Swingers, light your tiki torches! On the eve of this year’s epic Tiki Oasis festival, in San Diego, we thought it would be prudent to kindle the beacon fire with a little Tiki 101 list. For our selections, we will be focusing on the nittiest and grittiest albums of primeval tiki atmosphere, spanning a period of nearly 75 years. These are albums which are at the core of the tiki ethos; they are evocative of primitive, savage, and sensual imagery. Yet, while they typically include animal sounds and forge dark, mysterious, sonic environments, they also entice listeners to relax their souls through seductive invocations and soundtracks befitting paradisal Shangri-las. Now, without further ado…
Ultra Lounge: Mondo Exotica – Multiple Artists
A primer in hardcore tiki tunes, Mondo Exotica is a great introduction to the genre. Like the other anthologies in the Ultra Lounge series, this record showcases an impressive array of classic Easy Listening artists (several of whose albums are featured on this list), but while the series’s other albums conjure imagery of space-age bachelor pads, swank spies, and spicy Latin dances, Mondo Exotica weaves an audio tapestry that will wrap your senses in a mystical jungle of seduction.
Ritual of the Savage – Les Baxter
This one pretty much goes back to the origins of the Exotica movement. Les Baxter had already established a reputation as a composer and arranger of swing music, and he gradually cultivated his own variety of world music, combining Latin rhythms, island music and other influences. Containing song titles like “Sophisticated Savage” and “Stone God,” it is pretty safe to say that Ritual of the Savage, released in 1951, is where this enchanting branch of Easy Listening music first became established. Fun fact: Baxter died in Newport Beach in 1996 and is buried at Memorial View Park in Corona De Mar. We were a bit bummed when we discovered that there was no tiki torch marking his grave.
Exotica – Martin Denny
Martin Denny is widely considered one of the Big Three of the Exotica movement — along with Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman (more on him in a minute). Denny’s first studio album, Exotica, was recorded in Hawaii and released in 1957. The album carried on Baxter’s tradition of creating a fantastical soundscape in some mystical realm of sensuality and went on to top the Billboard charts in 1959. Denny was evidently a world class traveler, who collected exotic musical instruments from around the globe, incorporating their unique qualities into his compositions. The album was followed up by Exotica Volume II, and many other brilliant albums. But, for Denny, this monophonic recording is where it all started and it includes several magnificent arrangements of Les Baxter compositions, most notably “Quiet Village.”
Taboo – Arthur Lyman
Jazz vibe and marimba player Arthur Lyman was born in Oahu, Hawaii. Before starting off on his own, he was a member of The Martin Denny Orchestra. From then on, the two musicians were rumored to have had a friendly rivalry as they both became big names in the realm of exotic music. From the first few seconds of Lyman’s album Taboo, it becomes clear that bizarre bird calls are just as integral to his melodies as the exotic orchestral arrangements. Clearly on the same stylistic page as Martin Denny, this album was released in 1958, one year after Exotica, on which he performed.
Far Away Lands – Gene Rains
To many tiki enthusiasts, Gene Rains is also considered one of the Big Three of exotica (with Les Baxter conveniently nudged into a category of his own on the basis that his greater catalog is not as exclusive to exotica). Far Away Lands is a compilation of his work, and it is essential for Rains fans because none of his individual albums have been released on CD (or properly on any other digital media — however, one might be able to find fanmade transfers of his vinyl on Youtube). Anyway, Rains was a vibraphonist whose Hawaiian jazz quartet put out a quartet of albums between the years 1960-1964. Though the music may not transport listeners to those years, in particular, it is sure to take them to one distant and highly imaginative land or another.
Pagan Rites – Ìxtahuele
Although it is a bit of a leap, more of time than in timbre, the Swedish band Ìxtahuele jumped on the tiki revival boat with their 2013 release Pagan Rites. For a little background in the revivalist swing, the band Combustible Edison pretty much led this movement in the early ’90s, and the only reason they didn’t make the list is because as wonderful as their entire catalog is, none of their albums holds exclusively to our primitive theme. That being said, other neo-exotica groups deserving of note, and having cropped up in recent years, include: Waitiki 7, Kava Kon, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, Don Tiki, and Tikiyaki Orchestra. Pagan Rites earned its spot in this list because of the inherent universality with which its musicians have demonstrated the theme; specifically, Gothenburg, Sweden (from whence the band hails) is a long ways from the tropical origins of the Big Three, but the band’s music reveals Gothenburg’s exotic history. As it has been an international trading hub with East Indian Trading Companies for hundreds of years, the city has established a reputation for being an exotic destination within the Nordic country. Thus, exoticism must be in Ìxtahuele’s blood; in any case, their grasp of tiki soundscape is impeccable.