D.C. exhibit highlights pioneers of the go-go scene

August 3, 2011

Thomas Sayers Ellis calmly discussed the final details of his new exhibit before he abruptly stopped and invited an unsuspecting male teenager into the art gallery for a preview.

The teen cautiously entered the gallery and looked at the dozens of framed photographs mounted neatly on the walls.

“What do you see?” Ellis asked.

“Music,” the teen said with a puzzled look on his face.

“What kind of music?”

“Go-go music. Old go-go music,” the teen answered.

Most fans of go-go music are used to seeing their favorite bands on stage right in front of them. Ellis will present some of the pioneers of the go-go scene in a new way.

“(Un)Lock It: The Percussive People in the Go-Go Pocket” is a collection of images captured on film featuring artists and fans of the musical genre spanning the last four years. The exhibit will open at 6 p.m. Friday at The Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 2208 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.

Go-go music is the District’s native sound, gaining popularity in the mid-1970s. The music is often described as a mixture of funk with percussive African and Latin rhythms.

“No one knows what go-go looks like,” Ellis said in a telephone interview. “If it’s hidden, then it can disappear. I love the percussive grammar that is the go-go pocket.”

The exhibit has more than 30 framed photographs of go-go luminaries, including Chuck Brown, James “Funk” Thomas, Anthony “Little Benny” Harley, Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliot and Anwan “Big G” Glover.

Most of the pictures were printed from black-and-white film and highlight the musicians in their element: on stage. There are also some color photographs.

Ellis, 48, a D.C. native who played percussion in go-go bands while at Dunbar High School before heading to college, said he began taking pictures in the mid-1980s and developed a rapport with several bands.

Those relationships allowed him almost unfettered onstage and backstage access at concerts. Tight closeups of some performers are a few of the more notable images in the collection.

“I try to make the band feel like I’m a part of what they’re doing,” said Ellis, an assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y. “I want the intimacy.”

Some pictures highlight the audience. More than 50 photographs will be placed on the “Roll Call Wall.” The roll call is a key portion of a go-go show, when the band calls out a person or neighborhood to know who is in attendance.

Ellis said people who attend the exhibit and see themselves in a photograph along the wall can take the picture home. “If you see yourself, take yourself,” he said.

Five fluorescent-hued posters from Globe Poster Printing in Baltimore will be on display. The posters advertise concerts at once popular go-go venues, such as Wilmer’s Park in Prince George’s County and Chery’s in Southwest.

“They’re considered high street art now,” Ellis said.

Christopher “Kip” Lornell, a professor at George Washington University who wrote “The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop,” said Ellis’s photographs add credibility to the genre’s culture.

“It’s one thing to describe the Black Hole, it’s another thing to have a photo and see what it looks like,” Lornell said of the popular go-go spot in Northwest, which went through several name changes before closing in the mid-1990s.

Lornell said Ellis appears to be on his own in capturing candid images of go-go musicians and their fans.

“Individuals have taken photographs here and there. There hasn’t been anyone who has chronicled the go-go scene in a visual way. That’s something Thomas has done consciously in a way that no one has,” he said.

Ellis hopes others will follow. He said he encourages young photographers to document bands such as TCB and UCB and up-and-coming groups.

“This is the first show. One day, it won’t be the [go-go] pioneers. It will be like all the young people. It’s up to the young photographers to do their thing,” he said.

“(Un)lock it: The Percussive People in the Go-Go Pocket” runs from Friday through Oct. 7 at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 2208 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. The gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. For information, call 202-365-8392.

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