One lover of ukuleles keeps the torch lit for Tiki-loving locals
In 1966, when local entrepreneur Pat Baron was an impressionable young lad, his surfer uncle gave Baron’s father a three-foot stone Tiki (an image of a Polynesian god). “My dad stuck it out next to our playhouse when I was a kid,” Baron recalls. “It was always there under the tree. It was one of those both alluring and frightening things, because here was this stone idol.”
Apparently the Tiki’s presence had a lasting effect on Baron, who now goes by Tiki King (tikiking.com). You can recognize Tiki King by his Hawaiian shirt and his fez, the latter of which is emblazoned with an imposing-looking Tiki and the initials TK. Even at events like the Anaheim, Calif.-based music product trade show known as NAMM, Baron’s colorful appearance demands attention. “There’s people dressed head-to-toe in zippers and leather, there’s girls wearing patent leather nurse outfits and there are people like Slash and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a fez,” he laughs. “Here in this Mecca of alternative extreme, where they have guitars shaped like machine guns, I can make heads turn just by doing my thing.”
Baron, who sang in a local punk band called No Excuse in the early ’80s, now plays ukulele in the band Tiki King and the Idol Pleasures. An avid uke player since 1999, he has just opened Tiki King’s Ukuleles of Felton (6235 Highway 9). Along with Baron’s own ukes, which are generally mahogany with spruce tops, the shop boasts instruments by local luthiers Tony Graziano, Howard Rugg, Bob Bailey and Jake Maclay. Also on hand is a wealth of ukulele music CDs, Tiki jewelry, keychains, pins, T-shirts, fridge magnets, wooden purses and other knickknacks, as well as Baron’s original Tiki-related art. Baron may eventually expand the business to include a Tiki bar.
Baron, 47, has been selling his goods online for the past 15 years for supplemental income, but after being laid off from his position as product specialist at Plantronics two years ago, he decided to take things to the next level. Fittingly, it was local performer/musical archivist/guitar repairman Ukulele Dick who tipped him off to the availability of the Felton rental space.
The opening of the shop is timely indeed: National ukulele sales are on the rise, and an ever-growing number of locals are picking up the instrument (it’s typical for more than 200 people to show up to the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz’s monthly gathering at Bocci’s Cellar [ukuleleclub.com], and local ukulele group Sons of the Beach’s weekly meetings on the beach behind The Crow’s Nest [sonsofthebeach-santacruz.com/] have been known to draw almost 65 participants). Public support for Tiki King’s Ukuleles has been overwhelming since the store’s grand opening on Saturday, Dec. 18. Baron’s wife Julie, the store’s bookkeeper and organizer, says she and her husband have been blown away by the community’s response. “I don’t want to be schmaltzy, but it kind of renews your faith in humanity to see such positive response in such dark times,” she offers. “You kind of get worn down by the news—I mean, you can’t see the positive out there, but it is out there. The news doesn’t want to report that stuff, unfortunately, but it’s great to experience.”
Good Times: What does Tiki mean to you?
Tiki King: The Tiki culture is a strange thing, because it comes from a religion from the Hawaiian Islands and Polynesia, but that religion was destroyed before they had a written history. So not many people actually even know what it really meant. And a lot of the gods were not good or evil. Westerners have this whole good-or-evil [mentality]. It was more like the eastern, where you have The Destroyer, but The Destroyer isn’t hurting; it’s changing. You might have a Hawaiian god of war and bountiful harvest, or the god of canoe making and defeating your enemy. But my perspective is more the ’40s- and ’50s-era revival that took place here [in the U.S.] with the Tiki bars and the Tiki mugs …
Julie Baron: GIs were returning home from the war, and Hawaii was becoming our 50th state. It was a resurgence of Hawaiian culture.
TK: With an American excessive-cocktail take on it. All these bars were popping up and going, “Well, this would be cool. Let’s do it all in bamboo, and we’ll serve tropical drinks.” That bred this huge industry of chachkis, and once we got to the ’60s, all the collections of the parents went to the kids and to Goodwill. Most of it just languished or was in storage spaces or garages until people finally got rid of it. And then it fell into the hands of people like me: “Check that out—it’s an Easter Island head, but it’s a glass!” So I started collecting all this stuff: “This is awesome! It’s a Tiki, but it’s a cocktail glass!” And of course, back then it was a quarter, so you could have this huge collection with almost no investment. And now there’s actually a huge Tiki underground scene. There’s artists who are making mugs that go from $300 to $500 apiece. Which is kind of weird, because when it started, most of us got into it because it was all this castoff stuff.
JB: Yeah. They’d find Hawaiian shirts at the Goodwill. You could dress with some flair and not spend a lot of money.
TK: But I think also, people see a Tiki, and they think, “OK, tropical drinks, Tiki bar, backyard, barbecue … we’re having a good time.” It takes you away from whatever you’re having to deal with and puts you in a place where it’s always going to be dusk, and you can spend the rest of your time just hanging out and having drinks with your friends.
For some people, Tiki carries ominous connotations. Any stories to share there?
