Apr 12, 2017
Through the Looking Glass: A Portal through Time, Space, and Music at Bar LunAtico in Bed-Stuy
If you don’t live within a few-mile radius of Bar LunÀtico, it is unlikely that you’ve heard of it. But if, by chance, you were to stumble in there, I imagine you may find yourself flushed with the thrill of possibility and newness upon seeing the sheer amount of life packed into one long and narrow space—one that, if the laws of physics didn’t apply, gives the illusion of having materialized from out of nowhere, at will, like a circus in a caravan careening through a field. The next morning, you wonder if any of it actually happened, and if you will ever be able to find it again. Maybe that’s just the child in me wanting to believe in witchcraft and magic: music, after all, has this effect.
At the bar, I see two women nuzzling one another and asking Cameron Holmes, the deeply curious and affable bar manager, about the niche spirits in neat rows behind him (he could rattle off the history of each one as though recounting the lives of his relatives). In back, The John Chin Trio is bopping their heads, immersed in the zone of possession, and mouthing the notes to the song they were playing. And from my glass, I feel the smokey sting of mescal after someone passed the translucent liquor my way. This spirit, above all, is highly regarded by LunÀtico co-owner and singer-songwriter Richard Julian, who has played with the likes of Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt. He is a cool cat, if ever there were one.
The frenetic energy inside of this musical and communal anomaly is a stark contrast to the deserted side of Halsey. It was, and remains, an aberration in the area—and beyond—especially as live music venues continue to dwindle. The space is a cabinet of curiosities; the musical acts, an imprint of the owners’ interwoven histories.
When I try to express the particular spell that this place puts me under to co-owners and musicians Rosita Kèss, Arthur Kell and Richard Julian, I fall silent. When I try again it comes out jumbled, in spirited bouts. I believe this is what people refer to as fan-girling.
Arthur offers a sympathetic response. “I like a place where people could enter and aren’t quite sure where they are, because the band is different every night and the decor is not specific to any kind of vibe. Is it Argentinian-inspired? Is it New Orleans-inspired? Is it European-inspired? Is it Brooklyn-inspired?” The bassist of the triad, Arthur is also pensive and sometimes even prophetic. He wears a loose-fitting dark linen blazer, multicolored scarf, and denim, and I would learn later that he tends to speak only when he has something important to say.
I begin to take notice of the bric-a-brac resting on shelves and the various photographs and paintings spanning countries and decades, covering the walls. The handmade coasters transporting me to West Africa. The kitsch shark dangling from the ceiling and aqua green tiling on the bar triggering visions of Moroccan markets. The satirical LunÀtico prints and Rembrandt’s Nightwatch ferrying me to Europe.
“You’re going to be transported, but you’re not sure to where,” adds Richard Julian, in a proud tone that sounds like he’s formulated another piece of the bar’s continually evolving manifesto. He leans back in his tan boots, hat, and slim-fitting denim, and I, again, forget where I am: At the moment I pick up on New Orleans, the Jazz Quarter, on a late summer afternoon.
We all laugh in unison as Cameron plops a bottle of mescal on the table, pouring 2 ounce shots for me and Rosita, who looks like a pan-European folk vision in her polkadot blouse, billowing burnt orange blazer and hat with a scarf dangling like a tress of her honeyed hair from underneath it. She tells us, in her Italian lilt, that she’s going to do what people do with grappa in Italy, as she uses the mescal to rinse her finished cup of coffee, and then quaffs the mixed remains. Though Rosita is originally from Italy, she pledges no allegiance to any specific country—she is a nomad, intoxicated by her chosen state of motion.
As I sip my own mescal, Rosita, Richard and Arthur banter amongst themselves as though they’ve been doing it all their lives. Any attention or praise I give to one partner is deflected onto another. We all begin to forget the reason we met in the first place as chapulines (dried crickets) are passed to and fro and Floyd (Richard and Rosita’s son) swaggers in with his 70’s strawberry blonde fringe-framed do and dinosaur rain boots. When he tells me his favorite musician is Dr. John, I die a little inside. He is infinitely cooler than most anybody I’ve met, and certainly myself.
“I like them because they’re disgusting,” says Floyd, popping a chapuline in his mouth and returning to his reptilian-themed stamp masterpiece.
Leaving Floyd to his craft, they begin to tell me about the origins of their dreams, in which we are all now sitting and reveling.
“I can’t remember my life before this bar,” Arthur jokes, though he sounds like he means it as well. A bassist and composer, he has spent the last twenty-five years of his life wed to his music. It has brought him everywhere from India and Africa to Italy and Germany.
“The three of us all had a dream of opening a bar at some point,” says Rosita, surveying her surroundings. “I think that in every city, there aren’t enough places to play. We felt inspired to open it here, not as a strategy for being successful, but because we felt connected to the culture here in this neighborhood. There is a soulfulness here. A spontaneity and a graciousness mixed with a toughness. And we liked that because that’s the music that we were interested in presenting.”
