It's a bit like an absurdist take on the setup for one of those jokes that play on ethnic stereotypes:
Four Italians walk into a bar.
"Can I help you?" asks the bartender.
"We're the band," says the one Italian who speaks some English.
"You must be mistaken," says the bartender. "This is a tiki bar. We've got a Hawaiian band tonight."
"Right," responds the English-speaking Italian. "That's us."
Wait. Scratch that.
Actually, it's much more like the premise of a film by those masters of dressing up archetypal human triumph and loss in loopy environments and details, the Coen brothers:
Possibly the only four musicians on Italy's contemporary retro-greaser/rockabilly/ swing/rhythm & blues circuit with an overwhelming passion for post-WWII-era Hawaiian rock 'n' roll tunes somehow find each other. They cast aside their current projects in order to spread their love of the Hawaiian sound. They endure various hardships including crappy jobs, general disinterest and the loss of one kindred soul, only to discover that THERE IS ANOTHER. Near the end of their rope, they discover a bizarre worldwide underground cadre of tiki-lifestyle enthusiasts that, while completely unable to make them rich and famous, at least strengthens their resolve to spend their free time playing the music they love all over the world. But first, they must deliver a motorcycle that operates by reading its driver's thoughts to a Hoboken, N.J., residents who supposedly died decades before.
OK, so that last part really doesn't have anything to do with I Belli di Waikiki. But most of the rest is true.
Completely bored with the rest of the rockabilly and jump-blues resurgence trends captivating a portion of their homeland's hipsters, Paolo Mind, Luky "Kekauna" Linetti, Stefano "Kealoha" Pagotto and a drummer referred to only as Spillo wanted more. They found it in countless late-'50s Island-rock compilations and Elvis flicks. In early 2001, they ditched their other bands (one was reportedly called Peter Roast Beef & The Trippers) to build a shtick the likes of which most pomade-topped European roots-rock scenesters had never encountered. They backed it with tradition and talent.
"We met each other in a nightclub — we love watching nude girls dancing on stage," relates Paolo via e-mail.
(Paolo introduces his replies to my interview questions with a disclaimer stating that 1. he indulges a tendency toward the facetious, and 2. his English isn't so hot. I have kept his quotes as close to the original text as possible, correcting only spelling, verb tense and such. You're free to discern for yourself the accuracy and veracity of his statements, but I will tell you that he managed to use the word "party" about 16 times over the course of answering 10 questions.)
"Me and Luky have had a passion for the Hawaiian music for a long time," Paolo continues, "but we had to convince the other two guys to join us in our project."
Spillo was eventually replaced by current skinsman Renato "Kokoe" Ardizzoni, but I Belli Di Waikiki's approach to creating an engaging hula-rock persona has remained intact from the band's origins. Their style deftly balances a serious love and reverence for the genre with a self-aware sense of humor that sets the tongue somewhere outside the teeth, but short of actually being in the cheek.
Anyone ready to accuse the group of surfing an admittedly brilliant gimmick (they sing in Hawaiian, Italian and English) without the chops and knowledge to back it up should take a listen to their disc Aloha, and kindly shut up. Sonically, the quartet can hang with their heroes, melding traditional instrumentation like ukulele and steel guitar to a dynamic rhythm section of standup bass and drums played with brushes. While I Belli Di Waikiki is perfectly willing to work a good angle, they take the music quite seriously. It's an attitude that's served them well at festival dates, where the band has shared the stage with and earned the respect of bands of wildly varying styles.
"Usually we perform with a lot of bands that play rockabilly music, jive, swing and sometimes even Latin and grunge or ska," writes Paolo. "Most of the time we have a good feeling for each other and it's a great party."
The band hasn't done much touring outside of Italy because of the members' professional lives, but the magic of the Internet has put them in touch with an entire subculture of folks fixated on all things tiki.
"We plug this sort of thing just for fun and because we love this music," says Paolo, "But I'm sure that it's a worldwide thing. Here in Europe, a lot of clubs and festivals have started to get into it, and many people have discovered the incredible Polynesian cultural and musical heritage."
America hosts its share of Pacific Islands-themed festivals as well, not to mention the countless bars, nightclubs and shops dedicated to the aesthetic. And it's that fringe community that's brought I Belli Di Waikiki here for their first U.S. tour. They'll be hitting as much sympathetic turf as possible this time around, but will also be filling dates, guerilla style, at any venue that'll have them. The quartet knows from experience that their engaging amalgam of ability and camp — come on, people, they're an Italian band singing Hawaiian tunes in English — will find the potential converts in any crowd.
"Sometimes people that are not exposed to our style of music ask us 'do you play Latin?' or 'is 'Macarena' in your repertoire?'" says Paolo. "But they sometimes say 'good, guys, now I want to buy a hula skirt for my wife and I want her dancing for me only in that under the Hula moon tonight!'"
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com.