The tiny room swims in darkness, save for some candles decorating the wobbly wood tables and the rotating globe that splashes it prisms over the dance floor. Mirrors line one wall, making subtle irony of the small aquarium in the corner, where several goldfish swish lazily round and round.
Another kind of light emanates from a mural which takes up most of the opposite wall, depicting a coastal road at midday populated by a couple of dark-skinned fisherman. The surf licks playfully against the strand, seemingly as sensual and steady as the gentle reggae rhythm that surges continuously from the turntable above the floor.
This is a bar, all right, but to the first-time visitor, the simple appointments and homey ambiance lend a feeling of having unwittingly walked into the living room of some Caribbean expatriot. Located on Georgia Avenue, it's called the Turntable, after the elevated wellspring that emits a constant stream of reggae, calypso and other thirdworld sounds. The idea here is not so much to drink (although colorful and sometimes deadly concoctions are available at the hutlike bar in the back) as to drink in the crooked beat traveling its serpentine route from the floorboards to the brain.
Like other local reggae havens, the Turntable has gone unnoticed by the general population, like some island Eden unexploited by commerce. Most of the patrons of these bars are members of a growing community of Jamaicans and Trinidadians seeking political, religious and ecnomic refuge in the states -- a community numbering upwards of 3,000, by most accounts.
But anyone with a love for "roots riddim," as the regulars call it, is welcome.
For music that is so widely misunderstood and hard to market, reggae is fast pervading every other Western style. Primitive in structure yet maddeningly difficult to play, exotically alien but containing the very essence of rhythm and blues, it has managed to pique the musical curiosity of artists as stylistically diverse as Linda Ronstadt and the Clash.
Associated primarily with the Jamaican religion of Rastafarianism, reggae actually took its beginnings from the static-soaked radio transmissions that reached the island from New Orleans jazz and swing stations; mingled with the African-tinged rhythms of the Caribbean, it took on a life all of its own, and is now one of Jamaica's greatest resources, as well as a genre accepted worldwide.
Although reggae has experienced tidal surges of popularity and disfavor over the years, its remarkable staying power stems from the fact that it appeals to anyone who places the primal sensuality of bass-heavy rhythm ahead of whatever message the lyrics contain. "Whether you're white or black, it's the boogie that counts," says Tom Terrell, who hosted Washington's first reggae radio show in 1978 while a student at Howard University. "And reggae's the boogie."
Honeyboy Martin, a reggae star in his native Jamaica before he moved here and opened a record store, echoes and idea of reggae as racial equalizer. "White people understand the reggae," he says, although he expresses resentment over the music's reputed association with dredlocked, potsmoking wildmen. "I Rasta, too. But reggae is not a matter of the hair; it's a matter of the heart."
Martin, never completely comfortable with his star status, now fronts a nine-piece bank called the Unconquered People, consisting of Americans, Trinidadians and Jamaicans, who perform infrequently around town. "Use to bother me to be leader in the community," he admits, "but now I don't be bothered so much. Is my kicks to play for kids who cannot walk, cannot see, cannot hear."
D.C.'s inspirational reggae potentate, both musical and religious, is unquestionably Ras Michael, also a recording artist. Michael heads a group called the Sons of Negus, and holds weekly Grounations (spiritual jam sessions) in a warehouse in Northeast. He laments the way Rastafarians have been portrayed in the popular press, but is happy for the exposure the music has received.
"Reggae is not music savages," he says in his thick, regal patois. "Reggae is music of culture, music of spirit. Who make the colors? Jah make the colors -- white, brown, black, yellow, pink. So reggae is language of harmony."
Reggae is also language of diversity. Where once it was enough to know names like Bob Marley and the Wailers or Toots and the Maytals, the genre has branched off into so many tributaries that it's almost impossible to keep up with the latest hit, much less the newest technical innovatio. Dub, a producer's art whose American counterpart is rap music, has the current stronghold largely because of its more urban flavor. But earlier forms such as ska, poppa-top and rock steady are still being used by a mind-boggling array of artists who trade off songs and styles like seashells.
Keeping up with what's new in reggae can be as circuitous and elusive as tracing its roots. But this is not, after all, music for diving. One can best absorb its cool, pleasant shock by wading in slowly, and let the rhythm do the rest.