A Modern History of Tiki Music

Dick Dale | Michael Ochs Archives

In his essay of the “Cultures of Tiki,” Scott Lukas noted that in modern presentations of Tiki cultures that had little to do with Tiki of the past like the soft surf culture and the former car culture. These are now becoming a part of the Tiki culture. This is particularly true of surf music, which was the theme music for Tiki bars in the 60s. Now, if you were to have wondered into the Don the Beachcombers in Huntington Beach or Laguna Beach’s Royal Hawaiian, you’d be likely to hear music from the Del-Tones, or Dick Dale. Yes, Surf music did have its place in Tiki!

Surf music was associated with fun and excitement. The first really big hit from California was Let’s Go Trippin’, which was an ode to adventurous surfing recording by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones. Followed closely by so many others. By 1963 surf music hit the main stream and movies. And then at the end of 1963 the Beatles came to America. However, the Beach Boys and the Tiki Bars were still going strong. And why was surf music so popular in Tiki bars in the 60s?

Dick Dale & The Del Tones playing “Misirlou”, from the film “A Swingin Affair” (1963).

Surf music was familiar to almost everyone and comfortable. Surf music also seems to be energetic and intense. A Tiki bar is a getaway and an escape to the Pacific and surf music reminds us of that. Now in present day, we hear a combination of traditional Hawaiian music and surf music depending on the vibe of the restaurant or bar.

Some top surf albums heard traditionally in Tiki bars were Dale’s first album called, Misirlou, meaning Egyptian Girl. Its Tiki associations run deep. There are haunting versions recorded of this song that appear on Exotica again and again. Dale performed the entire melody on the low E string and then again on the high E string. It’s what we think of when we think of Hawaiian melodies. Dale was insistent the music should be instrumental, but vocals made their way into the Tiki sound as well.

Martin Denny’s Misirlou

Exotica Tiki music is a form of tropical-jazz. Of course this originated in the 1950s to sound exotic and far away. Sometimes sounding even savage to add excitement to the room, the exotica was all the rage in Tiki establishments. People in California and the rest of the continent loved the allure of the music and came to Tiki bars and restaurants in droves for the music, the food, and the drinks.

You can actually listen to Tiki music on Spotify. A great run of music is actually called, “Surf, Tiki, and Luau Music that Doesn’t Suck.” It has over 30 songs on the playlist and you will recognize many. No spoilers here! There are two albums for Tiki music that are available on iTunes. One person recommended the “Summer Tiki Lounge” compilation as well as “Tiki Music – Hawaii” volumes 1 & 2. Also, a great hidden gem to set the mood in any Tiki bar is the track “Adventureland” off of the 1956 album “Walt Disney Takes You to Disneyland.”  These are all fun music choices. Enjoy Tiki music!

“Adventureland” from “Walt Disney Takes You to Disneyland”