If you are researching cocktail culture in the ’50s and ’60s (as one is want to do) it’s hard not to stumble upon the music of Les Baxter. His exotic orchestrations were synonymous with post World War II escapism and the formation of “Tiki” bars such as Don the Beachcomber. Tiki bars flourished throughout the United States in the ’60s, but by the time we had the opportunity to see a real tiki bar, most businesses had collapsed or had been watered down into bad Polynesian restaurants.
Today, a true tiki bar is a rare find. A bad Chinese restaurant does not make for a tiki bar. True tiki bars are pure works of fiction. They were designed by Hollywood set designers as idyllic retreats for affluent business men. Mystery and adventure are the alluring qualities of a tiki bar. Food and drink are only used to add interactive experiences in a richly intriguing environment.
The fact that there are social groups dedicated to carrying on tiki culture is… well, we didn’t know what.
Back in June The Hukilau afforded us a long weekend in Ft. Lauderdale. Worst case, we spend a few days drinking Planter’s Punch and swimming in the ocean. It turned out to be much more.
The Hukilau centers around music: Surf Punk, Popular Exotica, Rockabilly, Hawaiian, Latin Jazz. Don’t ask why these things go together. Just accept that they are the genres of a heavily tattooed group of people who like fruity drinks and dressing as if it were 1962. Add in burlesque and mermaid shows and you’ve got yourselves some real entertainment.
We are still not sure what to make of it. Many people attending are in the business of tiki. They either run bars, or they dream of running a bar. The rest compose a diverse group. Attendees came from all over. Most from the US, but several from Europe and Canada. Most had been to a tiki “meet up” before, but it was never made clear to us how they got started. Likewise, we confused people by telling them we were novices.
The event centers around one of the oldest living tiki bars, the Mai-Kai. Just being in the building was a treat. It is layered with 60 years of embellishment. Lit just bright enough for you to find the straw in your Zombie, it is the epitome of mysterious tiki goodness.
While in Ft. Lauderdale we, of course, did swim in the ocean. We also visited the soon-to-be-displaced International Swimming Hall of Fame (who knew?), took a cruise of the inland water ways, and took in several tiki-related presentations.
Overall, this was a pretty impressive affair. There were seven bands including one from Japan and one from Belgium, some of the tiki-decor discussion panelists were from the UK, and there were several dozen vendors selling everything from shoes to dried puffer fish lamps. But will we do it again? Hard to say, but it is worth going if you have the chance.
Your time is valuable! Choose seeing The Hukilau in 2 minutes or in 4 minutes:
And because The Left Arm of Buddha were so good, here are five more videos: