Soul Food

With its fourth anniversary, Jumbalaya proves Seattle's longest-running musical melting pot.

Soul Food

Add a reservation for the resident crew

And yo get your bowl cuz we cookin’ up stew.

Dove, De La Soul

FOR THOSE NOT schooled in Creole cuisine, jambalaya often appears to be nothing more than the week’s leftovers thrown together with a fistful of spices in search of a use. But as anyone who’s witnessed a well-crafted serving knows, the traditional feature of family gatherings and spirited celebrations demands not only extensive time in the heat of the kitchen, but a creative hand that can easily adapt to highlight what’s come of the day’s hunt. Such are the rib-sticking sounds served up Fridays at the Baltic Room under a similar name, Jumbalayathe longtime staple of Seattle’s live soul and hip-hop community.

Marking its fourth anniversary this week, Jumbalaya has grown from its humble beginnings at the 700 Club to its current home at the Baltic Roomin the process becoming the best-attended, most loyally followed weekly on the hill. Created by promoter David Meinert and Piece of Sol (Laura Kelley, aka Piece, and MariSol Masso) to seat Seattle’s hip-hop, soul, and R&B followers at one table, the night’s dedication to local talent in the face of clubland’s fascination with the hottest out-of-towners has helped it become a vital meeting ground not only for fans but for musicians as well.

“It’s evolved to the point where we acknowledge and understand it as ritual,” explains Jonathan Moore, aka Wordsayer, point man for local hip-hop group Source of Labor and a longtime Jumbalaya MC and organizer. “Like church for us, it’s where we hold our service.” Not that you’ll gain salvation within the Pine Street spot’s deep wood-paneled walls, but if you’re looking to ease the workday devils and find the path to weekend freedom, by all means, step inside.

WITH SEATTLE SOUL export Maktub’s rhythm section as its foundation Jumbalaya’s house band also features keyboardist Darrius Willrich and MCs Wordsayer, Kylea, and Chocolate on the mikethe event seems like just another star-studded jam session at first glance. Add the regular weekly guests and unannounced drop-ins by names like Saul Williams, Roy Hargrove, ?uestlove, and Mos Def, and you’ve got a recipe for masturbatory solos and competitive egos. Thankfully, that’s just the first of many ways in which the night will surprise you.

“We’re not trying to show off our chops,” explains drummer Davis Martin, who, with the power to turn up the heat, ease the pace off, or ice a theme altogether, arguably has more control over the night’s direction than anyone. “There’s too many people for that.” Packing six to 12 musicians into the front of a cozily small venue, Jumbalaya sticks to its organic hip-hop roots with a dance-friendly, five-minute song format boasting stream-of- consciousness creativity and the feeling that everyone’s a part of the performance.

As with any good show, the musicians’ vibe carries straight to the crowd. Whether it’s a more beat-driven night or smoothed R&B, the stageless setupflanked by DJ Topspin and Vitamin D’s underground cutskeeps the crowd on its toes. Willrich hits the keys. Kylea breaks into her trademark flow. CD Littlefield eases into a horn line. The floor falls into step, and looking down from the Baltic’s loft, the boundary between performer and audience becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. “It’s not the best layout,” Moore admits, “but without a stage, you don’t have that physical separation. People who come have the opportunity to be in the moment and feel what’s going on in the first person.”

Well dressed by Seattle standardsa notch up from club-kid comfort while down from First Avenue pretensionsJumbalaya’s hip-hop, soul, and funk faithful make up one of the most racially diverse club nights around. There is an undeniable family vibe, with the feeling that everyone there has been tossed in the same pot together to participate in something unique rather than just turning up to watch a show.

IN STARK contrast to much of Seattle’s hip-hop and R&B scene, Jumbalaya has eluded violence and police confrontation over the years. “That never occurs here,” says the Baltic’s booking agent, Michael Antonia. “For that to take place on Capitol Hill, to have not had any problems and maintain that it’s about music and having a good timeI think that’s unique in any music scene in Seattle.”

Though they expect Rokaa from Dilated Peoples among the guests for the anniversary, Moore says the evening will be “pretty much just family.” None of Jumbalaya’s principals are under the illusion that they’ve cooked up anything groundbreaking over the past four years. But given the extensive time they’ve put in it and the community it nourishes, they’re proud to allow that the night’s unique flavor is envied by hip-hop and soul cooks round the nation.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing