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Sowing the Seeds of Jah 

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

Wednesday, Apr 14 2004
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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.

"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.

"At the Endup, I told the DJs, 'You can't run any slackness,'" he says. (The dancehall worldview is split between the Rastafarian-oriented conscious school and the testosterone-drenched, sexed-up, violent "slack" side.) "'We're invited into somebody's house, we're their guest. So I want a positive vibe.'" As a result of Bowers' policy and the general progressiveness of the city, San Francisco became a bastion of conscious dancehall, providing a support base for positive artists like Sizzla, before he found love elsewhere (his first gig in the city was at "Dread"), and Rocker-T, a New York-born MC signed to Franz's label who moved to Oakland last year.

Bowers also made sure to have Caribbean food and the trinket and incense dealers on hand, "to always have a little piece of Jamaica in the club," as he puts it. "Club Dread" was a cultural affair, which attracted what Franz describes as the best crowds in San Francisco for its first two years. According to Bowers, members of the 49ers and the Raiders stopped by regularly, and Wesley Snipes came through twice while in town filming movies, once with Robert De Niro in tow. The turnout was so good that the Endup gave Bowers a second night, Wednesdays.

But toward the end of its six-year stint at the Endup, Franz says, "Club Dread" started getting seedy. Slackness was creeping into the DJs' set lists, and the ratio of men to women at one point "was like 80-20 and this weird meat-market vibe took over," Franz recalls. "There were fights, there were arguments, people were [demanding] slack lyrics, and it became a pissing contest between the DJs." Franz ended his residency as the atmosphere became increasingly antagonistic.

"What had happened," Bowers says, "is that it got so popular some of the Hunters Point crowd started coming out, and there'd be a few knuckleheads who'd show up." In response, he hired a security company staffed by a family of 300-pound Samoans. They tightened things down considerably, but one night in 2000, a man who was looking to settle a score with an adversary broke into the club through the exit door. Not finding the person he was looking for, he fired his gun out of frustration and the bullet grazed a 21-year-old clubgoer.

"The police investigation said it wasn't 'Club Dread''s fault because the guy broke in and he was someone who never frequented the club," Bowers explains. Nevertheless, the incident took place during a time when local law enforcement was becoming increasingly intolerant of the thugging and drugging associated with SOMA's nightclub and rave scene. In 2000 the Endup ended "Club Dread"'s run to help ease the pressure.

Wounded, Bowers moved his Monday night to the cramped Covered Wagon Saloon, which his party soon outgrew, and then took it to the Justice League. When that club had its license suspended, he relocated again, this time to Studio Z, "Club Dread"'s current home. Along the way, he's kept things fresh with ideas like his monthly all-female-DJs night and by constantly introducing worthy new talent; Franz says "Club Dread" "has probably helped solidify 90 percent of the reggae DJs playing in the Bay Area today."

And with the ascendance of Jah Yzer, probably the best-known local dancehall DJ and Ibarra's partner in Jah Warrior Shelter HiFi, who picked up the banner for conscious tunes after he moved here from Miami in 1998, the sexual tension largely dissipated and slackness became the minority position. At the anniversary party, dreads in red, gold, and green, younger guys with cornrows and leather jackets, and white collegiate types all swayed on the dance floor with nary a ripple.

Still, the consensus is that "Club Dread" has never regained the glory of its Endup years. "Once it started moving around it wasn't like it used to be," states Ohonba, who's in charge of booking at Ganesh. "When he does special shows, the place is packed, but his regular Monday nights aren't doing so well. I think what happened is, you do a club for so long, you start getting diminishing returns. Now, on Mondays, the Bamboo Hut usually has the best reggae party."

Maybe it's the inevitable changing of the guard or just the ebbing before another surge of activity -- Bowers says he plans to book more high-profile touring artists and relaunch his magazine Reggae Review, which during its heyday served to unify the Bay Area reggae community and attract business to "Club Dread." But ultimately, Bowers says, his goal wasn't to propel his club into ubiquity, but reggae itself.

"People always wanted me to bring 'Club Dread' to the East Bay," he says. Traditionally, Oakland has been much more supportive of dancehall than San Francisco. "But I said, 'You already have something there. I'm trying to develop San Francisco, because this is the spot and there's no regular reggae scene here.'" These days there's a reggae party in town just about every night of the week, and that gives Bowers satisfaction. "San Francisco is a strong dancehall city now. If I had something to do with that, I'd be proud."

He can rest assured. "When it comes to reggae in San Francisco," confirms Jah Yzer, "Corbett is the godfather."

About The Author

Darren Keast

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