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In a dance trance

Special to The Times

Ghana-BORN musician Rocky Dawuni had a vision.

“I decided I’ll create an environment and the theme will be African, an environment where you can trace all beats, from African music to funk to rock and everything, and base it on music that everybody likes,” he says with a broad smile. “And then mix music with fine art, dancing, musicians playing with DJs or turntablists. Bringing all these elements together, I believed that it could evolve into something.”

What it has spawned is Afro Funke (pronounced “funky”), a wickedly eclectic Thursday night residency at Santa Monica’s Zanzibar that may indeed back up Dawuni and Afro Funke co-creator Cary Sullivan’s claim that there’s nothing else in L.A. like their club right now.

To start with, Afro Funke, which launched in May 2003 and went weekly in January, is subtle. Like the music regular DJ Jeremy Soles spins, the club sneaks up on patrons. Start out around 9:30 at night, as Soles is weaving together an atmospheric aural appetizer of slow grooves -- a bit of trip-hop with some funk -- and you might notice a few customers seated at the bar, or in one of the many Moroccan-styled seating areas with couches and cushions. A few more people are standing on the spacious dance floor, bobbing their heads or rocking back and forth.

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As the evening progresses, a steady stream of patrons flows into the main room, past the red curtains that shroud the dance floor in elegance and an air of mystery. Slowly, the grooves rise up -- “building,” says Sullivan.

In the back room on a recent night, Soles hangs out with Sullivan and Dawuni as guest DJ Ian Frost drops some dance beats that would be effective in just about any other club. But the Afro Funke patrons have come for the grooves they can’t get anywhere else.

As Soles retakes his position behind the DJ decks, he lets loose the intoxicating blend of rhythms and percussions that have become the club’s trademark. Suddenly, as Sullivan would say, “It’s on.”

Within moments, the dance floor is jammed with a melting pot of people expressing themselves through dance and attire. Next to the twentysomething girls moving free-form as if they’re at a Grateful Dead show, the club’s guest of honor on this evening, Gharioku Lemil -- the man who designed the artwork for every one of Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti’s album covers -- is grinning widely as he dances in his traditional African garb.

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“We’ve always said on our fliers ‘Afro beat ritual,’ and it really is,” Sullivan says. “It creates this build that you can anticipate each week. Even me as a promoter -- it surprises me. Like I’ll come in and I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, the music is so good I wanna dance.’ ”

Wawi Ndwiga, a regular Afro Funke patron since stumbling upon the club almost five months ago, seconds Sullivan’s assertion.

“I love the music. I never sit down. I’m dancing the whole time,” she says. Before she can even stop to say hello to some of the other regulars she’s befriended, she returns to the dance floor.

Kadiatou Sihi, a singer-songwriter-dancer, is perched on the highest of the room’s elevated couch areas leading the crowd in a dizzying array of African dance movements.

As she gyrates with controlled abandon to the percussive drums being played alongside her, people in the crowd both yell their approval and simultaneously mirror her movements. Afro Funke not only encourages audience participation, the music and setting pretty much demand it.

The club attracted some notice this year when, at a show to kick off Black History Month, Stevie Wonder joined Dawuni (who will perform live at the venue on Feb. 3) onstage in a surprise performance.

Similarly, Zap Mama performed an unannounced set during its record release party at Afro Funke. Sullivan recalls that the next day during an appearance on KCRW-FM’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” the members of Zap Mama said they just “felt the room and the environment,” just as Wonder had.

That people such as Wonder and the members of Zap Mama -- as well as India Arie and Johnny Gil, both of whom showed up recently to say hello to Dawuni -- have embraced the club does not surprise the musician. It’s all in keeping with his original vision.

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“I just knew that this would be an environment that would attract the very soulful of the world,” he says.

Steve Baltin can be reached at weekend@latimes.com

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Afro Funke

Where: Zanzibar, 1301 5th St., Santa Monica

When: 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays

Price: $5

Info: (310) 451-2221 or www.zanzibarlive.com

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