Shortly after 11 p.m. on a recent Friday night, Zimbabwe’s Bhundu Boys bounced onto the stage at the Music Machine. Their sound--a fusion of reggae and pop--doesn’t make Rick Dees’ weekly Top 40 countdown. But the crowd at the West Los Angeles club was more concerned with the beat than the charts.
One night later, at the Moscow Nights Russian restaurant in Reseda, the Moscow Nights band launched into its repertoire of Russian favorites. Between bites of caviar and sips of vodka, the patrons laughed at lead singer Grisha Dimant, who jokingly referred to the group as the “Siberian Philharmonic.” For this audience, ballads sure beat rock ‘n’ roll.
African on the Westside; Russian in the San Fernando Valley. There is relief for those seeking refuge from the confines of popular music.
But the alternatives are limited. According to booking agents and club owners, most clubs in the Westside and the Valley bypass ethnic music--with the exception of reggae--and offer traditional rock, jazz, folk or country.
“You can go to any club and hear rock ‘n’ roll,” said Will Raabe, owner of the Comeback Inn in Venice, which regularly features music from all over the world. “But there aren’t too many places where you can hear ethnic music, and people should be exposed to that.”
Regular groups at the Comeback Inn include Arco Iris from Argentina; Dusan Bogdanovic from Yugoslavia; Milcho Leviev from Bulgaria, and Huayucaltia, a band whose members come from various parts of South America. Artists from India and Asia are also booked on a regular basis.
Raabe said the musicians mix their native influences with elements of traditional American jazz, which makes for evenings of spontaneous sound.
“The sounds are always so different,” Raabe said. “I think the artists even surprise themselves. And the audience is always surprised.”
The audience can also be a problem; Raabe said little-known ethnic artists require more publicity and legwork than do more traditional acts, yet they rarely fill the restaurant’s 125 seats. To keep ethnic acts on the restaurant’s schedule and compensate for the lower revenue, Raabe said, he must frequently book mainstream performers who are usually bigger draws. All shows range from $3 to $7.
“In the beginning, we had more rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues,” Raabe said of the ‘70s. “We used to have lines waiting outside. It was nice that the money was coming in. But I decided I wanted to run this place as my art project, more than just my business.”
Milt Wilson can relate. Wilson, a booking agent for Bravo Productions in Hollywood, books and promotes acts for the Music Machine. Wilson said he normally spends two to three times more money on publicity for ethnic groups than he does for American rock bands. Ticket prices at the club range from $3 to $10.
“It’s difficult to make money with these groups,” Wilson said. “For me to get 300 to 1,000 people to the Music Machine to see ethnic groups like the Bhundu Boys, I have to literally promote in all of Southern California, from San Diego to Pomona to Riverside. I don’t do that for other groups.”
Jean-Pierre Boccara, owner of Hollywood’s Lhasaland club, said that although his club often features performance art and non-traditional music, he cannot book as many ethnic artists as he would like.
“If I had my way, I would go to Europe to bring in some acts,” Boccara said, “instead of just looking for the new hottest band” in Los Angeles.
“But we’re an entertainment club, and I’d be concerned we wouldn’t draw enough people,” he said.
That concern is apparently shared by many club owners. Wilson said the acts he promotes complain that they can’t play anywhere in Los Angeles but the Music Machine.
Bryan Huttenhower, who searches for artists for A&M; Records, said many club owners believe that hard rock is their best box office bet.
“That’s the big ticket these days,” Huttenhower said. “It’s hard to get people to spend $6 or $7 on music that’s unknown to them. No wonder clubs don’t try to find out.”
Wilson, who specializes in promoting artists from Africa and the Caribbean, said his acts do not seem to appeal to Los Angeles’ black community.
“My audiences are 60% white,” said Wilson, who is white. “It’s a racial thing.”
Blacks “would sooner support a black promoter,” he said. “Some are offended by white promoters making money from black acts.”
Marion Brooks, a black promoter and booking agent for African, Belize and Caribbean acts, said it is difficult for her to reach the black community.
“There’s often no way to differentiate between the various populations, between the ones likely to listen to Belize music or Caribbean,” Brooks said.
She added that concerts are a luxury that many blacks cannot afford.
Nonetheless, Wilson contended that African and other ethnic music will, within a decade, attain the popularity that reggae commands today. The lesser-known forms of Caribbean music, he said, are just faster-paced variations of reggae.
“I remember when radio wouldn’t get within an arm’s length of reggae,” he said. “It was guaranteed not viable in the marketplace. Even promoters thought that. They were wrong. And, likewise, there is no limit for African music.”
Raabe certainly hopes so. He has no plans to interrupt his full schedule of African and other foreign acts.
“Politically speaking, ethnic music brings about the fusion of the cultures,” Raabe said. “The music works as a bridge, opening up the hearts and minds of all people to different cultures where otherwise we might have kept to our preconceived notions.”
What follows is a list of other clubs and restaurants on the Westside and in the Valley area that offer ethnic entertainment:
Des Regans, a Burbank restaurant, features the Des Regans band every Friday and Saturday nights, specializing in Irish ballads and traditional folk music. Periodically, an Irish piper will entertain.
Molly Malone’s, a bar in the Fairfax District, offers the Mulligans, who play Irish ballads and other folk songs Thursday and Saturday nights. Irish music is also presented on Wednesday and Sunday nights, although it is mixed with a lot of American tunes.
Miami Spice, a Cuban restaurant in Marina del Rey, features Latin jazz fusion and Salsa music on weekends. Among its regular entertainers are Bobby Matos and Heritage Ensemble, Bongo Logic, A Go Go Gomez, and percussionist Francisco Aguabella.
Be Bop Records and Fine Art in Reseda seats only 49 people, but occasionally offers various forms of ethnic music. Recently, Merrita Ramos and Mike McClellan performed traditional Hawaiian music. Only 10 people attended the show.
Tempo, an Israeli restaurant in Encino, features Israeli folk singer Gabi Rivan every Thursday night and entertainers from different European countries on other nights.
Candilejas, a Hollywood club, regularly presents Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds. Salsa and Latin/jazz artists such as Tito Puente have performed here.
Chion, an Ethiopian restaurant in Culver City, features live Ethiopian music every Saturday night, and other African and Caribbean entertainment on Friday and Sunday nights.
Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev, above and below left, and guitarist Joe Diorio are a regular act at the Comeback Inn, which features music from all over the world.