My upcoming novel, The Sommières Sun delves into the tiki culture of Paris and New Orleans.
“The philosophy, if you will, is living moments of a peaceful life. Let the magic of the ocean and the breeze heal you and wash away your cares. Think white sand and the smell of an ocean breeze. It’s primal.“
The above quote is from “Beach” Roberson, Steve’s new acquaintance in Paris in The Sommières Sun. In the novel, Beach owns one of Paris’ hottest bars, Tiki-Paris. He will have much more to say about the importance of tiki culture in the American experience. For him, it is literally spiritual.
Perhaps, you might wonder, “What’s tiki?” It is a complex question to answer. One could start with tiki bars. Donn Beach (He was born Ernest Gantt, likely in New Orleans.) is often considered the “founding father” of tiki culture. He opened the first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber, during the 1930s in Hollywood, CA. It was later expanded and additional Don the Beachcombers opened in the United States.
What makes a tiki bar a tiki bar? Traditionally tiki bars are south seas-themed drinking establishments that serve elaborate cocktails, especially rum-based mixed drinks such as the Mai Tais, Zombies, Nui Nuis, Suffering Bastards, etc. Tiki bars are aesthetically defined by their trappings of Polynesian culture. Most bars also incorporate general nautical themes or aspects of retro culture such as 1960s iconography.
Purists will point out that the tiki iconography didn’t surface until the mid-1950s and that the initial “pre-tiki” bars mostly featured decorations that evoked south pacific island life (vestiges of straw huts, bamboo, driftwood and palm trees) and nautical items such as Japanese glass floats, fishing nets, nautical lanterns, etc. The tiki statues, such as representations of Moai, the statues of the Easter Island, and many other forms started to appear in the mid-1950s.
The history of the whole tiki cultural phenomenon is rich and complex. Urban archeologist, Sven Kirsten, has written some outstanding histories of the culture. Book of Tiki and Tiki Pop are both impressive. He goes into some of the earliest literary foundations of the culture as well as other aspects such as the impact of movies of the era and the once close realtionship between tiki bars and the Hollywood film industry.
In recent years, tiki bars have begun to resurface on the American landscape. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of the excellent New Orleans tiki bar, Latitude 29, is a highly regarded “mixologist” and tiki anthropologist. He has published numerous popular books on vintage tropical drinks. Sippin’ Safari would be a great one to start with.
Popular American artist, Josh Agle (Shag), has incorporated tiki themes into his work and captured the imagination of a lot of Tiki fans. Pictured below is sample of his work. It was for the opening of a new tiki bar in Kansas City, Tikicat. Click here for more samples of Josh’s incredible work.
There is also a great magazine, Exotica Moderne, to keep one abreast of Tiki culture. It covers many aspects of the Tiki scene, including music, drinks, food, bars, “Tiki Lit” and art.
I look forward to you delving along with Steve, my protagonist, into tiki culture in The Sommières Sun this spring. Meanwhile, search out a good tiki bar near you, imbibe a couple of great cocktails and see if the “tiki” vibe affects you the way Beach suggests above.
In the coming weeks, as a bonus to those of you who enjoy a good tiki bar, I’ll review my two favorite tiki bars in the Big Easy–Latitude 29 and Tiki Tolteca, both of which are featured in The Sommières Sun.