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Tiki Band Leader Talks About Drinking Mai Tais With Anthony Bourdain And SoCal's Love Affair With Tiki

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Courtesy of Don Tiki
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Don Tiki will be performing Don Tiki's Hot Lava Holiday Show at Walt Disney Concert Hall this Thursday. As keepers of the tiki culture flame, Honolulu-based Don Tiki is guaranteed to create the perfect exotica experience for all us mainlanders. We recently caught up with Don Tiki's band leader and composer Kit Ebersbach.

LAist: Aloha Kit! What are the origins of Don Tiki?
Kit Ebersbach
: The ultimate origins of Don Tiki lies standing-nostril-deep in the mists of dreamtime, when music itself was born, attested by our continuing wield of such traditional instruments as lava stones ('ili'ili), log drums (to'ere), and Burmese marimbas (pattalar). Well, actually, the pattalar was developed an uncertain number of millenia later, in historical time. But it sounds great.

Our fire was sparked by Fluid Floyd's sudden friendship with Martin Denny, the inventor and popularizer of the style back in the Hawai'i statehood times, coupled with my passing interest in the band Combustible Edison when I heard a song of theirs being used as a soundtrack for a performance of the quirky Honolulu butoh troupe Iona Pear. At the kindling of the flame, I realized how interesting the conventions of Mr. Denny's sound stylings happened to be, that the musical possibilities were endless.

Our initial CD "Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki" was conceptualized as a studio project. Meanwhile I was doing music for the Waikiki show Magic of Polynesia, whose choreographer was the inventive and unique Tunui Tully. He expressed a desire to choreograph some of our tunes for the release party of our second CD "Skinny Dip With Don Tiki." It was such a wonderful symbiosis that the live stage show was born.

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LAist: Who are your main influences in terms of compositions and arrangements?
Ebersbach
: The chord reharmonizations of Bill Evans; the vocal arrangements, clever beboppy lyrics and performing flair of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the exotica traditions of Martin Denny and Les Baxter; the smart musical and vocal humor of the works of Cole Porter and Frank Loesser; the adventurous bravery of John Cage; the calmness inherent in Morton Feldman; the forms and sounds of all the world's cultural musical musical expressions, traditional and pop; the sass of the first two Talking Heads LP explorations; the buffoonery of Ernie Kovacs, early Mad magazine and Spike Jones .... enough? I could go on for a while longer if you like.

LAist: What makes this L.A. Hot Lava Holiday Show so special?
Ebersbach
: Our advocate at LA Phil requested that we actually include "tiki holiday songs" in our show. Of course she might have been unaware that "tiki holiday songs" happens to be a musical subgenre of an already arcane "tiki" genre -- to my knowledge the entire category consisted of the song "Little Sandy Sleighfoot," and that only because it was a crass knockoff of the plot of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and hence could more aptly be classified in the "holiday songs" subgenre of "grotesque deformities Xmas tunes" of which there are these two instances.

Anyway, it became my rather enjoyable task to come up with a number of plausible "tiki holiday songs" for the show. The first, whose title "Jungle Jollyday" came from our Ms. Sherry Shaoling's inspired brain, lifted off with the enormously helpful lyric suggestions of Robert Scott. The other vocal grew out of an updating the willing seduction lyric storyline of the duet standard "Baby It's Cold Outside." In this case, the would-be lovers explore each other's intentions with the help of the libations offered at a hip tiki bar, when they propose to spend "Xmas Eve at the Club Bambu." In addition, I did some tiki-style instrumental arrangements of a number of appropriate traditional holiday songs, and we adapted the lyrics of another of our songs to fit the holidays. We debut all these songs at the LA Phil.

LAist: In terms of live shows Don Tiki shows it’s more than just a band playing. Can you share more details - without giving away too much - of what we might expect?
Ebersbach
: We call ourselves a "troupe" rather than a band. That's the dead giveaway.

LAist: Is it true that Anthony Bourdain is a fan of Don Tiki? How did that come about?
Ebersbach
: My intrepid partner, Fluid Floyd, was contacted by Mr. Bourdain's producer and travel scout to be his drinking partner in a segment called "in search of the perfect mai tai." Fluid Floyd wisely guided them to La Mariana, last of the authentic tiki dives hidden in an industrial area of Honolulu's seedy waterfront. Both gents wound up bonding and laughing their heads off over ever escalating potent rum concoctions.

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LAist: Why does tiki culture still resonate after so much years?
Ebersbach
: Sven Kirstin, author of The Book of Tiki and Modern Tiki, said it best in his liner notes for Skinny Dip with Don Tiki: "In this day and age, we are all aware that paradise on earth does not exist. Yet the need for it is eternal and can be playfully indulged in. Tiki bars are being erected again in city centers, living room corners and office cubicles, where the sultry rhythms of Exotica resound. Don Tiki is providing the soundtrack for this Technicolor projection of a Polynesian pop paradise."

LAist: What are your favorite places in LA?
Ebersbach
: LA Phil's Walt Disney Concert Hall, but of course! (Editor's note: For fun tiki places, we would like to recommend Bahooka Restaurant)

LAist: Do you feel the tiki culture is more popular here in L.A. or in Hawaii?
Ebersbach
: We have amassed an incredibly loyal following among the genral population of Hawai'i -- all ages and sexual persuasions, etc. But after we played at the Tiki Oasis in San Diego last year, we realized that the actual hotbed of present-day tiki culture is SoCal.

LAist: Mahalo, Kit!

Book passage "concert tickets" to exotic Polynesian pop shores with Don Tiki's Hot Lava Holiday Show on December 20 at 8 p.m. at The Walt Disney Concert Hall.