Soul incubator

Closing down, Yin Yang Cafe leaves behind the scene it fostered

As a physical structure, the Yin Yang Music Café is nothing special. A small, quaint building nestled away on a hard-to-find, dead-end street in Midtown. A mere 2,800 square feet, graffiti-splattered walls, earthy and raw. But if walls could talk (as the saying goes), Yin Yang's walls would sing. Born inside the club, Atlanta's new soul music scene blossomed in recent years, thanks to Yin Yang's willingness to provide an outlet for aspiring soul acts. Its alumni comprise an impressive roster: Lil John and the Chronicle, Donnie, Seek, Jiva, Mz. Fishe and India Arie among them.

As Yin Yang shuts down this weekend after a final week of events and Saturday's closing night party, artists and live-music fans who considered the club's humble setting a home base for the past six years are understandably saddened to see it go. But as Yin Yang owners Freddy Luster and Philippe Chekroune explain, the time has definitely come to move on.

Luster says he and Chekroune, who have owned the club for the past three years, have been embroiled in a legal dispute with the building's owner since the beginning of the year — an experience that has made running the club rather trying. "We're basically tired of fighting with the landlord," says Luster, who is preparing to relocate to New York and devote more time to his neo-soul band Seek.

While he declined to comment on the specifics of the dispute, which he says is a pending legal matter, Luster says it's not just the landlord problem that contributed to their decision to shut down. "Your head's gotta be in it to do it and my head is not there. It's time for a change," says the 30-year-old Wisconsin native who moved to Atlanta in 1993 and was once affiliated with Arrested Development and Speech's Vagabond Productions. But acknowledging the club's role in helping "kick-start the scene and feed it and keep it going over the years," Luster admits the closing is "bittersweet."

While Chekroune says, "I think Yin Yang needs to go ... the location was getting too small for a lot of things we wanted to do," he's not ready to totally forfeit what Yin Yang has built. Next month, he plans to launch a Yin Yang-flavored night at another urban-oriented Midtown club, Kaya.

Reginald Ealy, the original Yin Yang owner credited with creating the club's vibe, agrees it's time for the club's last call. "I'm actually glad to see it go," says Ealy, who sold the club to open Club Kaya (which he no longer owns). "It's the end of an era."

But some don't see the closure as having been inevitable. Kembo Tom, who managed and promoted the club for the past six years, says Luster and Chekroune "didn't get it as fully as they could have. If they did get it there would be no question of them re-opening. When they took over there was a slight lapse in understanding the power behind the movement that was taking place."

No one contests, however, that Yin Yang has left its mark on the musical life of the city. "It was just the place to find whatever was on the cutting edge of new soul," says Jazmyn Burton, a former club employee and scenester.

Yin Yang also paved the way for other promoters to develop similar club nights that continue to flourish in venues such as the Tabernacle, Studio Central and Center Stage. "It really gave inspiration and ideas to FunkJazzKafé and Chocolate Soul and the launching of different shows," says DJ Kemit, a Yin Yang regular for the past five years. "It was also a good gathering place for like minds."

Will Griggs, who began his Chocolate Soul parties at the club in 1994, credits Yin Yang's Thursday night showcases for introducing live music into a scene that had been oriented around DJs. "The musicians were here and the people who loved the music were here, but there was nothing to tie it all together," he says. "This was a place where that live music energy and acid jazz and neo-soul music energy could go. It was really all kicked off from those Thursday nights back in '94. It was the launching pad for Chocolate Soul and has been the launching pad for so many artists and promoters and the whole scene."

Anasa Troutman, co-founder of Groovement, which promotes and manages some of the city's biggest neo-soul acts, including Donnie and Jiva, says her company was also born out of Yin Yang. "I think that building has had a lot to do with our success in the beginning. That's where we started, that's where we built our fan base."

Troutman says the club succeeded early on because it reflected the eclectic tastes of Ealy, an Atlanta native who had lived in Scandinavia for five years and worked as an acrobat and a clown for two French circuses. "He kind of took a sampling of all the things he had experienced in his travels and created this little building that holds 200 people, that reflected a real international flavor and view on the arts and music. I think when it opened it was unlike anything that had happened in the city before. The whole vibe was different, the look was different, the energy was different."

Griggs agrees: "The kind of Bohemian vibe of the place really helped. That neo-soul, or what people call that 'Love Jones,' vibe — that whole concept of people gathering in coffee-house environments — was pretty foreign to Atlanta," he says.

While Ealy acknowledges that he and fellow founders Andre Zarka and Paul Sobin "were not your typical [club owners]," it clearly wasn't just the decor that drew people week after week. "It's something about the energy in the room," Kembo says. "It's one of those places where everybody knows your name."

In addition to the big names who passed through the club over the years — people like George Benson, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Erykah Badu, Halle Berry and Babyface — Yin Yang created its own circle of stars who introduced many Atlantans to live music. Burton says she was drawn to the club by Elevation, Kembo's Wednesday night spoken word sets, "but when Will Griggs started doing Chocolate Soul and the Chronicle performed that was my first real experience with live music. I had never seen a live band perform before the Chronicle."

How Yin Yang's closing will effect the new soul movement in Atlanta remains to be seen. While events such as Chocolate Soul and FunkJazzKafé will remain, without a regular nightly venue for the music, many agree it will suffer. "Hopefully the suffering will be minor," Griggs says. "All the artists who are looking to get started are gonna have a harder road."

But Troutman, who is planning a final Friday night live music event this week, is optimistic. "From our point of view, it just means that we need to go and do something a little bit bigger," she says. "As wonderful and powerful as Yin Yang has been, in order for us to grow and for our scene to grow we have to move out of that building because all the people in the world cannot all fit in that building .... It's kinda like the mom teaching the baby bird to fly. It's like 'OK, I'm pushing you out now.' You're either gonna fall on your face or fly. Well, we don't have mama bird Yin Yang watching over us anymore. We've gotta go and do our thing. Yin Yang was our incubator. It was the incubator for the Atlanta soul scene."

Yin Yang Music Café, at 64 Third Street, closes after a farewell celebration on Sat., Sept. 9. For information on the final week's events, call 404-607-0682.