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La Fontaine Bleu is an unusual venue for any concert that doesn’t involve a lounge lizard belting out Top 40 ballads. Its stages are usually reserved for singers and DJs there to entertain wedding or anniversary-party guests. But every Monday night, go-go fans trek to the Lanham, Md., banquet hall to sit beneath giant chandeliers, be served by waiters in black tuxedos, and listen to the sounds of Paradisea new go-go band put together by and featuring hometown hero Sharmba Mitchell, 32, a former World Boxing Association junior-welterweight champion.
One recent Monday, though, the show is delayed because of a retirement party in the room next door. To kill time, concertgoers hit the complimentary buffet hard, piling their plates with stuffed chicken, pasta casseroles, and cheeses. Between directing his band members in the setting up of equipment and shaking hands with old friends, Mitchell decides to make a plate for himself. But he isn’t entirely pleased with the offerings.
“Where are the vegetables at? I’m an athleteI’ve got to have vegetables!” he playfully shouts across the room to one of the waiters. After a few moments, a member of the wait staff appears and presents him with a plate of grilled veggies. “Thanks a lotI appreciate that,” he says to the waiter, shaking his hand. “I’ve got to have my vegetables.”
Mitchell has been balancing the diet-and-exercise regimen required of him as a boxer with a burgeoning career as a go-go drummer since this past fall, when he and some old friends decided to put together a band after running into each other at the release party for the DVD Put Your Hands Up! The Tribute Concert to Chuck Brown.
“My buddy Eric Harris said that he wanted to get a band togetherthey were trying to kick,” says Mitchell. “I called my cousin who plays congos, Donald ‘Skip’ Smallshe used to play for Icee Hottmy buddy Jayhe used to talk for Icee Hott and Jethe boxes and plays keyboards. Then people started popping up”including Tony Sharp of 911 fame and bassist Wayne Davis, who has played with MVP and Malenium, among others.
After a knee injury cost him his title in a unification bout against Kostya Tszyu in 2001, Mitchell says, he decided that while he trained for a rematch against the Russian boxer, he would use the lull in his athletic career as an opportunity to pursue another interest: drumming. “This is downtime for me,” he says. “I’m home training, so I wanted to do this.”
In fact, go-go was one of Mitchell’s early ambitions. The first incarnation of Paradise came to be when Mitchell was a junior-high-school student who wanted to jam with friends after class. And even after nearly 20 years on the road as a boxer, he says the music of his hometown has never been far from him.
“I carry [go-go] on the road with me,” Mitchell says. “People say, ‘Oh, so that’s go-go! Can you send me a tape?’ When you’re from here, it’s always with you. I’m gone a lot, but you stay in touch with it.”
Sports fans may be surprised to learn of Mitchell’s musical bent, but Mitchell, who grew up in Takoma Park, Md., and the Takoma neighborhood of D.C., says he came by it honestly. “People don’t know I have a music background,” he explains. “My mother is a singer. My uncle was a trumpet player with [’70s R&B group] Mixed Breed. I learned how to play drums in church when I was 5, and when I was 8 years old, my grandma put me in the youth orchestraI played the trumpet up until high school.”
At the same time, Mitchell was becoming enamored of Washington’s go-go scene. “I started going to go-gos at 9. I caught [Rare] Essence at the Howard Theaterthat’s how long I’ve been into it,” he says, laughing.
But a pivotal event focused his attention elsewhere. “My father came to get me one day and said, ‘I’m going to take you somewhere.’ He took me past his friend’s gym,” Mitchell recalls. “The trainer said, ‘Do you wanna box?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He asked me, ‘If you get hit, will you cry?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Mitchell says that at first, he saw boxing as a ticket to the Olympics. “I was the youngest on the Olympic boxing team,” he recalls. “I still think I’m better at football, but it was football or this, and there’s no football at the Olympics.”
Mitchell’s amateur career launched him into the professional arena; the boxer currently has an impressive 52 wins with 29 KOs, and 3 losses, which include his defeat by Tszyu in 2001. That was a major setback, but Mitchell is confident that he can regain his title in a rematch this November.
