Monday, July 08, 2013

The Oldest Tiki Bar in LA: Tonga Hut - LA Times

First discovered by Captain James Cook in 1773, the tiny Kingdom of Tonga sits amid crystal blue waters in the southern Pacific Ocean. Much closer to home in North Hollywood, the Tonga Hut is a welcoming island in its own right amidt he Valley's summer-heated suburban sprawl.
This month, the Tonga Hut is celebrating 55 years of pineapple garnishes and fire-breathing totems, ensuring its continued status as the oldest operating tiki bar in Los Angeles. And it shows no signs of slowing down.
"Everybody here, whether you are young or old, you all fit together" says co-owner Amy Boylan. "This is a neighborhood bar. Here you'll see people in their 30s talking to people in their 50s. Not every bar has that. You can walk into 100 bars in L.A. and you won't find that."
By striking that balance between throwback and modernity, the Tonga Hut has found longevity in a genre has seen many of its contemporaries disappear. Last March, Rosemead's boisterous mainstay Bahooka closed after 46 years of business. It appeared to be an ominous sign for the tiki scene, but in many respects, tiki still appears to be thriving.
Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room celebrated 50 years of singing birds and thatched roofs last month, outlasting many of the renovations that have overcome the rest of the park. Patron saint of the cocktail umbrella, Don the Beachcomber has had its name resurrected for Orange County's recent beachside temple in Sunset Beach. Even rum, that pillar of every tiki bar menu, has been elevated in status by the recently opened La Caña in downtown Los Angeles while bars such as Manhattan's PKNY are bringing tiki culture into the high-end speak-easy scene.
The owners of the Tonga Hut do not see tiki culture ending any time soon. They even have their eyes set on expanding the brand beyond North Hollywood and toward tiki-friendly Palm Springs.
The tiki craze struck the U.S. following World War II. James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" romanticized the tropical landscape, and the book was transformed into the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway show "South Pacific" two years later. For the next 15 years the craze spread across the country, filling countless closets with Hawaiian shirts in hopes of impressing the lusty women pasted onto the covers of LPs by the likes of Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. It was an irresistibly appealing lifestyle full of consequence-free suntans and potent drinks glowing with unnatural hues.
The Tonga Hut opened at the peak of that craze and has carried the bamboo torch ever since. Although it has had a few additions since opening, the dimly lighted intimate space has all the requirements of any tiki aficionado. A four-tier fountain gently descends behind the bar's illuminated bottles while a shallow pool opposite the bar houses a small, drooling statue. Several snug booths are held up by totem-like pillars rescued from a Playa del Rey apartment complex while a more communal space opens up around a midcentury enamel fireplace in the center. In between, patrons chatter, united in their love of loud fabrics, strummed ukuleles and strong, mysterious libations.
"It's important to remember our past, but it's important to be relevant," explains Boylan. "We're not what you call 'bamboo/palapa tiki.' We're Midcentury Modern tiki. We play in both groups."
Charming bartender Lisa-Marie Burnside has been responsible for filling many of the customers' collectible tiki mugs for the last six years. She can easily whip up a crisp mai tai or a tall Voodoo Juice, playfully splashing rum into shakers and squeezing simple syrup with a casual flair. She even ladles drinks into tiki's greatest contribution to drinking culture: cocktail bowls. A four-person Scorpion bowl forms a communal experience that casually introduces drinkers to the ghosts of tropical-themed evenings of the past by way of an oversized straw.
Understandably, the standard tiki repertoire is second-nature for Burnside, but Boylan is more than happy to see her branch out beyond the Pacific. A small illuminated board behind the bar boasts the new creations she has dropped in alongside the well-worn punches and zombies. Her go-to creation, the Belle Époque, with a smattering of liqueurs, fresh mint and spices, easily slides in among the classics.
"People who truly love what tiki stands for, it's kind of corny, but it's a mind-state," says Boylan. "I think it'll probably go out of fashion like everything else, but tiki has come and gone half a dozen times already.
"What the Hut represents is an aloha spirit, a friendly state of mind," she adds. "It's a special place."

Friday, July 05, 2013

Must-See Long Beach Funk Fest Acts - OC Weekly


The Long Beach Funk Fest has become a great tradition in downtown Long Beach. Over the last four years, immense respect has been paid to the pioneers of funk who essentially laid the groundwork for the wealth of hip-hop and soul that followed in its wake. Without many of these performers, we would be wallowing in a strange, soulless place (Well, at least stranger and soullesser than we got now). This year is no exception to the tradition with a sturdy lineup of bonafide funk greats ready to sweat it out with the masses on Pine Avenue on Saturday. The Funk Fests commitment to preservation of these great sounds should not be taken for granted. And if that isn't enough there will be fire dancers, DJs and fireworks. Here's to many more years.

