There was a time in America where you could sip on a deathly sweet and strong tropical cocktail and not have to remind yourself that Donald Trump was president. Sure, the 1940’s and 50’s weren’t exactly paradise, but with the explosion of tiki bars and restaurants across the country, it was certainly easier to pretend things were a-ok. This was an era when the average joe could slip into a dark watering hole with cushy vinyl booths, burning torches, maybe even a waterfall, and ponder life over a Fog Cutter or a Zombie. I’m not going to go too deep into the history of American tiki culture, although I do suggest you do that if you’re even remotely a fan of stiff yet fruity drinks and Hawaiian shirts. This is about the music that came out of that golden era of escape presented through the gleefully distorted lens of American capitalism. It’s also the subject of the latest box set offering from the masters of unearthing musical buried treasure, Numero Group.
Spanning three discs, Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights is an expansive look at the lounge, exotica, Pacific Islander and jazz that came out of the tiki times. Whether you’re a tiki amateur or fanatic, this set offers up a taste of the good stuff and seems to cover all the bases. There are loads of tasty gems to sip on throughout the box set, like the slow and surfy tune “The Moon of Manakoora” by Lenny & the Thundertones, the delightfully twangy “Chant of the Jungle” by Red Harrison and His Zodiacs, the sax heavy swank meets weirdo opera of “Nature Boy” (can you choose a better song name than that?) by Don Reed featuring the Voice of Love, and the sunwashed, ska-like sound of The Joan Joyce Trio’s “Captured”.
Weirder moments happen on tunes like the slowly percolating and wavy groove of “Driftwood” by The Wailers (not of Bob Marley fame), the country-meets-island-meets-Grateful Dead number “Live With The Moon” by San Antonio band the Chaynes, Middle Eastern cowboy soundtrack “Sound of Mecca” by The Blazers, and the extra bubbly and a tad bit bluesy “Atlantis” by The Blue-Bells.
Many of the acts featured are long forgotten, but they made their mark with a cocktail of musical styles that always were and still are underappreciated. Darla Hood’s “My Quiet Village” is a swanky journey through the jungle, while The 5 Glow Tones go for a trippy, percolating xylophone romp with a song also called “Quiet Village” that seems to truly live up to its name. Some of the songs don’t exactly describe the music, like the brassy Latin-tinged number by The Bruce Norman Quintet strangely titled “Arabian Rhythm”. This was, after all, a time when cultural appropriation fused with pop culture in a way that, by today’s standards, may be deemed offensive (take the bell-dinging boogie of “Hari’s Harem” by a band called The Slaves for instance), but was not necessarily ill intentioned. This is music that speaks to the lifestyle that came with all things tiki, a wonderfully bizarre celebration and at times misinterpretation of other cultures spun into classic Americana. It’s worth noting that the diligent minds at Numero have accompanied this set with a pu pu platter’s worth of savory liner notes and vivid archival photographs.
Donn Beach, the godfather of the tiki bar, once stated, “If you can’t come to paradise, I’ll bring paradise to you.” He wanted to offer people an escape and they gladly bought the tickets. Unless you’ve already made your grand escape, you probably could use a little mental vacation right now. With tiki culture making something of a comeback in the hipster cocktail scene in recent years, there is a relevancy to this set, and one can’t help but wonder if the psych rockers would go crazy for a band playing lounge-y exotica these days. But the savvy music nerds at Numero Group are hardly looking to capitalize on any trends. Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights is both a damn fine soundtrack for your next cocktail party while also standing as a testament to a time when bar culture truly meant something and so did the music. Best enjoyed while drinking a cocktail surrounded by bamboo and fake palm trees, the music in this set offers exactly the escape we all need in our troubled times.