Call it exotica or tiki twang, but the Manakooras play tropical instro that evokes visions of dreamy Pacific islands. Led by steel guitarist Kane Manakoora, the act features Tiki Mo on Fender Bass VI and the Grand Foobah on guitar and ukulele, creating a three-way attack heard on the album Jungle of Steel. VG found the Manakooras sipping mai tai cocktails on the beach, happy to share secrets of their surfy sound.
Tell us about the genre called “exotica.”
Kane: It’s a 1950s and ’60s mix of light classical and small-jazz combos, and a whole range of instrumental-rock artists who did their own versions of exotica-style songs. That approach influenced us to use three percussionists on Jungle of Steel.
How did your sound evolve?
Kane: I got interested in Hawaiian music at the same time I started listening to surf music when living in South Florida in 1995. I never really dug into learning the steel until I quit the Aqualads in 2017. I later started to notice a surf connection and began to search for all the Hawaiian steel I could find within surf and instro music. To me, it’s a match made in paradise.
How do you keep the low-end uncluttered using both Fender Bass VI and a four-string bass?
Tiki Mo: The VI really has some intriguing melodic and percussive qualities. Doubling a reverb-drenched, palm-muted sound over the bass line, like on “Machete’s Kiss,” produces a spooky/percussive mood. It’s a pretty versatile instrument.
Grand Foobah: There’s a very distinct attack to the VI when used for a lead line. You hear that timbre on a lot of the old spaghetti-western soundtracks. The key is to blend the bridge and the neck pickups to get the warmth and punch in one pluck, usually close to the bridge. Combine that with a drippy reverb and it stands out from the traditional bass in a big way.
The combination of vocals, twangy guitars, and drums seems essential, as on “Chant of the Moon.”
Kane: Covering an exotica standard involves applying a sort of replacement strategy. Steel can cover vibes, strings, and horns easily. Ukulele is a great replacement for pizzicato strings, while the palm-muted Bass VI accents drum parts. On “Chant,” we knew we needed a female vocal to capture the spirit of the song, so Foobah invited his sister to do the vocal parts, and she did a beautiful job.
Which guitars, amps, and pedals do you use on the album?
Kane: My main steel is a ’52 Fender Deluxe D8 triple-neck with a fourth leg added for stability, since I play it standing up. For guitars I have a Fiesta Red ’65 Mustang. For amps, I set up a ’65 Dual Showman with a 2×15 cab, a ’65 Bandmaster with a 2×12, and some Bogen PA heads converted to guitar amps by Al Forbes.
Do you use digital reverb or actual tanks?
Kane: We only use reverb tanks – or we’d be banished from the surf community! I have a reissue Fender tank and a ’70s solid-state Fender. Lately, everyone has been using SurfyBear tanks, which are fast becoming the surf guitarist’s choice due to their portability, flexibility, and amazing, drippy sound.
Foobah: I’ve used a Guyatone tank for many years. It can go anywhere from a light, roomy reverb to totally whacked-out spacey springs. Lately, I’ve also been using the SurfyBear, which hits the sweet spot pretty squarely.
Which surf and instro guitarists were your influences?
Kane: We’re all huge fans of the first wave players that made the genre what it is – Dick Dale, Jim Messina, The Astronauts, Chantays, and Atlantics. I’ve always had a place in my heart for Duane Eddy. He’s one of those understated players and inspired amazing guitarists like James Calvin Wilsey, who is one of my favorite instro guitarists.
Foobah: I have to add Rick Miller from Southern Culture on the Skids. He’s the greatest surf player in a “not really surf but kinda” band. His tone, especially live, is so good.
Tiki Mo: Where do I start? Dick Dale, of course, plus the Ventures, Rick Miller, Ivan Pongracic, Oleg Gitarkin, and Richie Allen. Probably my favorite surf record of all time is 1964’s “Dracula’s Deuce” by the Ghouls.
The Manakooras are deeply influenced by TV and movies. What’s with the Hollywood connection?
Kane: I think Hollywood was responsible for that desire of the exotic in American pop culture. In the ’40s you had Dorothy Lamour accompanied by Dick McIntire on “Moon of Manakoora,” and Sam Koki doing “Paradise Isle.” Hollywood has always been very close to exotica, especially with detective shows such as “Hawaiian Eye” during the JFK years. I’d say if the Manakooras could live inside a TV show, it would be “Hawaiian Eye.
This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.