The Blackbyrds
The Blackbyrds earned their 'y' from recently departed jazz legend Donald Byrd. A mentor and inspiration to the band, they formed forty years ago, applying Dr. Byrd's genre-bending fusion ideas, peaking in 1975 with the million selling "Walking In Rhythm." Their recordings became a go-to source for hip-hop with everyone from De La Soul to Wiz Khalifa sampling their smooth sounds. Members of the group reconvened in 2007 for a pair of albums and have continued to perform since.

Bernie Worrell Orchestra
Keyboardist Bernie Worrell is a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic. That's kind of all that needs to be said. It's a pretty straight line from Worrell's unmistakable keyboard to Dr. Dre's multi-million dollar donation to USC. Without Worrell, albums like the Chronic wouldn't be the same. His whirring, intergalactic sounds defined P-funk. Worrell also lent his sounds to New Wavers like the Talking Heads and Fred Schneider for several years and has been playing nonstop since the early 70s. With a single note, Worrell can be spotted from a mile away.

Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Soulman Charles Wright is a southern California treasure. He proudly waved his Watts roots in the mid 1960s and scored several top ten hits like "Do Your Thing" and "Love Land" but it was "Express Yourself" that became an anthem in 1970. The bopping ebullience is hard to resist and many folks have made use of it. Eazy-E reimagined the tune with NWA in the late 1980s to perhaps even greater recognition. In 50+ years of performing, Wright has employed some of the best (Bobby Womack, James Gadson) and strangest (Captain of Captain & Tenille) and though he is in his early 70s he enthusiastically carries the torch for Watts and decades of soul.

Shuggie Otis
Depending on the track he is playing at the time, Shuggie Otis is a jazzman, blues guitarist or psychedlic soul wizard. Otis made a name for himself as a teenaged guitar slinger passing up offers from the Rolling Stones in order to make a name for himself beyond his father Johnny's legend. He succeeded with the release of three albums including the irrepressibly funky Inspiration Information when he was 21 years-old. And then he went quiet. After a brief attempt at a revival in the early 00s, Otis has returned with greater vigor this year, appearing frequently around Los Angeles and working at solidifying his legacy. He can still make that guitar scream when it needs to.

Joel Harrison - NYC Jazz Record

Joel Harrison
Infinite Possibility
Sunnyside Records

Guitarist Joel Harrison certainly put together a band 
of ringers for his 19-piece jazz orchestra. Flipping 
through his rolodex, he managed to enlist saxophonists 
like Donny McCaslin and Ben Wendel plus trombonists 
Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik and Curtis Fowlkes for a 
recording session last December. Although the 
instrumentation is horn heavy and not too far-flung, 
Harrison displays a great ability to combine sounds for 
a unique take. His guitar is a firm presence but it would 
be hard to pick out the leader on the album without it 
being pointed out. No one instrument stands out. 
Horns, piano, marimbas, guitars and percussion all 
work together. With six extended pieces, Harrison has 
created a cinematic sensation that is lushly compelling.

“Dockery Farms” is a haunting display for the 
trombonists. The band soars dramatically before 
Harrison enters with a screeching slide. He digs into 
the ferocious tune, the title a reference to the home of 
the Delta blues. But he doesn’t really take his guitar in 
an expected straight blues setting, instead shredding 
over the blasting brass with a progressive squeal.

“Remember” pits the band into full orchestral 
mode with a quivering presence, dotting the landscape 
with sporadic rich harmonies and vocalist Liala Biali 
reciting the word “remember” as another voice amid 
the clustered instrumentation.

Harrison rolls out the funk for “The Overwhelming 
Infinity of Possibility”. James Shipp’s marimba sets a 
hypnotic tone off which much of the orchestra builds. 
Higher woodwinds rhythmically pounce as the brass 
flutters to a slow rise. Harrison has an interesting way 
of manipulating his guitar to blend in with individual 
soloists. Ned Rothenberg’s alto gets a static-y hum 
from Harrison’s hovering axe, adding to the tension.

Album closer “Blue Lake Morning” starts as a full-
bodied ballad that slowly picks up steam. McCaslin 
takes a churning solo backed primarily by the rhythm 
section. He dips and weaves with a push from drummer 
Rob Garcia before the rest of the ensemble punctuates 
with dense colors, slowly fading on a dreamy wave of 
flutes and piano.