Reverend Joe Is in the House

House music as secular gospel? Amen, brother

The situation may not be that dire; the physical reality of Body & Soul's space makes it nigh impossible to strike a pose amid the withering heat, perspiration-thick air, densely crowded dance floor, and bare-bones decor. While there may be some initial attraction for high-society slummers seeking life beyond the V.I.P. room, in the end, if you didn't come to dance -- to completely let go and abandon yourself to the music -- there's little point in staying.

Vying for Claussell's time with his public turntable duties these days is his production work on both his own records as well as a host of remixes, adding a singular stamp to a wide array of artists, from the (sadly defunct) seminal Chicago soul outfit Ten City, to British avant-folkie Beth Orton. Much of this music has seen release on Claussell's own Spiritual Life label, including a recent album from Haitian artist Jepthé Guillame. Working together on songs such as "The Prayer" and "Kanpé," the two have come to define much of deep house's current sound: propulsive Afro-Cuban percussion with acoustic-based grooves, all layered atop an ethereal soundscape that seems to envelop the listener in a warm bath.

House music as secular gospel? Joe Claussell says amen, brother.
Photos by Donna Ward
House music as secular gospel? Joe Claussell says amen, brother.

Language, Claussell's most recent album, continues in this vein, featuring collaborations with fellow deep-house veteran Kerri Chandler as well as keyboardist Dbeli, whose driving organ playing marked much of Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti's best records from the Eighties. Also on hand amidst the batá-flavored rhythms is Claussell's own brother (on loan from salsa titan Eddie Palmieri's band) on timbales.

"I may not understand Russian, I may not understand Japanese -- and they may not understand English or Spanish," Claussell explains. "But one thing we do have in common is that we all understand music, and that's why the album is called Language. Music is a total, universal language that everybody -- regardless of race, color, or creed -- can understand." From anyone else such sentiments might sound trite, but Claussell continues speaking with such passion, lovingly lingering over the syllables of each word, at the moment it's hard to disagree as he continues: "Music can heal you! When you hear a record you love and you get goose bumps -- that's the medicinal power of music!"

Here in Miami, deep house (healing power and all) remains a scarce sound. Blow Up, a Coral Gables-based weekly house party, managed to build a fair amount of momentum as well as draw some notable out-of-town talent, only to have its Meza Gallery landlord pull the plug early this past fall in a quest for a more lucrative clientele (i.e., one who would run up higher bar tabs). Over on the Beach, several New York expatriates (partially inspired by Body & Soul's example) have established Phylos at Blue (late) Sunday evenings, as well as a decidedly less appetizing mid-week spinoff which has yet to differentiate itself in any meaningful way from Washington Avenue's usual velvet rope shenanigans.

Meanwhile the Beach's gay spots (where logically any deep-house-oriented aural readjustment would have to originate) remain wed to the slick Euro-styled Hi-NRG pounding that has made DJs such as Victor Calderone into minor celebrities. Towering above it all is the runaway success of trance, as personified in the local sainthood of Germany's Paul Van Dyk and the British duo of Sasha and Digweed, whose purging of black source elements from their music recasts it as the very antithesis of deep house.

"I don't want to discriminate against anyone, but the people going to hear Sasha and Digweed just have a different idea of what good music is," Claussell says diplomatically of the pair and their growing dominance in the larger dance clubs across America. "When you go into a club for the first time fresh when you're a teenager, you really don't know whether you like the music or not. If you go into a big club, especially if you're from the suburbs, it's like something you've never seen before. So you start to dig whatever is going on there. That's why raving is so big as well. It's not the music so much as being part of a scene. I was that age, that was once me, so I can't criticize what music they like."

Although this live-and-let-live philosophy regarding trance seems benevolent enough, it ignores the genre's societal effects. As trance literally bleaches and straightens out dance culture, so too does it eliminate the celebration of different races and sexualities. Indeed the very notion of personal transformation becomes replaced by a quest for pure oblivion, escapism, or at best, a way of simply blowing off steam. It may be harmless, but it's hardly the promised land of true liberation once tantalizingly promised by house music's impassioned singers.

"There's so much drugs and money involved now that people are throwing parties for all the wrong reasons," Claussell says with a sigh. "Music is one of the most spiritual tools we have in this world. It's a part of your life, it's your family, the food you eat, the air you breathe. So if you carry that over into the party you throw, then you are going to attract people who are willing to let go of their everyday fears, and come together in what I call church. That's what these venues should be: Church."

Joe Claussell spins on Friday, December 31, during Sun Ra 2000 at the Seville Beach Hotel, 29th and Collins, Miami Beach. Among the other DJs appearing are Lil Louis and Alexi Delano. Tickets are $135 in advance. For more information call 305-573-0907.

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