Carrying the Torch

Let's get this straight. Space-age surf music is an authentic part of tiki culture. Pro surfers Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton are not. Pineapple juice -- tiki. Cranberry juice -- not so much. Carved wooden masks are tiki, while Jimmy Buffett -- well, "Those two words are actually kind of illegal in the tiki community," says Tiki Kiliki, organizer of this weekend's Hukilau -- which she calls "the largest tiki event in the world." She expects 800 or more attendees, with about half coming from out of town.

How did rockabilly music, South Pacific artifacts, swizzle sticks, reverb, and burlesque dancers who dress up like monkeys come together to comprise tiki culture? Enthusiasts, Kiliki speculates, have "an appreciation of an American-born culture. We like to highlight bands that are doing authentic sounds and sights, that bring that time [the 1950s] back to now. It tends to get deeper than the kitsch factor for some of us. Hard-core tiki fans appreciate it on a different level." One thing unites them: "We all really like to have a good time."

Traditionally, a hukilau is a Hawaiian community fishing gathering, during which islanders work together to haul their catch in a net. The term, then, is a perfect moniker for the mish-mash of hipster sights, sounds, and trinkets available over the four-day shindig. Thursday night at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort (801 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale), catch Charles Phoenix and his "Space Age Tiki Slideshow," King Kukulele (the world's highest-paid ukulele player), a Polynesian drum show, and the Haole Kats ('60s surf tunes and jump blues). Friday, meet exotica legends Yma Sumac (the singer/actress who resembles Cleopatra in a hula skirt) and Bunny Yeager (bombshell model/photographer), or shop the Tiki Bazaar while DJ Le Spam and the Intoxicators provide background music. At 7 p.m., a "Let's Go Native" party starts with bands Waitiki and Tongo-hiti and Atlanta-based burlesque troupe Dames A'Flame (yes, one of the dancers dresses like a monkey). The crowd will hold its collective breath when Robert Drasnin (who composed the 1959 classic exotica album Voodoo and scored TV shows, including Hawaii Five-O) unveils his first new material in 40 years. A jam session follows; uke players welcome!

Saturday, the party moves to the historic Mai-Kai Restaurant (3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale), a tiki shrine with waterfalls, bikini-clad servers, a fire-dancing floor show, and the infamous "mystery drink." The Mai-Kai was opened as a roadside attraction in the 1950s, and the widow of the original owner still choreographs the dances. When she decides to incorporate a new routine, she travels to Polynesia to ask native islanders for permission to perform it. Make reservations if you want to catch the dinner show; otherwise, show up for happy hour in the bar with Dames A'Flame or come around 11 p.m. for Waitiki's set of Martin Denny covers. The party wraps on Sunday with a "Hukilau Car Show."

Be warned: The culture is highly addictive. Says Kiliki: "It all starts with finding a tiki mug..."

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Deirdra Funcheon