Live: DJ Sabo's Tropical Dance Party At Bembe Makes Williamsburg A Little Warmer
Better Than: Any party without a drum circle.
DJ Sabo started his monthly Saturday-night party at Williamsburg's Bembe eight years ago as an excuse to play his crates of Latin house, Afrobeat, reggae, and all things tropical to the neighborhood's willing locals (then primarily Latinos, Africans, and Jamaicans). More recently, it's become a safe haven for those same regulars, tucked far enough away from the Bedford Avenue mix of PBR-toting hipsters and tourists that it doesn't feel like just another night at another bar. At Bembe, we're surrounded by friends of the DJ and a mix of locals in their early thirties seeking the familiar sounds of a warmer climate. As one patron with a thick Jamaican accent said to a friend with the same, "This is nothing like home, but it kinda feels like it. No?"
That doesn't mean a younger, hipper crowd hasn't caught on, though. While Sabo has been doing this for longer than most, the underground dance scene has embraced these tropical beats more than ever in the past few years. Whereas once Latin dance music was only played out to crowds that grew up on it or took lessons to dance to it (we all know at least one person who's taken salsa classes), the regional music has become an all-out craze for crossover producers and bigger dance venues alike. Que Bajo at Santos, for example, has a following that's made up of more flannel-clad hipsters than we'd ever imagine. Or even more recently, consider the birth of Moombahton, a wildly catchy attempt to make the crossover between house and reggae, which has prompted a whole new wave of fresh and insanely catchy production under the "tropical dance" umbrella.
The fact that Sabo's set was heavy-handed in such new, genre-bending dance music didn't phase tonight's crowd of old-school dancehall fiends, though. While we did hear moombahton god Munchi's "Gracias" and Sabo's own cumbia track "Esa Loca Cumbia," the night was still about diversity. The DJ's six-hour set mixed cumbia, reggaeton, salsa, baile funk, and dancehall tunes side by side to the very packed bar. The already wildly catchy pan flutes on Michel Clies' Latin-tinged house jam "La Mezcla" were tonight accompanied by a set of live drummers seated in a cramped circle next to the DJ booth.
They were cramped because a couple had chosen the booth as their own personal dancehall. One girl, desperate to dance close to the booth but also keep an eye on her friend (now grinding against the bouncer), chose a neighboring couch as her dance floor. Basically, this is the type of party where bumping into someone is an invitation to have them grab you by the hand and start wining on the spot, with even those waiting in line for the bathroom or standing at the bar considered fair game. And really, that's half the fun at a party like this. "This is my favorite place to DJ in New York," Sabo tells us. "It's molded me as a DJ and been an essential part of developing my style." And while we hear that Sabo is moving out west in the relatively near future, we'll still suggest that you swing by Bembe the next time you're in Williamsburg.
Critical Bias: Okay, but really, Moombahton is the future.
Overheard: A whole lot of, "Hey girl. How you doin?" on the dance floor.