bongos and a vibraphone.

Horror fans will surely enjoy “Happy Voodoo.” It opens with a low native chant that soon leads to a piercing scream. The usual bird calls are joined by monkey shrieks, native chatter (including use of the word “Bwana”) and the occasional howl. Despite the spooky trappings of the beginning, the song has an undeniably happy-sounding feel to it. “Busy Port” is hard for me to describe. The best I can manage is “Peanuts: Exotica Style.” That’s not an insult, either. Schroeder rules. “Beyond the Reef” opens with the blowing of a conch shell and makes light use of a steel guitar for a mild “Hawaiian” feel. The guitar also compliments the track’s use of a violin. The final track is “Maui Chimes,” whose combination of chimes/bells and piano give it an alternately church and merry-go-round feel.

Sadly, the CD is not without its flaws. Crackling, pops and clicks can be heard in “Moon Over a Ruined Castle” and there are some clicks and pops in “Otome San” as well. Other reviewers have complained about the first album being presented in mono while the second one is in stereo. Judging from the reproduction of the back cover of Bwana á, a stereo version was available but I am not sure if the album was originally recorded in stereo and then “flattened” to create the mono version or if the mono and stereo version were recorded separately as was the case here. It’s a shame, as reading this got me really excited about the CD prior to listening to it. Don’t get me wrong, the CD is filled with great material. It was just disappointing to find such flaws after getting hyped up like that.

Special thanks to Collector’s Choice Records for the review copy!

Freaky Tiki Surf-ari: The Sound of Tiki

It all started when Strange Jason sent me a link to “Gateways to Geekery” article about exotica music from the Onion AV Club. Not only was it a great, highly informative read (although the author is laughably wrong about the quality of modern exotica groups), but it made me realize the connections between exotica/Tiki culture and horror.

My realization of this was sparked by noticing how menacing the idols depicted on the cover for Les Baxter’s Ritual of the Savage looked. This got me to think of how masks play a big role in both fandoms and inspired me to do further research into the matter. I soon realized that exotica was not necessarily all tropical flowers and sunshine. There is a darker aspect focusing on the forbidden and taboo. There’s the shrunken heads of Arthur Lyman’s Taboo II, Robert Drasnin’s Voodoo series and songs (and album covers) involve frenzied pagan rites, weird cries in the night or strange stone gods on forbidden islands. Is the intended goal of bringing customers into an artificial environment filled with spooky sounds sought by the designers of haunted attractions really all that far off from the goals of those who make Tiki bars and put the animal calls in many an exotica song? And let’s not forget the popularity of “zombies” in both Tiki and horror cultures…

Some of you are bound to be asking yourselves questions like “What exactly is exotica,” “what is ‘tiki culture,'” and “how does the surf music fit in?”

It’s tempting to take the easy way out by linking to some very informative websites on the matter and then move on to the next review. Instead I’ll explain things by reviewing a CD/booklet combo by the renowned Tiki authority, Sven A. Kirsten.

The term “Tiki” refers to Polynesian carvings of roughly human shape (be they stone or wood, mask or figurine). As noted here, Reeds’ Concise Maori Dictionary even defines it as a “grotesque carved figure of a man.” Although I could use the “grotesque” definition to further the Tiki/horror connection, I won’t because I disagree with it. Tiki art is rather “off beat,” but is rarely what I’d consider “grotesque.” That said, I so see how the the idols depicted on the cover of “Ritual of the Savage” could meet that definition. Unsurprisingly, the source where I learned of that particular definition also chose to drop the grotesque part and used the definition “human-like images not only from Polynesia but from other Oceanic areas.”

The original symbols were often references to the legendary first man of the Māori (and other cultures’) creation myth, Tiki. However, some claim that Tikis act as identifying “flags” of sorts. Although these figures were brought overseas as souvenirs during the 19th century, they did not become truly popular until the 30’s-40’s. A variety of factors contributed to this. Donn Beach started the first “Don The Beachcomber” restaurant/bar in 1934, which gained fame (and other locations) due to its tropical drinks and Polynesian decor (including Tiki figures). Although some of the figures in the early establishments might have been authentic imports, most of the Tikis used were made in America. Its popularity spawned numerous other restaurants with similar food, drinks and decorations. The best known one is Trader Vic’s, which originally started under the name “Hinky Dinks.” Even before adopting the Tiki theme, the walls of Hinky Dinks were covered in unusual decorations in order to spark customer conversations due to owner Victor Bergeron’s belief that “lots of decoration causes lots of conversation, and lots of conversation sells lots of drinks.” A Caribbean vacation is credited as planting the initial seed of the tropical theme change, with visits to restaurants already using that theme sealing the deal. “Hinky Dinks” was renamed “Trader Vic’s” to fit in with the new style, the name inspired by the owner’s constant trading. “Don” and “Vic” both churned out innovations that have since become staples of Tiki bars worldwide such as Mai Tais, Tiki mugs, Zombies and the like.

The popularity of Tiki culture was furthered by those returning from the South Seas after being stationed there in World War II. They longed for the exotic sights and cuisine that had originally distracted them from the horrors of war. One returning naval lieutenant, James Michener, wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning book Tales of the South Pacific based on his experiences in 1948. This popular novel was adapted into the even more popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific (which also won a Pulitzer). The Kon-Tiki expedition and Hawaii’s statehood also fueled people’s passion for all things tropical. Tiki bars sprung up all over the country and music was needed for them. Surf music was a good fit, but there was something even better suited. A genre that gained its named from a now-classic Martin Denny album: Exotica. Exotica music is designed to help the listener imagine they are in some faraway land, with animal cries and the use of “exotic” instruments such as güiros and chimes. As with all things that become a nationwide craze, Tiki culture eventually died down. It wasn’t until the 90’s that Tiki culture started to make a comeback. Aiding in the modern day revival were the excellent books on the subject by Tiki historian/expert Sven A. Kirsten.

