What is tiki? I get this question occasionally when someone finds out about my tiki habit. How exactly do I answer that, though? I could go with the whole Polynesian Pop culture thing. I could go with the mid-century rage that swept across the U.S. lounge and bar scene. But those don't really do it justice for what “tiki” is today. Especially since most people relate it to the super sweet hangover-waiting-to-happen drinks served up as “tiki”.
I've been trying to figure out a good answer for a while now. And after getting rather immersed in the culture over the last few years, I have come to believe that “tiki” really is whatever you want it to be. From the colorful aloha shirts, to the great tasting rum drinks, to any number of musical genres, to a celebration of mid-century Americana, to just about anything that evokes a bit of tropical paradise escapism - for you. Tiki, as I see it, is in the eye of the beholder.
For tiki purists, though, there is a very fine line definition of tiki. Along the lines of Martin Denny, yes. Jimmy Buffett, no. Navy Grog, yes. Daiquiri, not so much. Aloha shirts, of course, except if they are made by Tommy Bahama. And so forth. To these stalwarts, to be tiki it must mesh with the original visions and stylings from the glory days of Tiki culture established by Donn the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, the two main founders of the Polynesian Pop culture that is known as ’tiki’. That is fine for the purists. My contention, though, is that modern day tiki’ers can be just as creative in their interpretations of tiki as Donn, Vic, and other tiki forefathers were. After all, tiki bars and the whole Polynesian Pop culture are really manufactured themes devised to sell drinks to Americans with visions of remote island getaways. You won’t find “tiki bars’ in the Polynesian islands - unless they are catering to the American tourists and tikiphiles.
Recently I was visiting a tiki bar and the bartender told me how a customer had gotten irate because the bar was playing reggae music. Apparently, as a ‘tiki purist’ he found reggae music at a tiki bar inauthentic as it is not Polynesian. I wish I had been there to point out that neither is the rum that is in his cocktail! Donn Beach used the Caribbean liquor in his cocktails out of convenience and profitability. At the end of prohibition, rum was extremely cheap and widely available. It had nothing to do with “tiki’ or Polynesia. So, if Donn can bring a Caribbean liquor together with all the flotsam and jetsam that he had accumulated in his travels throughout the South Pacific to create a tiki vibe, then why can’t we be as creative?
My own personal tiki interpretation can probably be best described as a good mixture of fine crafted tropical drinks, a killer aloha shirt, and some island vibe tunes in an environment of bamboo, tikis, and, of course flotsam and jetsam! Tiki should be chill, fun, playful, down to earth and all about enjoying life. I guess that is why I relate to it so well! In short, it’s a mini vacation get-away for an hour or two - or more!
For me personally, tiki is the ultimate in relaxed, casual, island vibe good times - and best shared with good friends. It can be anything from a Hawaiian style luau, to mimicking the Corona ad by enjoying a cold beer in a beach chair overlooking the ocean, to anything along those lines. It's the “aloha" attitude of Hawaii. The "no worries, mon" attitude of Jamaica. The “manana” mentality of Central American resorts. In other words, it’s relax. Don't worry. Be happy. (Wait isn't that a song?)
So, then we come to the question, “What makes a tiki bar, tiki?” This is a tricky question as there can be just as many interpretations of tiki for the bars as there are for tiki! This is already a long post, so I will save that for next time. In the meantime, though, grab your Aloha shirt, serve yourself up a Mai Tai, put on some Martin Denny, and enjoy the fresh, cool, island vibe that is tiki! And by all means, tell us what is “tiki” to you!