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Gallery: The message in Cooper’s shirts

March 2016

As budget travellers and bargain hunters Ms Hibiscus and I always keep an eye open for Hawaiian or Tiki shirts on our travels. This one is a recent buy from Vietnam. We discovered quite a few there but didn't buy many – one shop owner wanted far too much and wouldn't enter into the spirit of negotiation. We are not ‘proper’ collectors as we would never pay vast amounts of money or hunt them out online – some of our first shirts were bought in the flea market in Rome for 1000 Lire many years ago.

The best shirts are the ones people give us of course. This beautiful shirt came from electronic musician, composer and sound artist James Andean. We met a couple of years at the Syros Sound Meeting residency in Greece organised by the talented duo of Danae Stefanou and Yannis Kotsoni. One morning James blew us all away when he appeared in this stunning shirt and when he left he gave us the shirt off his back. Bless the man.

Our wardrobe would not be as full if I had not toured Australia for 23 years. I started playing at Melbourne’s Brunswick Music Festival, directed by John McAuslan, who was the first to actually commission my silent film scores every year. There I discovered Savers, a budget secondhand clothes store and its vast selection of Hawaiian shirts. However one year I realised the new manager was a collector and skimming off the best for himself or online trading. I was however happily able to give Mr McAuslan several (extra large) shirts before this happened.

This is a real Hawaiian silk shirt bought in Hawaii by my partner, continuing a tradition established when we first met of exchanging Hawaiian shirts as presents. She bought it on Oahu and managed to hide it from me for six months until my birthday, and gave it to me at the end of our first three month trip together. It is a copy of a 1936 shirt featuring an Anthuriums flower design.

A spectacular shirt – which, unlike the rest of our collection, my partner claims belongs solely to her – to be shown both front and back. It's a gift from Professor Jay Junker and Hella Kihm, both Oahu residents. Jay is a mine of information on most things Hawaiian including its music, and an authority on American pop music of all styles and periods. He organised my first concert at the Honolulu Academy of Arts where I got to play alongside and with slack key guitar legends Cyril Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana.

A spectacular shirt – which, unlike the rest of our collection, my partner claims belongs solely to her – to be shown both front and back. It's a gift from Professor Jay Junker and Hella Kihm, both Oahu residents. Jay is a mine of information on most things Hawaiian including its music, and an authority on American pop music of all styles and periods. He organised my first concert at the Honolulu Academy of Arts where I got to play alongside and with slack key guitar legends Cyril Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana.

Even the unlikeliest department stores have Hawaiian gems sometimes. One day in London I was perusing the shirt racks of the now defunct C&A during a summer sale. As I made my way around the circular rail I came face to face with my saxophone playing colleague Lol Coxhill doing the same. We had a Recedents concert that evening and both turned up wearing the same brand new shirt. This one.

Travels turn up shirts in the most unlikely places. In a one road town of Sri Lanka we ventured out and passed a market. I jokingly said, “Lets go in, there are bound to be Hawaiian shirts.” Nearly the first table supported a mountain of shirts on a stall manned by some young guys bewildered at our glee as we sorted through them. When we passed the market the next day all the stall holders were wearing Hawaiian shirts and gave us a thumbs up.

I did a residency a couple of years back on Pulau Ubin, a small island between Singapore and Malaysia. One day my musician friends Jordan and Arif from the improv and underground music scene there decided to drive me over a road bridge to Johor in Malaysia to see a night market. After eating some street food they took me to our real destination: a surprising vast shopping area full of Hawaiian shirts for only five or ten dollars. I bought three. My passport still has the stamps of a five hour visit to Malaysia.

A shirt from Fiji. On Tavewa Island we met the artist Charles Van Sandwyk, a real beachcomber who shared our love of the Pacific, and split his year between that island and Canada. There one evening I heard a very large Fijian man with a very small ukulele play Chuck Berry's “Memphis, Tennessee”, which inspired my version on the 1996 Island Songs CD, recorded for the NATO label.

In our local flea market in Rome my partner spotted a bag which seemed full of colourful shirts. She bought it for a few Euro. It turned out to contain several Hawaiian and Tiki shirts from the 1960s, probably used in a film. Some still had laundry tags on them. This is a real Martin Denny style Tiki shirt.

This shirt is from Gowings, a legendary department store in Sydney, Australia which opened in 1863 selling menswear, camping gear and novelty items. It closed down in 2006. The expression ‘Gone to Gowings‘ however entered the Australian dictionary as slang for something œ€deteriorating financially, or for the suffering brought on by a hangover, etc.

This Pineapple print shirt was on the back of a gentleman when I played for the Wagga Space Program in Australia, an organisation that presented experimental music and arts in Wagga Wagga and that eventually mutated into the current Unsound Festival. I spotted the shirt and complimented its owner. When I finished my set the man reappeared with the shirt in a bag, and gave it to me in the true spirit of Aloha, which all Hawaiian shirts represent.

Guitarist, improvisor and Pacific island hopper Mike Cooper gives a guided tour of his colourful set of Hawaiian shirts, collected over the last 40 years with his partner and collaborator Ms Hibiscus, and tells the stories and sounds behind them. Cooper is interviewed by Clive Bell in The Wire 386, and subscribers to The Wire can read that, and hundreds of other reviews, articles and features via the online archive.

Comments

Fabulous shirts Mike! You and Ms Hibiscus have excelled yourselves

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