Music rattles the rafters at ‘Go-Go Swing’ exhibit in D.C.

August 18, 2013

Partygoers and musicmakers at the opening of the “Go-Go Swing: Washington, D.C.’s Unstoppable Beat” exhibit were so enthusiastic Friday evening that they seemed about ready to bring down the roof.

Some attendees, in fact, had the plaster pieces to prove it.

The crowd, mostly dressed in all white, showed up at the the 200 I Street Gallery in Southeast Washington for the multimedia exhibition celebrating go-go, Washington’s homegrown art form. The exhibit — reflecting the vision of resident curator Zoma Wallace — featured art, memorabilia and video of go-go’s creators, fans and history.

“This is a really great night,” Rare Essence guitarist Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson said of the event, which was sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. “I never thought that go-go would be honored in this fashion. We’re excited to be a part of it.”

A huge Rare Essence stage-set sign took up an entire wall of the exhibit space. Inside a glass case rested a guitar that belonged to the Godfather of Go-Go, the late Chuck Brown.

Wallace organized the exhibition in three tiers: The first tier represented the people of go-go, the second tier was dedicated to the music and the third, the dance. Photos from Thomas Sayers Ellis’s 2004 book of poems, “The Maverick Room,” were captioned with quotes from his poems — or, as Ellis calls them, “Crank Shaped Notes.”

Posters from Globe Poster Printing were along one wall. They were featured in a Corcoran College of Art and Design exhibition in the spring, but seeing them here, in an exhibit organized by the District, offers a different context. It feels as though the District is finally validating the music that has been pushed farther out of the city limits.

Painter Demont Pinder, who created two murals featured in the show, thought the exhibit showed that “go-go isn’t some side music. It’s actually a culture.”

Some guests discussed the recent news that there won’t be an amphitheater at the new memorial park named for the godfather himself. (The park’s groundbreaking is Thursday.) After Brown died last year, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) introduced legislation to turn a portion of what was Langdon Park in Northeast into Chuck Brown Park. He had to contend with some nearby residents who feared that a go-go performance venue would attract the “wrong element,” said Gray — the kind of barely coded language often used by those who hear go-go and think of club violence.

The exhibit continued to heat up to a conga beat. Sounds of percussion tore through the audience in a way that only a Southern marching band’s drum line can match. The Black Alley began by playing its version of Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna” to build excitement, and then segued into its song “Ghetto Acapella.” Lead vocalist Kacey Williams was typically charismatic as she sang about gentrification and D.C.’s changing landscape.

Next up was a showcase of what go-go does best: sample and remix the most random of songs, morphing them into something the audience can rock to.

Suddenly, there was a yelp and a scream — and a crash, of sorts. The music stopped, and much of the crowd pointed at the ceiling. A few of the light fixtures were swinging dangerously, and plaster had crumbled to the floor — apparently unable to withstand the bass.

As security guards ordered the crowd to file out, photos were snapped, and some women pulled plaster from their hair.

The audio and technology workers tried to prevent the ceiling bits from damaging equipment. One guest joked that they should just bring the equipment out front and keep the party going.

Then, the fire trucks arrived.

Many partygoers seemed to be disappointed that things ended just when they were cranking up. But because it was a go-go concert, they still had their standard “let-out,” when the crowd hangs outside, not wanting to let the night go.

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