“The world was bigger then,” says Mark Riddle, host of the Quiet Village Podcast. He’s attempting to explain why tiki culture and all its Polynesian-themed bars, stiff tropical drinks, and beachy music dominated the United States in the ’50s. “It was the beginning of when middle-class people could travel. The tiki culture took you on a trip to a weird land you never heard of. When you heard a song like Les Baxter’s ‘Hong Kong Cable Car,’ Hong Kong might as well have been the moon.”
But that was then. And while there was once a tiki bar in every town, tiki aficionados have now become just a minor subculture in the 21st Century. Fortunately, Christmas is coming in June for tiki lovers in the form of the 14th-annual Hukilau. Expecting more than a thousand “villagers” from as far as Australia and Italy, the annual event will feature symposiums on tiki history, live music, a three-hour cruise with Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) from Gilligan’s Island, and — of course — more rum drinks than you can shake a coconut brassiere at.
“We started Hukilau in 2002 at a Trader Vic’s in Atlanta,” said Christie White, a Hukilau organizer. White, who like many in tiki culture begins and ends every correspondence with an aloha, received a suggested change of locale in her inbox after throwing the first Hukilau. “People started asking me why we don’t do it at the Mai-Kai. I didn’t know the Mai-Kai still existed. They were too busy trying to stay operational as a restaurant that they forgot how important they are to the tiki culture.”
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Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai was one of the most expensive restaurants to be built in 1956. Taking advantage of the subtropical climate, the Federal Highway landmark had open-air dining with waitresses in bikinis and sarongs serving drinks. To this day, tourists and locals strut through its doors in butt-ugly shirts, order a round of rum barrels, and watch the Polynesian dance revues that are held six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday. But in White’s eyes, the Mai-Kai isn’t as appreciated as it should be. “A lot of South Floridians have no idea what they have. The Mai-Kai has so much rich history. It goes beyond paper umbrellas.”
That rich tiki history doesn’t begin where you think it would. Just as the first burritos were not wrapped in Mexico, neither was the first tiki bar on a beach in Hawaii. Rather its origins lie in Hollywood, California, where a Texan bootlegger named Ernest Gantt opened Don the Beachcomber’s. “He drew all kinds of Hollywood celebrities. He created a real cocktail culture,” White said about the man who invented the Mai Tai — among other exotic sounding libations. “He was the first one to blend rums. No one had tasted anything like the way he mixed light rums with dark rums.”
Don the Beachcomber’s was also instrumental in creating the soundtrack for tiki Culture as the establishment was a supporter of the forefathers of exotica music. Martin Denny’s 1957 album Exotica coined the name for this genre of music. “Exotica is an ambient chill music. It’s there to set a mood,” Riddle explains over the phone. Martin Denny’s music certainly sets a mood, though with its bird calls and bullfrog croaks mixed in with breezy percussions, it's tough to say exactly what kind of mood that is.
Another legend of the field is Arthur Lyman, whose grandnephew’s band The Alika Lyman Group will be performing at Hukilau with Mark Riddle accompanying them on the vibraphone, which he describes as "a xylophone, but with a sustain pedal that gives it a wah-wah sound."
The Alika Lyman Group, along with Riddle, will play its first ever east coast date at Hukilau with more of a jazz approach than traditional Exotica. "We take the Hawaiian stuff and swing it a bit. The genre of Exotica is really small. A lot of it is now a mish-mash where they blend surf with it, or bossa nova,” Riddle says. He says surf music has a twangy guitar that you can dance to whereas exotica is music to lounge to.
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Though tiki culture is now more niche than mainstream, its participants do see signs of it creeping back into the limelight. Tiki mugs are being sold at Target, and places like Mai-Kai are enjoying a resurgence of interest amongst younger generations who revel in the un-ironic nostalgia that tiki bars ooze.
But still, the villagers are grateful to have Hukilau as a refuge where like minded people dressed in vintage Hawaiian shirts can congregate in a technicolor explosion. “For us Villagers Hukilau is an escape,” White says. “We can celebrate the tiki culture that is still around.”
The Hukilau with King Kukulele, the Alika Lyman Group, Gold Dust Lounge, and more. Noon Wednesday, June 10, through Sunday, June 14, at various locations, including the Mai-Kai, 3599 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-563-3272, or visit thehukilau.com. Tickets cost $10 to $149 via ticketleap.com.