“I don’t have a strategy,” he says. “I’m just going to go in there and do what I did in the beginning. I’m so pumped about this fight that I’m just gonna do itI just have that feeling.”
The fighter says that revisiting the drums is actually helping him train for the upcoming boutboth physically and mentally. “In actuality, I did this because boxing is stressfulthe business side of it stresses me out,” Mitchell says. “Other things I lovefootball, basketballI can’t do because I could get injured. And the drums keep my hands fast, my foot fastit helps me stay in shape.
“I have to have a releasethis takes my mind off of that,” he adds. “This keeps my mind off of why I’m not getting this fight or that deal.”
Even so, Mitchell has found that being a sports figure doesn’t necessarily give him an advantage when it comes to the band. “I was going to club owners and saying, ‘I have a band,’ and they would say, ‘You got a tape?’ and I didn’t,” he says of his initial efforts to book shows. “Club owners don’t care. They say, ‘Sharmba, now if you were boxing, you could come in here all day and night.’ That’s what I reiterate to the band: It’s not about meit’s about the band as a whole.”
Paradise got its first gig at 9th Street NW’s Ristorante Murali toward the end of last year. Mitchell says a club employee took a chance booking the group. “He said, ‘All right, Sharmba, I’ll let you play. You better sound good.’”
The band ended up bringing in a big crowdpartly because people had to see for themselves whether Mitchell really was part of a go-go group. “They come to be nosy, out of curiosity,” he says. “They’re like, Is he in the band? Does he manage the band? Oh, he plays the drums? What does he sound like?”
In fact, Mitchell is practically invisible during Paradise performances: The 5-foot-7 drummer, whose boxing nickname is “Little Big Man,” is largely hidden by the 11-member band’s front line. “I do my thing in the ring,” he says. “It’s about us onstage. I’m not up there throwing that punch.”
The change has taken a little getting used to. “It just stopped, but when I used to get on the drums, my leg would shake,” Mitchell admits. “I’m nervous playing in front of the crowdmore than in boxing. I just get in the ring and I’m ready to roll….Here I have to rely on my keyboard player, my front line, and they rely on me. It can be hardI’m nervous for the bandbut it can also be a good feeling.”
So far, that good feeling has been shared by the band’s audiences: The Monday-night show has a respectable turnout, and the crowd doesn’t even thin after an early set from the better-known Maiesha and the Hip Huggers.
Of course, Mitchell’s sports-world connections don’t hurt, either. “You never know who’s going to be here,” notes Eric Harris, a freelance sound engineer for the group, who was also involved in the Paradise of 20 years ago. “A lot of artists and entertainers come through to support Sharmba. [Houston Rocket] Steve Francis came through. For the average Joe to say he sat next to Steve Francis…But it’s really about coming back to what we did 20 years ago as kids on a more polished, professional level, and having fun.”
“We’re bringing back that old sound,” says Mitchell: “a closed high-hat, straight pocket with the go-go sound.” Indeed, the band has taken its revival of classic go-go right down to synchronized dance steps, with members of the front line moving back and forth in time to the beat and each other. The old-style appeal makes Paradise a band for what Mitchell describes as “a young, mature crowd”and also for “a lot of people who are my mother’s age.”
Mitchell says that he’s likes to tell people, “I don’t drive my car or live in my house because of Paradise.” But he does want the band to go on even if regaining his title means his participation becomes marginal. He’s just added another weekly engagement to the group’s scheduleThursday nights at Northwest D.C.’s Takoma Stationand is confident that the band can carry on even in his extended absence.
“If I’m away, I’m away,” Mitchell says. “I have a drummer that can sit in when I’m gone. It’s like if one of my members is on vacation, we have someone to fill that spot. The band will still be playing showsit can’t stop just because I’m gone.
“I really want to do big things,” he adds. “There are a lot of reunion concerts coming upEU, etc. I would love to open up for them. This is my stress reliever, but we really want it to go as far as we can take it. If we can be one of the best bands out here, I want to do that.” CP