On a recent Saturday night, the esteemed but typically low-key Ethiopian restaurant Nile at Broad and North Laurel streets has transformed into one of the city ‘s premiere venues for smart ethnic music and A¬bercool scene making.
Hipsters rocking cutoffs and fedoras jostle for just an inch more room in a packed house alongside fashionistas in stilettos and brothers and sisters with dreadlocks, Afros and dashikis. None of the dining room and bar goes unoccupied; every now and then someone slips outside, glistening with sweat, to grab some fresh air as the people who've gotten there too late get to look on with envy.
Of course, the phrase ethnic music typically implies some sense of cultural condescending, but here at Afro Beta, on the first Saturday of the month, celebrating the ethnic is the entire point. As the name implies, the music showcased drums up the appreciation for the sounds of the African Diaspora, which of course can include everything from Afrobeat to dancehall reggae, which is the particular focus on this night. And the drumming up bit is literal: One of the touchstones of this event is that the guests become performers, toting in their congas, djembes, cowbells and tambourines to play along the DJ's beats. A delicious cacophony results, and it's probably safe to say that you have never really heard the grooves of Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton or M.I.A. until you've heard their already throbbing beats accentuated by live drums.
The architect of all this is Mike Kemetic, who pipes in the recognizable tunes through a Mac laptop and turntables. Yet simply calling Kemetic the DJ is a bit of an understatement; he is, in his eyes and others' ears, the champion and sole supplier of multicultural music in Richmond. And though Afro Beta, an event for which the Virginia Beach native designs flyers and promotes via the Web, is by all accounts a can't-miss party, it's just one of a few ways he brings music to the masses.
“I know people like good music,” says Kemetic, who started DJing in Richmond around 1993 and finished VCU in 1996 with a psychology degree. “So many places just play trendy Top 40. …People want something culturally relevant, and the live drums just take it to another level.” He's starting another monthly event, Brazilica, featuring the sounds of Brazil. The first installment was Aug. 20 at the Camel.
Kemetic reaches even more people — albeit those listening to the radio early Monday mornings from 1 to 3 A.M. — through his show Middle East Coast Mecca on Richmond's indie station WRIR 97.3 FM. He plays a variety of stuff that is deliberately away from the norm, including break beats, dub step, electronica and deep house. As such, you could say the man, who also performs with the band Photosynthesizers, is one of very few people in town ensuring that there's more to listen to than Lady Gaga and Gucci Mane.
For information on forthcoming shows, go to audiomasstransit.com or search Afro Beta on Facebook.