Happy Tenth Birthday to Manhattan’s Best Music Venue
[adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming photo book celebrating the tenth anniversary of Manhattan’s edgiest music venue and romantic date spot, Drom]
Every great city is defined by its artistic spaces. Paris has the Louvre and the Bataclan, London has the Royal Albert Hall, New York has the Met and and Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre.
But every city also has a secret history. No real history of New York in the past decade would be complete without Drom, Manhattan’s global music mecca since 2007.
High on the back wall of the lowlit, old-world space, there’s an amber-toned painting of the Galata Tower, an iconic landmark on the western Istanbul skyline. In the shadow of the tower is a historic neighborhood which throughout the centuries has been home to churches, mosques and also a synagogue. That striking image mirrors the inclusive sensibility central to the philosophy at Drom, in a decade of booking artists from around the world, from every tradition from the West and beyond.
Among New York venues booking music and the arts from around the globe, Drom is the only one over the past half-century to succeed without corporate or public funding. In an era in Manhattan increasingly defined by rising rents and displacement of independent business, that achievement is all the more astonishing, testament to the tirelessness and depth of vision of founders Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, bolstered by their partner Ekmel Anda.
The two are a contrast in personalities: Ilhan, the aesthete, an accomplished visual artist with a focus and drive to create a milieu that best represents the vast range of artists who grace the stage there. Dede, the gregarious impresario, with a similarly vast address book and fearlessness to match the eclecticism of the acts he books. In a field that can be awfully shady, Ilhan and Dede aren’t afraid to be transparent with their terms. No wonder so many artists from around the world, and across New York’s five boroughs, have made their North American or New York debuts here.
The space itself is both indelibly urban and urbane. The wrought iron steps down to the brickwalled basement-level landing are gritty New York to the core. Inside the front doors, past the plush red velvet curtains, an oasis reveals itself.
Before it was Drom, the high-ceilinged, L-shaped space was a neighborhood dance club called Opaline. Ilhan completely gutted and redesigned it himself, directing renovations from up on a ladder. The contrast of elegant dark wood paneling and rustic brick under the low light of the chandeliers reflect a welcoming atmosphere. The same friendly faces work here, night after night – everybody seems comfortable here, a rarity at music venues and even more so in the service industry.
The only feature from the old space that Ilhan retained was the L-shape and the high ceiling, which enhances the sonics: Drom is a live room. No matter who’s onstage – a classical ensemble, a jazz group, a blazing Balkan brass band or hip-hop – the sound is reliably good. Depending on the music or the performance – Drom has also been home to the Fringe Festival and other theatrical performances over the years – there might be tables, or the entire floor might be opened up for concertgoers. The bar always fills up fast: the wine is good, the bartenders are friendly and it’s one of the few places in all of New York where you can find Yeni Raki, the delicious anise liqueur.
Ilhan got his start in show business in the theatre: his first booking at the Town Hall was a sellout. When Dede first began booking music at Drom, he was doing regular Balkan events at a gritty Alphabet City bar a few blocks further east. Since their first days producing the annual New York Gypsy Festival, this city’s most wide-ranging series of concerts featuring performers from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Balkans , the two have combined to offer more diverse programming than any other venue in all of New York, in the same vein as Barbes in Brooklyn.
Long before Obama hinted at normalizing relations with Cuba, Drom was booking Cuban artists. Since its inception, the venue has been the first stop in Manhattan for Russian bands. Before Snarky Puppy became the most happening thing in progressive jazz, they were playing here as well. Boban Markovic took the stage at Drom years before his Balkan wedding and funeral band began packing Lincoln Center. Iconic jazz drummer Chico Hamilton played his final show on that stage, while noted klezmer trumpeter Frank London’s Glass House Ensemble made their debut here, among countless other artists’ genre-defying projects, blending Eastern European, Mediterranean and jazz sounds.
Meanwhile, Ilhan and Dede have expanded beyond their home base. They’re the only American promoters doing national tours for some of the most happening Turkish rock and folk acts. And numerous iconic Turkish artists have made their American debuts at Ilhan and Dede’s annual showcase, Istanbulive – “the Turkish Woodstock.”
You could make a case that Drom is CBGB, LaMaMa, Carnegie Hall and Mehanata – the downtown Bulgarian bar where Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz held court for so many years – rolled into one. Except that the sound is on par with any good New York jazz venue, and the ambience is more inviting: among New York music spots, few are as unabashedly romantic as Drom.
If your agenda in running a music blog is to cover the entirety of New York and the vast expanse of styles across this city, you need to move around a lot. But it helps to have an anchor. In Manhattan, Drom is New York Music Daily’s home base. If you’ve followed this blog, especially if sounds from around the world and the Balkans are concerned, you’re no stranger to Drom. If you’ve never been, now is as good a time as any to discover the space. June is looking especially hot. Since they’re celebrating ten years of going against the tide – seriously, did anybody really expect these guys to last ten months, let alone ten years? – their ten-year celebration month is off the hook. Just for starters, on June 9 at 7 there’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Advance tix are a bargain at $20.
Then on June 10 at 8 Romany guitar legend Stephane Wrembel airs out material from his wildly eclectic, psychedelic new double album The Django Experiment, with another show at 11 by Brooklyn Balkan brass faves Slavic Soul Party featuring sensational Serbian trumpeter Demirhan Cerimovic; advance tix for those are $15.
On June 14, the wildfire NY Gypsy All-Stars are joined by brilliant guest oudist Ara Dinkjian at 9:30; advance tix are $10. On June 21 at 8, there’s one of the year’s hottest jazz lineups: imagine seeing the Rolling Stones’ Tim Ries on sax, leading a quintet with Randy Brecker, the great Chano Dominguez on piano, with James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, for real, and for fifteen bucks! And for fans of serious esoterica, percussionist Navin Chettri‘s band makes jazz out of rarely heard Nepali themes on June 25 at 9:30, and that’s ten bucks if you buy in advance. That’s just a taste of what’s coming up.
Which is something that adventurous New York concertgoers have taken for granted, and can pretty much still take for granted. Day in, day out, nobody in Manhattan does more fearless programming than these guys. July will no doubt be just as good as June…then there’s the annual New York Gypsy Festival to look forward to as we get into the fall. Here’s to another ten years of minor keys, intoxicating grooves and Yeni Raki!