story by Blade Stabwell
photos by Brad Goda
Four stunning women sashay across the stage wearing skimpy costumes and gold high heels. They sport novelty-sized cocktail glasses balanced on their lovely heads. One glass holds a martini, another a rum concoction topped with pineapple and a tiny umbrella, the third a hoppy brew of some sort, the fourth … well, it’s not clear, but filled with alcohol of some kind for sure.
Behind the spirit goddesses struts Delmar deWilde, who looks like an unholy love child of Wayne Newton, Hugh Hefner and Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies. Delmar’s dressed in Las Vegas-formal with hundreds of karats of bling dangling from his neck. He croons into his cordless microphone while cavorting with the dancers. The women gyrate, undulate and do other not-for-prime-time things that end with -ate.
Clowning aside, the music is what everyone’s here for: The band’s bassist, Hai Jung, swings back and forth, her instrument nearly as long as she is tall. Lopaka Colon plays the guiro—no, not a Greek sandwich—a South American instrument made from a gourd. Ryoko Oka works the keys while Abe Lagrimas Jr. taps the vibes. Behind them, drummer Jason Segler lays down the groove for the pulsing fusion of jungle, jazz, pop and world beat.
Later, the dancers will wear feather headdresses and voodoo dolls, portray a gypsy with a crystal ball, belly dance and balance swords. DeWilde will don a red smoking jacket while one of the dancers will become a sexy demon to his lounge lizard Satan by slipping into Victoria’s Secret, red horns and a tail. Malo-clad males will preen and pose.
It’s Polynesian pop gone amok. It’s a Stardust Lounge act in the Pacific. It’s the forbidden world of Don Tiki.
In my noodle I’m bam-boozled
Still I know one thing is crucial
We could reminisce in paradise
This is how it all began
So catch me if you, catch me if you can
—“Bam-Boozled,” The Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki (Taboo Records, 1997)
In 1947, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl sailed a balsa wood raft named Kon-Tiki from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands to prove that people from South America could have migrated to the South Pacific.
Exactly fifty years later, Lloyd Kandell and Kit Ebersbach formed Don Tiki to prove that retro, rum-soaked grooves had a place in the modern world. Kon-Tiki, Don Ho and mai tais inspired the band’s name. Ten years after their first CD release, The Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki, the Honolulu-based “exotica” band sails on, crewed by a rotating lineup of talented musicians, gorgeous Polynesian/ jazz dancers and a fourth CD set for a 2008 release.
For the past ten years, Don Tiki has been carrying the torch for—and now rekindling interest in—tiki lounge music, which began in the 1950s when exotica pioneers like pianist Martin Denny, vibraphonist Arthur Lyman and composer Les Baxter developed a campy but irresistible blend of Polynesian, South American and African rhythms and melodies. Redolent of the jungle and the lounge equally, exotica music classics like “Yellow Bird” and “Quiet Village” were part of a new wave of Polynesian pop culture that crested in the ’60s. (Tiki culture officially goes back all the way to 1934, when Don the Beachcomber opened the first tiki bar in L.A., and Victor Bergeron opened the first Trader Vic’s in Oakland in 1937.) Don Tiki’s popularity is aided by yet another wave of appreciation for the tiki aesthetic (which seems to run in cycles but never quite dies), infused now with a modern electronica/lounge chillness.
Don Tiki is still riding the wave. Last June and July, the band—orchestra, really—held court at the Tapa Bar at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa in Waikiki. In August, Don Tiki had a short stint as the house band for NightTime With Andy Bumatai, a Hawai‘i-focused talk show starring the local comedian and actor. This spring, a new program of exotica music, including tunes from Don Tiki, will be offered as part of Hawaiian Airline’s in-flight entertainment.