Don Tiki
Skinny Dip With Don Tiki






Skinny Dip With Don Tiki is the long-awaited follow-up of the band's Forbidden Sounds Of Don Tiki, released in 2001 and written, produced and mastered straight in Hawaii. Kit Ebersbach and Lloyd Kandell come up with a cocktail of thirteen songs, the majority of them unique material, while two tracks are renditions of a Martin Denny track and a Bossa Nova of Hong Kong-based composer Nelson Hiu. Luckily, all the ingredients that make Don Tiki's albums so successful are still on board, but often times altered. The most glaring example of a change in timbre would be the various kinds of organs.


While these were mandatory constants in nearly all of the songs of the debut, the color of their sound has changed dramatically on Skinny Dip With Don Tiki: now they are much smoother and silkier than ever before, glowing warmly and mellowly and much gentler. The first eight tracks deliver a top-notch flow, meaning that they are varied enough to stand on their own, yet have enough collective particularities to sound alike. It's hard to describe, but you'll know what I mean at the end of this review. The last five songs, however, show the experimental side of the producing duo Ebersbach/Kandell, where the style ranges from jocular organ ditties, over melodramatic opera-like chants, to magic movie sample-fueled show tunes. Principal band members are bassist and vocalist Hai Jung, drummer Abe Lagrimas, mallet instrument player Noel Okimoto, keyboardist Perry Coma (sssshh, it's Kit Ebersbach's alias), Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos de Oliveira and flutist Jim Howard. Spoiler ahead: I'm going to tell you in the next few paragraphs why I think of this album as the band's best, and why I come back to one particular composition incessantly.


All Quiet Flows The Don, that’s the appropriately titled intro track. With its beautiful piano melody, Sharene Lum Boulos’s phantasmagoric harp strings, Noel Okimoto’s vibraphone droplets, vibrant double bass slaps and the sprinkler-like maracas, this song depicts a modest solemnity and flows along sublimely. This song also marks an important change of the band’s formula right at the beginning, for there are no oscillating Hammond organs to be found on here. In this case, they would’ve hurt the acoustic loftiness of this terrific opener anyway. It is a tremendously dreamy piece, more akin to a closing track, but I won’t complain at all that the album starts this way.


Up next is Don Tiki’s signature tune that is hailed for its important fusion of saccharine Pop concepts with both a pernicious neo-savageness and an adventurous decor. I’m talking about The Natives Are Restless, and due to these qualities, it’s no wonder that it is one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorites: Eclectic, punchy djembe rhythms are interspersed with Italo piano backings, vivid ukulele twangs by Jack Shimabukuro and nocturnal aah-aah and oompa backing chants by the cheekily called "Restless Natives" Baba Alimoot, Ernest Chang and Ellsworth Simeona. They all serve generalissimo Delmar DeWilde who delivers the performance of his life, incessantly shifting between silkiness, patronage and intensive exiguity, warning about the referenced natives who won’t keep many a people alive for too long. The superb drum solo in the middle is so huge, and this song all in all accomplishes the oxymoronic deliverance of a snugly tension, as all instruments are warm and cozy, but not overly threatening. Despite the omission of rapid-firing staccato drums in favor of a downbeat approach, this is one mighty beast of an Exotica Pop hymn. It is unclear to me why there aren’t more acts who blend these two genres together in a sleazy but classic way with definite verses, bridges and a chorus. Mind-blowing and a hallmark not just for the band, but for the Exotica genre of the twenty-first century!


Primitiva is next, and it’s an original Martin Denny composition that is curiously amiss on his album of the same name, but can be found on his 1958 classic Forbidden Island. Don Tiki play a pitch-perfect rendition of this eminently vivacious skit, with Lopaka Colón reprising the role of his father Augie Colón who not only played on the original Denny version, but re-interpreted this song later on his second LP Chant Of The Jungle of 1960. Lopaka Colón’s birdcalls and jungle noises are vivid and lifelike as usual, while the mellifluous vibraphone and xylophone sprinkles as well as the famous nine-note piano backings cause a glinting aura of comfort and warmth. The band concentrates on the sunnier, more soothing side of Denny’s composition, which itself features a convoluted middle section of frantic drums, and while Don Tiki is without a doubt capable of mimicking or even boosting this very section, the band decides against it and thus delivers the third dreamy song in a row. No dangers attached, just the best take on an already melodious Exotica classic.


The following Heat is – I’m almost sorry to say as it gets boring by this point – another Pop masterpiece camouflaged as an Exotica cut. Swirling synth sitars, paradisiac alto flute tones, laid back shakers, spiraling and unexpectedly syrupy organ backings, loungey vibraphones and the care-free vocals by Hawaiian singer Teresa Bright who is accompanied and echoed by the mellow voice of Aaron Sala make this a splendid piece that isn’t heavily overloaded despite its many instruments. I believe I even spot backing remnants or at least tonal similarities to Wet Cave, a song that is featured at a later point on this album.


The song ends with a delicious piano improvisation and the euphonious illumination of the sparkling organ, making room for Flower Humming to bloom. It is a catchy song with purposefully wonky Italo piano backings whose down-spiraling seven notes remind me of the Eurodance phase in the first half of the 90’s. In any way, they bring in the tiniest glimpse of a Latin feeling that is almost washed away by tropical flutes, glowing organ sweeps and Xanadu-esque xylophone drops. The song is pruned of any distracting curlicues, laying wide open in front of the listener, showing that even stripped-down – and due to the album title, I am carefully choosing this very term stripped-down – Exotica songs without bird cries, field recordings or startling remnants of jam sessions work marvelously well … in fact so well, that the song was reinterpreted in sped-up versions by both Waitiki on their 2006 album Charred Mammal Flesh and by this band’s latest incarnation The Waitiki 7 on 2010’s New Sounds Of Exotica. What I have written in this review still applies here: "Once neo-Exotica bands start to reinterpret their post-modern compositions, something must go splendidly right in our times!"


