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After a year and a half booking U Street venue Tropicalia, Jim Thomson is out of a steady job. The self-styled “global dancehall” tucked beneath the Subway sandwich shop at 14th and U streets NW can no longer sustain a full-time booker, says club owner Aman Ayoubi. “Unfortunately at this point, we cannot afford to have an in-house booking person,” Ayoubi says. Thomson, whose last day was Jan. 2, will pursue freelance booking, and the venue’s owner says he’ll continue to book DJs and some live acts with the help of third-party groups.
Thomson is a big part of the reason Tropicalia became one of the most unique venues in the District. (Thomson, a former member of Gwar among other bands, was profiled in Washington City Paper in early 2013.) Since he began working at the club in August 2012, Thomson brought in a lively mix of DJs and international bands—-many of which might not play D.C. otherwise. Ayoubi, who also owns Local 16, says he has tentative plans to work with Thomson on some live shows at the club in March, “but this opens up an opportunity to work with other booking agents.”
When Tropicalia opened in August 2012, it aspired to book the kinds of music that are hard to find in D.C., at least outside the halls of embassies and cultural centers. Thomson brought in performers from Mali, Iran, Angola, and beyond, and cultivated a low-key basement-party vibe in the subterranean venue. Despite the unique and eclectic format, the club failed to rake in the bucks—-but to anyone watching closely, that probably wasn’t very surprising.
Unlike some other clubs on and around U Street NW, the venue doesn’t offer the trappings of upscale nightclubbing—-there’s no bottle service, no table reservations, no velvet rope. It also doesn’t appeal to any one demographic. Thomson aimed to reach multiple groups, including NGO employees, drum-circle hippies, old school hip-hop heads, record nerds, and working-class and well-to-do immigrants alike. But Tropicalia’s promotion budget is small, Thomson says, and even well-financed organizations might have a tough time reaching all of those demographics. Thomson says the 225-person capacity club drew bigger crowds when it worked with outside promoters who could target particular groups, like Latin, Jamaican, and Turkish music fans. (Thomson says that DJ Underdog’s Afrocentric dance nights, where he plays styles like Ghanaian azonto and South African kwaito, draw a particularly diverse crowd. “The brand has really resonated,” Thomson says of Underdog’s parties. “He filled a need.”)
Tonight, Tropicalia hosts a one-off D.C. rap showcase, and Ayoubi tells me that the club will continue to feature Underdog and Co. on Wednesdays, Congo and Castro’s Latin-tinged night on Fridays, and Fort Knox Five on Saturdays.
What’s the secret to reaching, for example, immigrants in the suburbs who might be interested in coming downtown to hear Caribbean or African music? Posters and postcards help. “African or Caribbean restaurants in the D.C. ‘burbs still have posters and postcard flyers,” Thomson says. But Ayoubi says he just can’t afford that kind of thing. (I recall asking Thomson last fall if he was going to be at Malian guitarist Sidi Toure‘s gig at Artisphere to hand out postcards for Tropicalia’s Festival in the Desert II show the next night. That show featured acts from Mali and Mauritania at a time when conflicts in the region were making the news. Thomson said Tropicalia couldn’t afford postcards—-and he was working the door at the club that night anyway. The show drew only 40 people.)
Another problem cited by Thomson is the difficulty of parking in the area—-not ideal when you’re trying to attract people from the ‘burbs who may not think of Metro as an option. The club also has a less-than-comprehensive website, which, at the moment, lists very few upcoming events. (Ayoubi says January is a tough month for booking, but February and March should be busier.)
Ayoubi says he’d like to link up with local embassies and outside promoters to help plug the marketing gap. “At the same time I am looking forward to see if we can have some kind of a dialogue with a bigger production company like the 9:30 Club,” Ayoubi says. “I am looking to see if any major production company like that will take us under their umbrella to do our booking.” (9:30 Club co-owner Seth Hurwitz declined to comment on that idea.) Ayoubi adds, “Working with a bigger company or not, I will still do events like the Festival in the Desert. That core music of Tropicalia will never go away.”
As for Thomson, he plans to follow up on his own projects: His Multiflora production company is working on a Fanfare Ciocarlia show at Atlas Performing Arts Center Jan. 17 as well as a Melvin Van Peebles event there on Feb. 14. He expects to book some shows at The Dunes in Columbia Heights, play drums in a new band, continue to run his Electric Cowbell label, and work with Jason Hamacher of Lost Origin Productions to release a collection of sacred Sufi music from Syria. Thomson says freelance booking will involve more work, but there are so many groups touring, he’s not too concerned about a lack of interesting options.
“I am like a cook who had a kitchen and a home for a minute,” Thomson says, “and now I am in a taco truck again.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery