For years I have had a love/hate relationship with Key West. Although its an entertaining place to visit, its “party town” image makes it seem plastic and phony. The island is rich in history, local lore, and is home to a vibrant, multi-ethnic culture, however I have never been able to break through the tourist facade to discover the real Key West. Until now.
A week ago Sunday, on my way home from having dinner in Old Town, I heard music coming from a side street. This is not unusual. From the street musicians on Duval to the raunchy honky-tonk of the Country and Western Bars, to the lady boys belting out their Streisand impersonations, music is ever present in Key West.Â What caught my attention was the type of music – somewhere nearby, a woman was singing and playing an acoustic guitar. Even from a distance I could tell she was spectacular.
I followed the music to Sippin’ Internet Cafe and Coffee Shop, a tiny storefront on Eaton Street that might easily have gone unnoticed but for the open mic night that was underway. It was obviously a local crowd, and I stood outside on the sidewalk, wondering if I would be welcome. Noticing my hesitation, a grey-bearded gentleman sitting near the open front door motioned insistently for me to join the crowd. I ventured inside and grabbed an open spot on a sofa. As I sunk into its deep, comfortable cushions, it became obvious that this was no common gathering of talent. Leah Orlikowski, the singer I had initially heard, was incredible. Her hauntingly spiritual voice and original compositions gave me goosebumps; rarely have I heard a voice so pure and on key. But Leah was just the first performer of the night to blow me away. She was followed by her “significant other,” Eben White, who arranges the Sunday night events and is also a fine singer and composer who puts me in mind of James Taylor.
Poetry was next. A tall African American woman stepped up to the mike. Waist-length dreadlocks framed her mahogany face; white eyes bored through us as she surveyed the audience fiercely. From the back of the room, someone yelled: “Hey Dada – you angry tonight? Be nice to these white folk now!” She delivered her original poem with a passion that made me shiver. Such intensity – like no poetry I have ever head before. I half expected the spectators to snap their fingers, like beatniks in smoky coffee houses during the 50’s, but this venue was smoke free and the performers were instead rewarded with applause, whistling, and hooting. Dada grinned shyly, revealing a brilliant white smile, and handed off the mike.
Next, Iris Lewis offered up more of this unique genre with her original poem “The Storm.” As her partner, Emak McKenith, beat out a rhythm on the conga and bongos, she leaned in close to the mike and with her eyes half closed, began to recite in a sing-song cadence. Her soft, dusky voice became the howling winds and hissing rains and the indifferent government. It was powerful beyond description. When I later spoke with Iris she described her work as “Percussion, Crooning, and Poetry – or “PCP” – adding with a grin that it “carries you to a different dimension.” Being a child of the 60’s, I understood immediately.
By the end of the evening I knew I had finally begun to discover the real Key West, Florida. Anxious to know more, I sought out the owners of the shop, Onett and Penny Johnson. The Johnsons never imagined they would own a coffee shop. Onett worked as a salesman for Hewlett-Packard for 22 years. Although he was based out of North Carolina he also serviced customers in Florida, so his company had no objections when, in 2002, he asked if he could relocate to Key West. When HP reorganized three years later, the company insisted he move to Miami because it “didn’t send the right message that a manager of his status was not in the office every day.” Rather than leave his beloved Key West, Onett took early retirement. He began looking around for a local business opportunity and discovered that the coffee shop was for sale.
“When we bought it, a young teen crowd was doing hip-hop poetry once a week, and I thought it would be really cool to make it like an old Beat cafe,” said Onett. He capitalized on an emerging genre known as “poetry slams” that began in Chicago in the early 1980’s and are closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music and draw heavily on the tradition of dub poetry, a rhythmic and politicized genre belonging to black and particularly West Indian culture. Over the ensuing years, the popularity of poetry slams skyrocketed, with contests being held around the country.
Key West had for years been hosting the Annual Key West Robert Frost Poetry festival. Onett arranged for Sippin’ Cafe to become a sponsor of the event and the venue for the first ever Robert Frost Poetry Slam. He then announced the Cafe would have an open mic night, hoping to attract slammers who wanted to practice prior to the contest. Not only has the open mic night been enormously successful, the Robert Frost Poetry Slam was so well attended that the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk and into the street.
“The really interesting thing is that you can come to our open mic one Sunday and hear great performers, and then come back the following week and hear a completely different group of performers that are equally good,” said Onett. Curious, I returned this past Sunday and once again was blown away by the local talent. One young man, using only his mouth, made rhythmic clicking and percussion noises that sounded for all the world like he was playing a full set of drums. Another performed Hawaiian tunes on a ukulele. And of course, Leah performed again, this time singing mostly her original songs. The video below was made a couple of years ago during a New Orleans road trip and the quality is not great, but it will give you an idea of her pure voice and powerful bluesy style as she performs St. James Infirmary:
Midway through the evening someone yelled: “Hey Crazy Dave, come play something for us.” A tall dude stuck his red-bandana wrapped head in the door, grinned, and said: “I ain’t got no guitar with me.” No worries – there was one he could borrow. Clad only in khaki pants and an open vest that revealed his broad barrel chest, he perched on a stool and effortlessly launched into a series of songs. Crazy Dave was one fine guitarist; I was not surprised to hear that had toured with Ray Price and cavorted with the likes of Willie Nelson.
All this talent, along with the way I was welcomed, makes me wonder whether I could live here. After all, I do have an empty apartment that I could just as easily move into as rent out. And now I have a coffee shop to hang out in. But whether or not I ever live here, I will always be grateful to have finally discovered the “real” Key West.