Sowing the Seeds of Jah

Thanks to Corbett Harvey Bowers I, reggae has a home in San Francisco

Looking around at "Club Dread"'s 10-year anniversary party at Studio Z last month, it was easy to tell why Jamaican dancehall has taken so long to seep into the American pop-music groundwater: In one corner, a woman with her hair wrapped high above her forehead cooked curried rice, patties, and other pungent Caribbean fare; elsewhere a few of those Rasta vendor guys, who never seem to sell anything but nonetheless are as ubiquitous at reggae shows as cases of Red Stripe, stood behind tables piled carefully with Haile Selassie buttons, Bob Marley flags, and lion of Judah belt buckles; at the bar, an older dread with a long beard sat looking like Ethiopian royalty from long ago in his white silk tunic with gold embroidery. A down-home dancehall party like "Club Dread" feels more like a Jamaican cultural parade that's come to a halt than a club night, and to the uninitiated, it seems so Third World, so foreign.

And then there are the lyrics of the songs the DJs play. Jamaica is a Commonwealth country, so the putative language of dancehall is English, but the slang and accents are harder to disentangle than a handful of dreadlocks. Consider the number of pop crazes in the States that have been driven by songs no one can sing along to or even understand -- zero -- and the mainstream's taste, or lack thereof, for music that is so obviously imported from outside cultures. The result of this climate is that dancehall flashes and vanishes every few years -- Shabba Ranks in the late '80s, Shaggy in the mid-'90s, Beanie Man in the late '90s, Sean Paul now -- without leaving much of an American scene persisting in the between-time.

That "Club Dread" could stay afloat for a decade, longer than just about any weekly party in San Francisco, while serving up dancehall on Monday nights of all inauspicious times, is a testament to the determination of one man, the club's founder, Corbett Harvey Bowers I. And it's not just that he's survived. He's managed to incubate an entire reggae community that is now really starting to bloom.

Bowers and Sizzla show off their 
matching beards at "Club Dread."
Diane "Livon" Adam
Bowers and Sizzla show off their matching beards at "Club Dread."

"Surely 'Club Dread' was the beginning of all of what you see today -- 'Mission Rock,' 'Dub Mission,' and all of these other reggae parties," says Steffen Franz, owner of the local dancehall label Positive Sound Massive and one of the original "Club Dread" resident selectors. "To do a weekly or monthly in this town is hard as it is, and to keep one going that serves such a small niche is pretty amazing. Thanks to Corbett, the scene is primed now -- it's grown tenfold in the 10 years 'Club Dread' has been going, and that growth has really only come in the past few years."

What's more is that in the past six months, dancehall has started to show signs that it might be a lasting fixture in San Francisco. In October, Javier Ibarra, one of the second generation of DJs who cut their teeth at "Club Dread," opened the city's first and only reggae specialty record store, Wisdom Records. And Michael Ohonba, a friend of Bowers, recently turned the Indian restaurant Ganesh into an all reggae and world music venue, something else the city was sorely missing.

In getting to this point of dancehall stability, though, Bowers has seen his share of hard times. Last month's birthday party might have felt like a tranquil island paradise, but much of "Club Dread"'s run has been one storm after another.

"How did 'Club Dread' succeed for so long? It's just the magic of Corbett," says Ibarra. "He refuses to give up. He's gone through a lot of stuff with his club and seen a lot of things change, but you can always depend on him to do it each week."

Only in San Francisco would dancehall, which has the most explicitly homophobic strain running through it of any music on Earth, find its home at the Endup, one of the most explicitly homosexual nightclubs in the city. In the '80s, Bowers had been putting on roots reggae and dancehall events at the now-defunct Firehouse, parties that became quite trendy, with people showing up in limos. But when the owner suddenly sold the venue, Bowers had to relocate. In 1994, a friend from the Firehouse took a job as bar manager at the Endup and suggested Bowers start a weekly party there.

"I said, 'What am I going to do with a gay bar for my dancehall night?'" Bowers remembers. "But I came to check it out, and as soon as I saw the patio, I thought, 'Wow, this is the spot.' Now all I had to do was convince people to come."

"Club Dread" was born, probably the only dancehall party in the world started at a club with a name that celebrates sodomy. Bowers says some of his patrons were hesitant at first, but with a rotating roster of the best reggae DJs in the bay, his Monday night was soon outselling the club's Saturday party. And he was careful not to offend the Endup's regular customers, banning his DJs from playing any of dancehall's infamous gay-bashing tunes.

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