Red Sea: a day at the beat

Reggae club delivers dancing, diversity and new sounds from funky Kingston and elsewhere

Between the Red Sea reggae club and Tim's Hideaway Adult Video on Southwest Third Avenue, there used to be a gun shop. On Nov. 15 the gun shop reopened as a strip club.

Only in Portland, kids, only in Portland.

Alem Ghebrecristos, 32, whose father, Alemseghed, opened the Red Sea 16 years ago, grins as the strippers' tinny music comes through the shared wall. 'I'm not bothered, ours is a lot louder,' he says with a shrug.

Not only louder: way better. The Red Sea's DJs stay on top of the trends in reggae music, whether coming out of Jamaica, London or New York.

'They buy 7-inch vinyl singles from Kingston every week,' says Lisa Jacobson, a petite New Yorker with dreadlocks up in a wrap, who has been a Red Sea regular for five years. The earthshaking sound that comes from a sliver of grooved plastic is one of the great remaining analog pleasures.

'It's always been a diverse crowd,' says Ghebrecristos, whose family came to this country from Eritrea during the strife with Ethiopia in the 1980s. He says Portland doesn't have enough young East Africans or Caribbeans to fill a club like this every night, but that's not the point. 'Everyone is welcome.'

On a recent night, three middle-aged white women cram around a table, while out on the mini-dance floor a Rasta skanks alone, near two girls in spray-on sportswear, various

Jamaican-looking lads in glossy pajamas and terry headbands and a pair of groovy Japanese tourists. According to DJ Rising Sun, who moved here from Miami, the current crowd-pleasers are reggae vocals mixed over hip-hop beats. He and DJ Uni-T run the successful Saturday nights.

'We'll play Elephant Man over a Nas track, or Sean Paul over Mary J. Blige,' Rising Sun says. Later the whole place bounces when Sean Paul's smash hit 'Gimme the Light' comes on. Tunes by Bounty Killer, Capleton, Beenie Man and Sizzla are standard.

The Tunnel Ñ a small courtyard with a fountain and a tin roof Ñ connects to two other rooms. One has a balcony where customers squeeze in the red-tinged darkness, sipping Red Stripe and Hennessy cognac. The other has a stage for bands. The dirty dancing has to be seen to be believed.

Ghebrecristos says his dad remembers when the only thing downtown was the Candlelight Room.

'Then came us,' he says. 'Then the Lotus Room. Now the streets are full of barhoppers.' Several women mentioned that the mood is never 'heavy' or dangerous, that they feel far safer than at an average nightclub.

'It's cool when a Blazer comes in and nods his head to the beat, but we don't want to become a pure hip-hop club,' says DJ Blessed Love, who plays on Fridays. 'We like a happy vibe.'

Jeremy Gurtner, a handsome 24-year-old, says he was turned on to the place by his mom. Two girls flash him smiles as he leans against the wall in the Tunnel.

'So many ladies around here,' he says. 'You can go fishing in the Red Sea.'

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