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The Class of Yin Yang Cafe 

How one nightclub turned music into a movement

In the mid- to-late '90s, Atlanta witnessed a soul music renaissance not seen since the '70s funk glory days of Brick, Mother's Finest and the S.O.S. Band. Its epicenter was Yin Yang Music Cafe, a small bistro at 64 Third St.

click to enlarge The class of Yin Yang Cafe. - JOHN CROOMS

Opened in August 1994 by three friends, Atlantan Reggie Ealy, French ex-pat Andre Zarka and Maryland native Paul Sobin, Yin Yang Cafe was an esoteric haven for visual artists, musicians and performers.

The cafe's first hot ticket was Chocolate Soul, a Thursday night event inaugurated in October 1994 by William Griggs, aka Will G, a student at Georgia State University. Will G brought in the Chronicle, an improvisational funk/jazz ensemble led by drummer Little John Roberts and featuring DJ Kemit. Their furious jam sessions began attracting admiring musicians and students from the Atlanta University Center colleges. They were soon followed by musical celebrities passing through town, such as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis, who often jammed with the group on stage.

Initially, Yin Yang birthed a sound that was flavored by acid jazz, but as time passed, the cafe's musical vibe evolved to soul -- or, as it would soon be known, neo-soul. The club became a musical breeding ground, yielding a brand of Atlanta soul that has since spread around the world via platinum recording artists India.Arie and Floetry, and cult artists Donnie and Jiva. For them, however, Yin Yang was more than the sum of its stars. It was a moment in time that continues to reverberate in the present, even as it fades into history.

Yin Yang Music Cafe stayed open for six years -- a lifetime in Atlanta's nightlife industry. Its legend, however, has only grown since its closing more than five years ago. This oral history gathers together recollections from several of the club's owners, performers, promoters and fans who were instrumental to its history.

click to enlarge MOST LIKELY TO RECORD THE COLORED SECTION: Donnie
  • MOST LIKELY TO RECORD THE COLORED SECTION: Donnie

Reggie Ealy: It cost us $35,000 to open up. We put everything we had in together, and whoever put the most in first got paid back first. But everybody was equal partners. Paul did the books. Andre was basically the front guy, booking the bands. I was the kitchen guy as well as the front guy with Andre. Yin Yang stands for "unlike entities coming together to create a whole." It's not an acronym, but it's the definition of what Yin Yang is, especially for us.

Will G: It was kind of a tough go when they first started. They had a difficult time getting the awareness of the club up to speed because of where the club is located. It's kind of tucked away. It's on a dead-end street, and it's not a through street, so getting something like that up and flourishing can be very difficult.

Ealy: We went through a cycle of music before we even found our niche. We went from rock 'n' roll to experimental music.

Jason Orr: I was managing soul artist/singer/songwriter Vinnie Bernard, and his band called Original Man. "Buzzy" Jackson -- Maynard Jackson's son -- was the drummer. But he couldn't keep good time. Little John was living in Alabama. I just happened to see him one night in Pearls, and he had that big Dr. Seuss hat on. We got to know each other, and I asked him, "Hey, would you like to play with us?" He was like, "I'm in Alabama -- if you'll come get us." So, we would go get him and the sax player, Melvin Miller. Then we added DJ Kemit, which was a big step because Kemit was in Arrested Development.

Little John: I was helping Original Man develop their sound, so I moved to Atlanta with just $1,000 in my pocket. Jason looked around and found me a nice apartment in the West End, Cascade Heights. From there, I handpicked a bunch of musicians that I liked to play with and formed the Chronicle.

Orr: I put on my first FunkJazz Kafé event at the Royal Peacock and someone told me that I might want to do it at this new place, Yin Yang. I went by there and met the owners and dropped them a business card. But it was too small for FunkJazz. I went back and told Will G that he should go do an event there. I put him in touch with the Chronicle.

click to enlarge MOST LIKELY TO HANG WITH KNIFE-WIELDING CHEFS: Andre Zarka (from left), Reggie Ealy, unknown, Paul Sobin
  • MOST LIKELY TO HANG WITH KNIFE-WIELDING CHEFS: Andre Zarka (from left), Reggie Ealy, unknown, Paul Sobin

DJ Kemit: We were a straight improv band. This is how we would plan our sets: Ten to 15 minutes before we would go on, John or somebody would say, "This is what I'm playing tonight. I'm doing a hip-hop set or a FunkJazz set." And then we'd go from there -- "We're gonna go to Mars." That was our thing. We'd say, "Let's take it to Mars, and I'll see y'all when we get back."

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