All of the above (and more) can be found in the 49 page booklet attached to the digipak holding the Sound of Tiki CD. The CD was originally planned as a bonus CD to be included in Kirsten’s The Book of Tiki, but the idea had to be dropped in order to keep the price reasonable. And just like the book that spawned it, you’d better believe that the CD’s booklet is chock-full of color pictures (be warned that some of the images contain nudity). There’s also a handy map of the “islands” surrounding the inlet of exotica music: surf, hapa haole and lounge.

Rather than just act as a condensed version of his two prior books, the booklet is actually set up in a way that (after a few introductory pages on the subject of Tiki and exotica) the notes for each track of CD give information both about the song and how it ties in with Tiki culture. I was particularly surprised to learn that in the unofficial competition to use the most obscure instruments among the world of exotica musicians, one album boasted of using an instrument said to be made from human bones! As for the tracks themselves, the CD’s selection of rarities and classics is enough to satisfy the hardcore Tiki fan while still being accessible enough to act as an introductory sampler for beginners.

The first track, Arthur Lyman’s “Taboo Tu,” actually has a horror connection, despite the pleasant tone. Kirsten notes that while hapa haole songs tended to be about romance, exotica focused on the mysterious and taboo. He even comments about horror imagery and primitive cults!

Next comes a song from another master of exotica, Martin Denny. Not only is “Aku Aku” a delightful song, but its page in the booklet explains how the name ties in with many Tiki establishments and explains how Moai (aka Easter Island heads) got mixed into Tiki culture. Gloria Lynne’s performance of “Bali Ha’i” is not only included since it came from the play South Pacific, but also because it showcases the idea of a friendly and welcoming exotic isle of delights that is so popular in exotica music/Tiki culture. Oddly enough, the introduction to the song sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie!

Speaking of movies, it’s amazing to think how a soothing song like Les Baxter’s “Bird Of Paradise” could come from a man who’s scored several horror movies. Paul Page’s use of a steel guitar for “Castaway” will make many modern listeners think “SpongeBob SquarePants.” This is no mere coincidence, as the show is influenced by surf, Hawaiian and Tiki cultures. After all, Spongebob lives in a pineapple, Squidward dwells in a Tiki-style house and the music can speak for itself. The use of seagull cries also adds to the exotica effect of the song.

Martin Denny returns and teams up with Si Zentner to play “Tiki,” whose authoritative start and playful vibraphone notes reflect the status and mischievous nature of the legendary first man. Although the establishment described in Andy Williams’ “House Of Bamboo” is most likely not a Tiki bar, the lyrics do accurately describe the heavy use of bamboo in such bars. Besides, if this thin connection is good enough to include this great song on an exotica compilation, then it means I’m not too off-base for reviewing this for a horror site!

The Shadows’ “Kon-Tiki” is an exotica-tinged surf piece whose beat conjures up images of Thor Heyerdahl’s raft bobbing gently in the waves on its long journey. Marais and Miranda’s “I-Ha-She” is a musical tale of a native maiden rejecting the unwanted advances of her village’s ruler, which sounds like an excerpt from a long-lost Rankin Bass “Animagic” special set in the south seas. I especially liked the clever way they worked the chorus of men calling I-Ha-She’s name into the context of the story.

Next comes Buddy Morrow’s “Hawaiian Eye,” the theme song to the TV show of the same name. The accompanying notes detail the influence of Tiki culture on the show (as evidenced by the heavy use of animal calls in the opening) and vice versa. The Mary Kaye Trio’s “Hilo Boy” is a very corny song about a boy leaving his village in order to search the world for a bride (GUESS WHERE HE FINDS HER), but it does give Mr. Kirsten the opportunity to show their contribution to the birth of lounge music. Despite the band name, The Surfers’ “Ulili E” is not a surf song. Instead, it’s a traditional Hawaiian folk song (although not played in a way that one would associate with stereotypical folk songs).

Paul Page brings us more steel guitar goodness with “Pieces Of Eight,” a song from an album he sold at select Polynesian-themed restaurants. You see, he name each song on the album after a restaurant he had an agreement with and sold the record under a different title at each location. Naturally, the album was called “Pieces Of Eight” when it was sold at the establishment under that name. Despite the name, Eden Ahbez’s “Full Moon” has no horror ties. Instead it’s a hippie/hermit-style exotica, complete with croaking frogs. The Surfman’s performance of “Bamboo” is marred by the hilariously awful fake bird calls that sound like someone puking (which is one of the main reasons it was included on the CD). Next comes a Don Ho twofer, wherein he adds lyrics to the theme from Hawaii 5-0 and “Quiet Village.” The final track is a series of “Luau Is Calling You” radio jingles for a Polynesian restaurant.

It may seem odd to review a CD with little to no horror-related content on this website, but it makes perfect sense to me. After all, we can’t have shadows without light. For example, Tiki masks come in a wide variety of designs. While a regular mask may or may not be interpreted as being scary, tiki masks like this leave no doubt as to the scare factor (but can also obscure what your average Tiki is really like). Also, many of the songs on the CD are also referenced in other albums that will be covered in future Freaky Tiki Surf-ari updates! Stay tuned!

Special thanks to Bear Family Records for the review copy!