Rosita credits her father—who had a knack for design, and once owned a live music bar in the Veneto region of Italy—for planting the decorative and musical seeds in her at a young age.
“I had been thinking about something like this ever since I first moved to New York in the 80s and saw these buildings with storefronts at the bottom,” says Richard in his Delta blues drawl. “I projected myself through those windows, owning a place, living there and running some bar. And this resembles my original vision. It’s almost uncanny.”
When I ask them what bar venues around the world they wanted to model their place after, they offer an immediate response—actually, several of them.
“Bar Semente in Brazil,” says Richard
“Das Hotel in Berlin,” adds Rosie.
“Bar Mundial in Barcelona,” joins Arthur, after some careful contemplation.
“It wasn’t necessarily a music bar that inspired me,” Rosita continues, “It was a combination of corners and colors.” Something about her world-muddled accent makes it sound like no wiser words have ever been spoken.
Richard, filled with admiration, looks at Rosita as she speaks, and interjects in agreement when she pauses.
“There were cafes and bars that inspired us as well. Because we’re musicians, finding musicians to play is easy”—there is live music at Bar LunÀtico six nights a week—“So we put more effort into the food and drink than the music. We were way more enthused about putting on a great cocktail menu and exploring that side of ourselves in which we weren’t professionals. And that’s how Cameron got on board. He brought a whole wealth of experience.”
Cameron smiles sheepishly as everyone else chimes in. It is apparent that he is continually humbled by the space and the people, and that they are humbled by him.
“It’s hard to not get obsessed with where the flavors and the ideas came from, and I think that’s similar to what’s going on with the music,” he says. “You hear a particular sound and you want to learn who wrote that, who arranged that. Where did it come from and why did they do it that way?” He shares the histories of some of his favorite terroir spirits that sit beneath a sign that reads “Liquid Love: A Sophisticated Meeting Place.” When I ask everyone what that is all about, they dive into a nearly 20 minute recounting of the sign’s origin that culminates with a photograph taken sometime during Larry’s Liquid Love’s (a now shut dive bar) heyday in the latter half of the 20th century. There is a grinning man in a suit in front of the bar and a buxom woman in a slinky black dress standing in the open door’s threshold. It is a thing of Bed-Stuy beauty, and it further solidifies my belief that Bar LunÀtico is that traveling circus caravan, accumulating curiosities and oddities on the way to, well, no one knows where.
“We just want people to dig what we’re digging. And for the most part, people seem to be along for the ride,” Cameron continues. I feel as though it’s incumbent on me to tell him that I am one of those people. I dig what they’re digging and so does every single person I have introduced Bar LunÀtico to. I dig that they decided to put Tchaka (Haitian Gumbo) on the menu when Tiga Jean Baptiste played. I dig their obsession with the absurdly large Liquid Love sign and how they modeled their bar shelves in order to ensure its inclusion. I dig the diversity of music that encompasses everything from Afro Beat, Forro and Bluegrass to Jazz, Tango and Samba. I dig the tip hat that makes it way down the long and narrow space, no cover charge necessary.
When I ask why they ultimately decided against a cover charge, Richard tells me that he modeled Bar LunÀtico after Park Slope’s Barbes. “I was impressed when I saw the waitress get up on the stage and suggest the ten dollar donation, so I just took that paradigm and transported it over here.” And it’s worked in spades. Everyone is all agog about contributing in whatever way they can.
I look over at Rosita and it seems as though one of those proverbial lightbulbs was just switched on.
“I just realized that the very first musician I tipped was Richard at Rockwood Music Hall.”
Richard raises a brow. “How much?” he asks, to which Rosie replies, “A lot. My life.” Everyone erupts in laughter.
I look over at Floyd, their baby son, and Richard tells me that Floyd starts his day asking Mom and Dad who’s playing music downstairs that evening. Every night, Floyd, Richard, and Rosita sit atop the rumble of vigorous, glorious, beat-behind, beat-ahead drumming. Ripping Eddie Hazel-esque guitar solos and rollicking Fats Domino-flaired piano parts. There is laughter, lively cross chatter, and crooning.
Earlier on in the conversation, Cameron told me how mescal is reflective of people who come from a very specific area. How there are people who pick plants from one particular place that may take 8 to 25 years to grow before they’re harvested. “You’re planting something that you’re not even going to harvest. It’s fathers teaching sons. It’s tradition.” I see Floyd, getting on with his reptilian-themed creation, unaware of what is being planted for him right there under his bed, in a state of continuous ripening, yielding untold future harvests.
486 Halsey St., Bed-Stuy
All photos by Jane Bruce
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