TK: Back when I was a Vespa mechanic, I had Mondays off. On a Sunday night, we were watching this pseudo-serious documentary about The Brady Bunch. We started recording it, and for a couple seconds, they showed Peter wearing a Tiki in the Hawaii episode. So I thought, “I’m going to make that Tiki.” The next day was my day off. This was pre-DVD, so I just sat there rewinding and playing, rewinding and playing on the VCR, and sketching. I got it mostly sketched out, and I went to pick [Julie] up from work. We came back and went to the store. We come out, and we’ve got a flat tire. Minor inconvenience. The next Monday, I finished the sketch and started sketching it out on a chunk of wood. That night, we’re going through the tenderloin in San Francisco, and I ran out of gas … which is almost impossible, because on a Vespa, you have a half a tank of reserve. I had to push my scooter three blocks to the nearest gas station with all sorts of nasty, awful things going on in a terrible part of town. So, I’m pushing the scooter and thinking, “Man, I’ve pissed off the gods or something. I’m carving the Brady Bunch Tiki—it’s taboo! Maybe I shouldn’t do it.” So I skipped a week, and one day at work, it was very slow, so I thought, “I’m gonna work on my Tiki.” I took out the piece of wood and the drawing, took an X-Acto knife and shaved off a piece, and my boss screamed in the other room. As I get to the door, a wall of water was coming in. Within minutes, our shop is two feet in mud water. And right in front of the shop, there’s this geyser of bricks and water coming up out of the street. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of old vintage repair manuals and ephemera were destroyed, and the all-iron parts were all wet and muddy; the engines were filled with silt … So the next day, we’re squeegee-ing mud out the door, and [my coworkers] were like, “So, every time you did something with the Tiki, something progressively worse happened? You’ve got to get rid of it!” So we went out and burned the drawing. The ashes went into the water. We took the wood and threw it in. This guy comes up and says, “So how much did you lose?” “We don’t know. $10,000? $20,000?” He goes, “Well, I’m from the City, and I’m going to be reimbursing you for everything you’ve lost … and I mean everything: the clothes that were ruined, the office furniture—anything. We’re also going to pay to have your shop redone and take care of all the water damage.” So, I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but I said, “I’m not gonna make that Tiki!” And the funny thing is, there was a guy who tried to contract me to do it, and I said no. I told him the whole story, and he said, “Well, I don’t believe any of that. I know someone else who will do it.” They did, and their partnership went bad. The other guy went off on his own and started making ’em, and he ended up getting sued for copyright infringement! [Laughs.]
Tell me about your approach to building ukuleles.
TK: There’s people who build by science, and there’s people who build sort of by art. There’s some website [ukuleles.com/LBLBook/TOC.html] that’s people who are physics majors. When they talk about minute amounts of deflection, differences in different woods, all these dissertations on the tonal qualities of finishes and more minutia than most people are interested in. And in Hawaii, Kamaka [kamakahawaii.com] has some people who are deaf, and they tap the wood and feel the resonance, and that’s how they test their tops. For me, when I build, it’s more that I know when it’s right. Somebody will go, “What was your measure on this?” and I’ll go, [shrugs, then gestures toward an instrument on the wall:] “This much!” There are some basic things: Scale length when you’re doing frets—there’s math to that. But things like the action of the bridge or the nut, or the overall size and shape of the body—those are all things that I do based on what feels right when I’m doing it.
The idea of the ukulele as a “toy” instrument seems to be fading away.
TK: It’s interesting, because this is the first time in history that it’s actually been treated as a musical instrument rather than a novelty. I mean, it started in the teens and ’20s, and it was a novelty then because it was from Hawaii. It was a new thing, and it was exotic. People didn’t really care—they learned one song, and that was kind of their little novelty act for when they went to parties. And then in the Depression era, Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville and that whole thing, it was still more for the amusement of it; there weren’t really people doing concertos on the ukulele. Then, in the ’50s, you could buy the TV Pal ukulele, and your kids could sit in front of the TV on Saturday night and play along with Arthur Godfrey. In the ’60s and ’70s, there was Tiny Tim, and once again it was a big novelty thing. And it pretty much stayed that way until the mid-’90s, when people started picking it up again. And eventually there was a documentary called Rock That Uke, which was made by a guy who noticed that a lot of ex-punk rockers were now picking up ukulele and doing this whole new thing on it. And I think that’s when people went, “OK, maybe it’s not just a novelty. Maybe we can push it further.” And now we’ve gotten to the point where there are actually people writing concertos that are based on the ukulele! There’s a guy named James Hill out of Canada [ukulelejames.com/] who’s phenomenal. He’ll play something and then show you, “Here’s the roots that I’m playing, here’s the bass part that I’m also playing, here’s the lead part and here’s the rhythm that I’m tapping on the soundboard.” ’Cause it sounds like a whole band.
To what else do you attribute the ukulele revival we’ve seen in recent years?
TK: It’s interesting that during the Depression, one of the things that got Martin guitars through was ukulele sales. I think it’s because it’s so accessible, and it makes people happy. There’s something about ukuleles. My wife says they’re like puppies: They’re cuddly and cute. It’s not this big commitment, where if you get a guitar, you have to learn to play it well enough that you can impress people. You can pull [a ukulele] out, and if you can stumble through it, [people will say,] “Oh, yeah! All right!” Some people have taken the martial arts philosophy of always wearing a white belt. Some people are like, “No, I will be a black belt. I want to master it,” and other people say, “I only want to learn, and I just want to continue getting better. I will never master it, because there’s always something new.”