Walk by the corner of 14th and U streets NW on a weekend night, and you'll hear bubbly, joyful dance music blasting out of a new nightclub called Tropicalia. What makes this basement bar stand out from other recent arrivals in the neighborhood is that several times a week, the sounds drawing crowds onto the dance floor come from musicians instead of a DJ.
It's easy to understand why bars shy away from live music: It's expensive to install a stage, lights and a sound system, let alone pay a group of musicians, when a DJ can do it all on a laptop for less.
But Tropicalia, which opened Labor Day weekend, bucks that trend, with multiple bands performing every week. "We're very supportive of live music," says Jim Thomson, who books Afropop, soul and Latin groups for Tropicalia. "I want people to randomly pop into the club, dance and hear something that blows their mind. That makes me happy."
Tropicalia's calendar features wide-ranging musical acts, with 10 to 15 performances every month and DJs spinning on other nights. "Diversity is our mission statement," Thomson says, and it's a charge he takes seriously. The bands that take to the low stage in this dimly lit club vary musically and spiritually: You might hear raw soul from Chicago, a Brazilian samba band, a New Orleans brass band or high-energy bubu from Sierra Leone.
During a recent concert by Samba Do Aviao, some couples take advantage of the dance floor to perform expert samba steps, and others just groove as the spirit moves them. The free shows make it easy for curious music lovers to check out an unfamiliar act.
It's also about expanding the idea of what, exactly, constitutes dance music. Traditional Sierra Leonean musician Sorie Kondi, who performed at the club earlier this month, "is something you might see at the Folklife Festival or at the Kennedy Center," Thomson says. "But if you put that music in more of a club setting when the lights are dim, people feel a little looser, and they respond differently."
-- Fritz Hahn (Oct. 26, 2012)