In the cool basement space of the Equator Club, the rhythms of soukous meld with flowing calypso and reggae beats. Jeans and flannel rub against embroidered garments. African dialects blend with American slang. It's exactly the sort of hodgepodge that owners Adolphus Nnodi and Emmanuel Egwu planned when they opened the club five years ago. "This is supposed to be a meeting place, the equator is the center of the world," says Egwu. "On any night you can find Ugandans, Kenyans, Zaireans, Egyptians, and Americans."
The idea for the club came to the two Nigerians when they were both students at Roosevelt University in the mid-80s. "We saw that whenever Africans would have parties, they didn't have a particular place to gather," says Nnodi. "We saw a need for a place with our music and culture."
Pooling their savings, the pair opened the nightclub in Uptown, an area full of African residents. Their timing was perfect, as the new club capitalized on the rising popularity of "world beat." The club plays any danceable form of African music, including soukous, highlife, Afrobeat, and juju, as well as Caribbean styles like merengue, soca, calypso, and reggae. Emphasizing diversity, Egwu and Nnodi even let their DJs spin a little house music.
"History has shown us that black people from the Caribbean, Latin America, America, all come from Africa--that's where they get the music from," says Nnodi, explaining the club's globe-trotting musical range. "It's amazing to see people from east Africa singing a merengue song in Spanish. Everybody comes here, black, white. We get a variety."
They also bring in top international acts two or three times a month. Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo, Zaire's Loketo, and Nigeria's Fela Kuti have all played here. Many African acts rarely came to Chicago before the club opened. Egwu says the Equator Club has helped expose people to different types of black music. "A lot of Americans didn't know the difference between African music and reggae," says Egwu. "Now they can hear the many different styles on a regular basis."
Traditional African dances, organized by community groups and open to the public, provide another avenue for spreading African music and culture. Nnodi and Egwu say they require all community organizations renting the space to put on some sort of cultural show. The club fills a void that many weren't aware of before "world beat" became the musical catchphrase of the 90s.
"When I think of world beat music, I think of Africa," says Egwu. "What's happening is that Africans aren't going back to Africa after school and they're keeping their culture, which includes food, dress, and music. Non-Africans are starting to get used to the music. We're educating people about it."
The Equator Club celebrates its fifth anniversary this Saturday, May 27, with Zairean soukous star Diblo Dibala. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door; it's $13.50 per person for groups of five or more. Doors open at 8:30; the first set starts at 9:30. The club is at 4715 N. Broadway; call 728-2411 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jon Randolph.