Tiki Takeover: Author Interview with Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko, Part II

We recently sat down with authors Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko of California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees, to talk about their upcoming book, how they view Tiki’s presence today, and their favorite Tiki bars. You can read part one of their interview here.

Authors Adam Foshko (left) and Jason Henderson (right).

A lot of people might see Tiki just as backyard torches and barbecues, but you point out in California Tiki that Tiki culture was once immersed in film, TV, and music. Given both of your backgrounds in the entertainment industry, do you think Tiki could ever make a mainstream comeback in those areas?

Jason: I don’t think Tiki will ever be the same as it was, but it will still be there. Just like Superman has come to represent something different than he did when he was introduced in the late 1930s, there is Tiki today, and there are people that don’t get into all of its history. But those same people really like what’s happening in today’s Tiki culture, with modern Tiki bars and the amazing new Tiki artists. The difference lies in expression: During the 1940s through the late 1960s, Tiki was the default expressive language for the working population. If you were a middle class person in the suburbs, Tiki was the air you breathed, and you wouldn’t have even thought to label it. That was just part of that culture. Tiki’s popularity had a lot to do with things that were going on, particularly grappling with turning the horrors of the Pacific War into a dream of sorts. But then it died down for some time, before having a resurgence about 20 years ago. By then, the world had changed, and Tiki could not be the same. It’s now something that people might like if it really interests them, but it is not the default mode of expression. Exotica music is not the most popular kind of music. It’s just not the world, and it’s never going to be the world again. I don’t think it’s ever going to be the default mode of expression again.

Adam: I would agree with that. The other thing about it is, if you think about that time, it was a statement of success in a lot of ways. People were putting bars in their homes, using the touchstone of Tiki as a way to show their wealth. People were trying to answer the question “how do we show success,” and Tiki was the first thing they thought of. It was also a strangely glamorous thing because of its presence in Hollywood – it was adopted by the media and stars first. It would take something like that to popularize it again in an extremely mainstream way. When people saw Tiki with the stars, they thought “this is the upper echelon, this is what success, and the exotic, and the dream of being a celebrity outside of a 9-to-5 job is.” Now we have so much more – we’re such a melting pot, so how do we categorize the exotic? One of the things that made Tiki so popular was that it was so exotic and elusive, but what is elusive now? People search the whole globe searching for what might be elusive now. Today’s Tiki represents a state of mind – it’s a place you go in your mind that represents the escape from the mundane, the place where the annoyances of the everyday can’t touch you. The rediscovery of Tiki is interesting because it gives people a place to go and congregate – it may not be “mainstream,” but there are so many more Tiki bars now, and so many more ways of expressing it, that it almost seems like everyone is doing it. There might not be a need for Tiki television anymore, or the beach party film might not come back, but there is this sense of finding something to relieve us from the mundane.

Surf music and culture also seems to be a side to Tiki, though it came along a little bit later. Would you say surf was a separate movement that gradually melded into Tiki, or are there still significant differences between the two?

Jason: They are totally distinct movements. You have to look at where surf music came from. Figuring out exotica’s parentage is easy – it’s big band jazz with exotic instruments. But what is surf music? It started out as jazz, and then was reinvented by artists like Dick Dale to be performed live. The experience of live surf music is a huge part of the culture as well – it was performed at giant parties called surfstomps. Companies like Fender Guitars were inventing prototypes that they loaned out to artists like Dick Dale to use at these parties – that’s where technologies like reverb came about. What distinguishes surf music when you listen to it is that it is heavily guitar oriented – not how we think about now with electric guitar, but rather heavy jazz guitar. If you defined it in a song, “Miserlou” by Dick Dale is probably the one real surf tune – it’s a song that everyone knows, and quickly defines what surf was. It has the unique guitar sound of surf, which Dale invented to sound like water ratcheting on the bottom of a surfboard.

Adam: The other thing is that during the 1950s and 60s, you could be 45 years old and enjoy Tiki, but probably not 45 years old and also enjoying surf. There’s a distinction there. I think in particular that one is aspirational – Tiki is aspirational. It was what people enjoyed as an adult after graduating to it. Tiki was not a then-and-now movement – it was something you strove for and earned enjoying. Surf music back then was different – it wasn’t as aspirational, and came with a completely different culture surrounding it. Tiki is a construct – a distant escape that you have access to because you can have a piece of the distant far-flung islands only a stone’s throw away, in the form of a Tiki torch or cocktail. It was something you could enjoy in your backyard or in a bar. Surf was a much more minimalist idea of being on the beach, with your board and your people. Surf also has an edge and exclusiveness to it – Tiki is a distant call that is inclusive and welcoming you in an odd way. Surf requires that you be part of the group to really enjoy it.

Jason: They’re very different characters. When it comes down to it, Surf is very youthful and aggressive. It was explosive. Exotica might have suggested that risk of hidden gods and passageways, but the character you are while you listen to exotica msuic is not the character that listens to surf. James Bond listened to exotica, but Frankie Avalon listened to surf. That is, teenagers and young people listened to surf, while exotica was aimed at veterans – people who were the age to have been young during the war, and now are professionals. They’re two different groups. There’s a sophistication about exotica that you don’t have with surf. What’s weird is that with time, it’s all been mixed up – now you go to a sophisticate cocktail bar and you’ll hear surf music.

You cite politics as one of the major reasons for the end of the mid-century Tiki movement, particularly that it was considered “bad taste” to be romanticizing foreign peoples. Do you think it’s important for the modern Tiki movement to avoid claims of cultural appropriation as well, or that romanticization an inherent part of Tiki culture and the movement?

Adam: Let me poke at this a little bit. I think that since the rediscovery of Tiki, we’re looking at it through a very modern lens. There is an earnestness, now, to approach Tiki with our eyes open in a lot of ways. We’re looking at it through a global lens, and choosing to reflect on a time, take the best pieces of it, and weave it into a tapestry of a global perspective that simply didn’t exist during the mid-century. It could certainly have been presumed that it was enormously bad taste to represent the culture as it was done – very Western-centrically and from a non-global perspective. Now, however, we choose to draw from it, and minimize that which could be offensive. Yes, there is a sense of escape, but there’s also a great sense of hearkening back to an interesting time with a nod and a wink, because we’re not really those people anymore. Like Disneyland, there’s the sense that we’re fabricating something – we’re saying, “isn’t it great to create this, and pursue this escape?” We’re not pursuing it with any sense of cultural deafness. We are much more aware now of our place in the world, and what the world means. We’re reshaping the best parts of Tiki to fit within our modern world, and those factors that could have been considered offensive have become trapping of that time. Tiki is very much like Disneyland – it’s very welcoming. Tiki is something that exists in your mind and spirit that wants to reach out beyond the bounds of the everyday, and wants to reach to meet people, all people from around the world. I’d say we’ve appropriated the appropriation in some ways, and remade it to fit our modern view.

Jason: To try to address the question of cultural appropriation – Martin Denny was actually asked about that a lot. The problem of course is that Tiki, and especially exotica music, invented a language and style that isn’t really any one particular culture. You listen to it, and it’s a little bit Hawai’ian, or a little bit Peruvian, or a little something else. It can be deeply annoying in a sense to someone who has a deep feeling of respect for various individual classes. They might ask “who the heck is Martin Denny to take a little bit of Peruvian, mix it with Hawai’ian, and create some jazz?” The answer is that that is how art is made. To an extent, I think the question to consider with cultural appropriation is are you being disrespectful? And I think that for artists like Martin Denny, disrespect was the last thing on their minds – they were just creating art. It’s art that is authentically itself. Adam and I are both interested in looking at old texts, and considering how people would have answered questions that we might consider differently today. When we watch a Tiki movie from the 1950s, you’ll see assumed attitudes that are never questioned, but when you watch it today, you can comment on those attitudes. That’s why it’s important to look at old art, so you don’t say just “this art is bad.” There’s almost no such thing as bad art – they’re sources for conversation.

One last question for you both. What’s your favorite Tiki bar, and what’s your favorite drink there?

Jason: I can tell you. My favorite, and everyone has their own answer, but my favorite bar was the Royal Hawaiian in Laguna Beach. I just loved the walk to the bar, the water there, and they take their business really seriously. We feature an interview with the proprietor in the book even. My favorite drink there was the Lapu Lapu.

Adam: I’m going to have to go with Trader Sam’s in Disneyland. It’s an amazing place, and while I could name tons of places outside of Disney, there’s something I love about having an escape within an escape. It’s the strangest sort of double-Houdini trick I could think of. I’m the guy with Disneyland passes, so when I get tired of Disney, I can escape even further into an island. There’s a drink they have there called the HippopotoMai-Tai. They also have a drink called the Dark & Tropical Stormy that’s amazing too. Another one (because I can’t resist talking about it) is the Test Pilot up in Santa Barbara. It’s a bizarre intersection of craft cocktails and Tiki. It’s literal mixologists who have taken Tiki drinks, and apply a craft approach to them. You get amazing, personalized cocktails right there in Santa Barbara. I think when you find a legit Tiki bar, you really can’t go wrong. It’s what you bring into a Tiki bar, and the people you’re there with, that make the place more than anything else.

To learn more about Tiki, check out Jason and Adam's book out below!

Do you have a favorite Tiki bar? Let us know in the comments below!