Take one part diverse players with intense focus and killer chops, and one part neglected mid-century multi-ethnic hybrid music with origins on America’s harmonious island paradise. Add a dash of Technicolor tropical dreamscape, a twist of wild birdcalls, and stir soulfully.
WAITIKI 7 serves up this polychrome cocktail, taking a new serious spin on exotica, the musical genre that leaped from Hawai‛i’s fashionable bars and clubs to mainstream living rooms in post-War America. Keeping true to exotica’s deep roots and intense demands on musicians with New Sounds of Exotica (Pass Out; June 7, 2010), the group brings heady passion, acoustic musicianship, and a love of old-school mixology to an art form just begging to be revisited and savored.
The luscious mix that is exotica—the blend of tropical soundscapes, Latin percussion, and popular jazz perfected by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and their ensembles—has been profoundly misunderstood. Far from the kitsch of its waning days, the best exotica flows from two very positive and progressive places: the multi-cultural openness of Hawai‛i’s music scene in the first half of the 20th century, and the mid-century impulses that fueled a craze for transcontinental travel and curiosity about Asian-Pacific cultures.
“It was a huge thing at that time to fly from the West Coast to Hawai‛i,” explains Randy Wong, the Hawai‛i-born, classically trained founder of WAITIKI 7. “It became the stepping stone to the East. People became genuinely fascinated by these cultures. The war was over, and there was a spirit of real optimism and excitement.”
These new travelers came to Hawai‛i and discovered what had been brewing in the relatively open climate of cross-cultural exploration for several decades: a vibrant music scene with everything from mixed Hawaiian and English folk ballads, to second-generation Japanese club bands made of traditional Asian instruments, to Puerto Rican percussionists who had recently come to work in the sugar industry. “The musicians who played exotica came from this scene,” Wong notes. “It was really one of the first popular world-music hybrids in America.”
Enterprising bandleaders brought all these sounds together, creating groups that Wong describes as “one huge rhythm section,” so huge that Martin Denny, the king of classic exotica, needed three trailers to take all the percussion instruments—from gamelan parts to octave after octave of tuned gongs to huge bamboo xylophones—along on tour. WAITIKI 7 lets the full percussive force of exotica shine on tracks like Denny’s Chinese-inflected rumbler “Firecracker.”
Exotica musicians were highly skilled, fastidious arrangers, often drawing on Hollywood experience to craft the perfectly evocative sound of the fantastic tropics. Wong, who has had a chance to study Denny’s scores, was blown away by the level of detail. These were serious musicians “with serious chops,” Wong smiles, and a serious approach to even the campiest moments in the music.
WAITIKI 7 embraces the pulse and ambiance of exotica, while adding their own stamp thanks to the diverse jazz, classical, and folk backgrounds the seven members bring to the group, including the jazz drums of multi-instrumentalist Abe Lagrimas, Jr; the thoughtful and vigorous Latin and jazz piano of Zaccai Curtis; the ever cool vibes of classically trained Jim Benoit. Improvisation and more expansive, expressive solos, something rarely heard in carefully scored classic exotica, play a major role in shaping the band’s sound, as do unexpected instruments from violin (classical virtuoso Helen Liu) to woodwinds of all shapes and sizes (Berklee instructor and Latin jazz master Tim Mayer).
Adding a new dimension to the rhythm sections of the past, lush melodies come to the fore on WAITIKI 7’s tour of exotica standards like the beautiful “Bali Ha‛i” of South Pacific fame. Or on the mysterious yet once wildly popular “Similau,” penned by one of dozens of exotica ghostwriters hired to copy Denny and Lyman’s signature sound—without the prohibitive licensing costs.
“The song does things with Latin rhythms and percussion that never happen. The güiro (notched gourd), for instance, is played backwards, something you just don’t do,” explains Wong. “But it works and makes for one mean song.”
The group comes by its love of exotica honestly. WAITIKI 7 percussionist Lopaka Colon picked up not only his beats, but his amazing bird and animal calls from his father, veteran musician Augie Colon, who played for years with Denny. The senior Colon tracked game in the valleys of Hawai‛i Island and O‛ahu, teaching himself calls to attract birds and animals. When he joined Denny’s group, Augie Colon started tossing in calls to enhance the overall atmosphere, and soon band members were responding, teasingly, in kind.
“It’s exciting, and you can’t help but get into it. When Lopaka whoops and howls, he sounds like some marvelous bird, and he’s playing intense percussion parts at the same time,” Wong enthuses. “The birdcalls are a virtuosic element, and they require an acoustic approach to work well. Samples or keyboards can sound so canned. And it really gives the original exotica musicians like Augie their due.”
Wong himself was exposed to the magic of these calls as a child. He grew up tagging along with his grandfather to hear Arthur Lyman, one of the exotica greats who also used birdcalls for dramatic effect. “We’d be sitting ten feet from the guy and he’d be playing solo vibes and doing birdcalls,” Wong recalls. “It was really otherworldly. I got the sound in my ear, even though I didn’t know it was part of a larger musical thing.”
WAITIKI 7’s originals keep true to the spirit of this larger musical movement, renewing exotica’s ties to Hawaiian culture and moving audience members deeply. Wong’s “Sweet Pīkake Serenade,” inspired by traditional Hawaiian ballads, keeps it so real, it literally makes exotica fans weep. “When we performed for the 500th show of Kansas Public Radio’s Retro Cocktail Hour,” Wong remembers, “there were serious tiki fans who had driven from Chicago, L.A., South Carolina to Lawrence and they had us play for four hours. When we played ‘Sweet Pīkake Serenade,’ the audience started crying tears of joy. We still get fan mail from that gig.”
Tiki culture and its exotica soundtrack have another serious side: the heady cocktails once served alongside the music’s sonic dreamscapes. And just like real exotica demands virtuosic musicianship, real tiki cocktails require premium ingredients artfully balanced: freshly creamed coconuts, just squeezed juices, homemade allspice liqueurs, the clove-lime-almond notes of falernum syrup.
“We’re taking this wholly authentic approach to the music,” Wong explains. “To stay in line with that, we take our cocktails very seriously, in the same vein as us performing acoustically.” Wong and WAITIKI 7 have created several custom cocktails for the album, and recipes are included in the liner notes. “There’s a big tiki revival going on, in places like Boston and New York,” notes Wong, “and exotica is a big part of that.”
Serious tiki fans, as WAITIKI 7 has discovered, turn up in the most unexpected places. Though the band was founded in play at lū‛aus in the Boston area, where many members live, they have played some of the quirkiest gigs imaginable: A bar mitzvah at the New England Aquarium, an Indian wedding held in a New Jersey Greek Orthodox church, an art-deco train chugging through Vermont at the height of mud season.
And last but not least, “We of course do tiki festivals,” Wong chuckles. “Nothing like a field full of New Englanders wearing fezzes and sipping rum barrels to get in the mood. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Photographs by Jason Goodman