Star-Bulletin Features




Musicians grow into
lifestyle of exotica

A hip, elaborate stage show
puts a spectacular new spin
on the music of another era

By Shawn 'Speedy' Lopes

For more than four decades, it's been known by finger-snapping hi-fi hipsters as "exotica," an evocative musical hybrid born out of jazz, Latin rhythms and aboriginal instrumentation. It is a genre that predates Motown, electric jazz and the British invasion. Its songs recall a bygone era, when the Hawaiian Islands were considered America's Shangri-La and the Holy Trinity of Artie (the late Arthur Lyman), Marty (Martin Denny) and Les (famed arranger-conductor Les Baxter) shook up the music charts like a cool vodka martini.

Hi-fi was the rage then, and exotica, replete with colorful vibes, bongos and birdcalls, was the music of choice. "A lot of attention was paid to the delicious sounds of the instruments," remembers Kit Ebersbach, known by lounge music cultists as Perry Coma, half the nucleus of Honolulu exotica revisionists Don Tiki. "People wanted to know how well (these sounds) could be reproduced by this new technology."

"We've brought our own sound and lights, and a talented choreographer and costumer into this whole show, which came off magically."

Lloyd Kandell
Don Tiki

Of course, nothing compares to the real thing; just ask the 500 or so attendees who witnessed Don Tiki's elaborate stage show at the Hawaiian Hut last October. To the group's chagrin, several hundred fans were turned away. This weekend, the group is back with four concerts. "We never really expected so many people to show (the first time)," admits Lloyd Kandell, known onstage as Fluid Floyd. "We were really surprised. People were kind of interested not only in the music, but the whole aura of tiki lounge culture."

The Forbidden World of Don Tiki

Where: Hawaiian Hut, Ala Moana Hotel
When: 9 and 11 p.m. today and tomorrow
Admission: $20
Call: 735-4333

Those present were treated to a grand spectacle, complete with beautifully costumed Polynesian dancers swaying to the rhythms of Don Tiki's eclectic crew. "It's evolved into this elaborate, hip, alternative Polynesian revue meets Cirque du Soleil," say Kandell. "We've brought our own sound and lights, and a talented choreographer and costumer into this whole show, which came off magically."

For many of Don Tiki's musicians, singers and dancers, the show was a welcome respite from the drudgery of performing the same tourist-friendly numbers and routines for their day jobs. "It was their chance to be more self-expressive, so they jumped at it," said Ebersbach.

Among the appreciative attendees was Denny, now 90 and every bit as enthusiastic about exotica's new blood as his original combo. "He said there was no show from the '50s and '60s that came close to what happened at the Hawaiian Hut," says Ebersbach. "He was just so blown away and so happy for us and full of ideas." Take the show to Vegas, Denny told them.

It was in the late 1960s when Ebersbach arrived in our fair isles for graduate school, and he found himself supplementing his income by teaching piano. "Hawaii was a wonderful place to be," he says, recalling the wide-open era with a measure of fondness. "You were free to do what you wanted; you didn't have to do what Mommy and Daddy wanted you to."

Kandell relocated to Hawaii from Los Angeles some 25 years ago, after reading a glowing review in the Los Angeles Times on Molokai. "I'd also heard of this musical genius living on (Kauai's) North Shore who was giving piano lessons," he recalls. Kandell enlisted the musical services of Ebersbach, hoping the instructor could transpose some of his favorite music. "So I showed up with the first punk records that were coming out; Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, Mink DeVille, Devo, that kind of stuff. Kit was very excited by all this because it had that kind of do-it-yourself philosophy."

Believe it or not, new wave and early punk rock became their common bond; their musical glue. Ebersbach relocated to Oahu to form what is believed to be Hawaii's first punk band, the Tourists, which would beget the legendary Wave Waikiki house band the Squids. Kandell followed him to Honolulu and, with a referral from Ebersbach, promptly landed a job at the Wave as a deejay.

Now in their 50s, the duo says the modern tiki scene has hipped them to a lifestyle that suits them perfectly. "It's a relaxing culture," Ebersbach explains. "The music itself doesn't generate resentment or reflect disgust with life. (For most enthusiasts) it's legal to drink alcohol, and the drinks turn out to be part of the fun."

Exotica also provides the duo with an intriguing assortment of sounds to work with. "It's very open-ended," he adds, citing a number of exotica-compatible musical styles -- classical, bossa nova and electronica among them. "This is one music I can keep composing for the rest of my life and never run out of ideas."

Don Tiki recently began a correspondence with future-lounge deejays Thievery Corporation and hosted them when they gigged here last month. "They're good friends of ours, and we're talking about doing a remix project," said Kandell, who also boasts ties with San Francisco deejay duo Tipsy and Hawaiian alt-rock icon Frank Orrall of PDP (nee Poi Dog Pondering).

"I don't see a reason to stop going on," adds Ebersbach. "I don't see why we should ever stop being creative."

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