While Bwana Banana presents a positively kitschy Honky-Tonk jungle Tango atmosphere with high-plasticity djembe beats, distant animal noises, a rustic six-note backing melody on a warped but coruscating synthesizer and the repetition of a tense cascading xylophone theme complete with polyphonous flute streams, The Other Side Of The Moon sees the return of Hai Jung Aholelei who already lent her soothing voice to two songs of Don Tiki’s debut. Now a full bass-slapping member of the tribe, she brings this airy Bossa Nova to life. What’s happening in the background, though, is of equal importance due to the change of style: galactic synth beams tremble and howl in the background, providing a harsh and icy Space-Age vista that is counter-attacked by Boulo’s harp strings, jazzy piano sprinkles and acoustic guitar accompaniments. If you are a fan of Lisa Ono, you won’t believe your ears, as this song could have been a pitch-perfect addendum to Mrs. Ono’s exotic Bossa Hula Nova album of 2001 … minus the welcome quirkiness of the spacey synth washes.


Coming up next is the aforementioned Wet Cave, and it is my personal favorite, meaning that I acknowledge each and everything the band has done over the years, but finding myself permanently drawn to this ambiguously titled work of art. Having listened to it over a hundred times, I am still in awe: comprising a field recording of echoey drips, a reverie-like vibraphone-laden, flute-traversed bongo rhythm, sunset-evoking piano chords and their ascending parts on a sizzling-hot organ, the band interweaves a short organ-fueled Mambo section that is followed by effervescent flute melodies. This song is perfectly depicted by fine artist Moritz R on the front cover, although his painting of 1996 precedes the album. The mellow mélange is rounded off with a field recording of splashy water and chirping birds. An unbelievably dreamy track, yet upbeat enough to keep the pulse going.


The last five tracks are even exotic by Exotica standards, as the styles change rapidly and unforeseeably. With the exception of one song, the rest moves into strange but melodious territories, showing the imagination of the producers … and then some! Whoever comes up with the track names, whether it’s Lloyd Kandell or Kit Ebersbach or the whole tribe, he shows great taste. Pinakbet, incidentally a name of a fish dish originating from the Philippines, delivers a great continuation of the Wet Cave theme, although it’s altered enough to be only slightly similar at the end of the day. Soothing flutes, the punchiest classic and exotic drums on the whole album and eupeptic dish-worshipping vocals by Imelda plus backing vocals by Ben Vegas make this a smoothly latinized composition. El Producto marries lift music with both a waiting room atmosphere and Polynesian glitz. A care-free flute melody and scintillating vibraphone notes play along to a related organ intermixture and related auroral streams. It’s a mercurial track that is less jumpy as expected, but surprises the listener all the time with new bridges and instrumental changes.


While Sweet And Sour is a rendition of a composition by Nelson Hiu that is surprisingly melancholic but played mostly in major with electric piano swirls, a rhythmic shuffle motif, intimate flute accompaniments and last but not least Hai Liu’s yearning voice, Axolotl brings back the Yma Sumac-esque dusky pompousness in the beginning which is perfectly adapted by an opera-worthy performance by Lana Werner. However, soon enough the song morphs into a Bwana Banana-resembling Rockabilly weirdness sans guitars, but with gleaming harpsichord stabs, shaker intermissions, and warbled flutes. This is possibly the strangest song the band ever came up with, and I have to admit that it doesn’t cater to my preferred Exotica style, but it is a positively weird gem, which is, in the end, outshone by the similarly brusque show tune That Hypnotizing Man which finds Delmar DeWilde back on the mic, this time with the Hyp-No-Teasers Teresa Bright, Lana Warner and Rachel Gonzales. The rapid drums, xylophone sprinkles and the theremin-esque Space Age B-Movie intermission make this yet another unexpected inclusion – or rather conclusion – that serves as a wonderful contrastive element to the resplendent lushness of the majority the album’s material.


That's one mighty fine Skinny Dip that the band delivers. Fueled by exotic percussion, terrific melodies that are glorious Pop tracks but covered in a thicket of exotic extravaganza, and superb vocal performances, this album continues the varied and colorful style the band established with their 1997 debut. The mood is dreamy, the keys and chords are sparkling and the production quality is high, even though there are deliberate traces of quirkiness, the Italo pianos for instance that were already featured on the debut.


My top choice apart from the neo-Exotica hymn The Natives Are Restless remains Wet Cave. Its faux-Polynesian style, the dreamy flute and the organ interludes are fantastic and let me come back to this track very often. It's still not clear to me why it is exactly this track that attracts me so much, for its ingredients are scattered and heavily in use throughout the album. I suppose its the entanglement of the melodies with the easy going approach or the track title that seems to link back to the artwork of Moritz R. You may find this particular track as good as anything else on the album, and that's fine with me, for Skinny Dip With Don Tiki is a successful album that was already unique when it came out at the end of 2001, but has grown in importance and recognition over the years. Exotica fans will dig the first two thirds of the album, while lovers of a more experimental approach with slightly revved up percussion and definitely more complex melodies will dig the latter tracks. All in all, my favorite Don Tiki album. And yes, sentimental and nostalgic reasons might play a big role in my perception as well.


Further reading:

The band's Twitter handle is @DonTikiTribe.


Ambient Review 096: Don Tiki – Skinny Dip With Don Tiki (2001). Originally published on Jul. 21, 2012 at