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Santa Monica DJ lounge Zanzibar finds the comfort zone

By Justin Hampton

   When a club owner starts a new club in an old one’s location, more than the name needs to change. An entire transformation is in order to brush away the cobwebs – and the bad memories – that a seasoned nightlife audience may hold against you. Such are the challenges that Nettie and Louie Ryan faced when they took over The West End in Santa Monica and turned it into Zanzibar.
   Prior to the Ryans’ purchase of the space, The West End was known for disco nights and rock/reggae cover bands that catered to a frat crowd. But the couple had already constructed a successful live music venue in the area with the Temple Bar (and even earlier with Louie’s first venue, the Scrap Bar in New York City), and figured they could do the same for the failing club when it came up for sale. “One can tell after years in the business that a particular location is just begging for a fresh start,” says Louie. “We felt that this was the case with The West End.”
   And thanks to some judicious and tasteful choices in music and décor, the Ryans have seen their Moroccan-themed DJ lounge Zanzibar take off quickly within the area. Barely open a year, the club already houses DJ Jason Bentley (KCRW radio jock and music supervisor for The Matrix film series) and his eclectic bossa:nova club night, and has hosted special DJ sets from Herbert and Afrika Bambaataa, as well as live performances by Bay Area hip hoppers Blackalicious. Though he presents the occasional live acts, Louie Ryan has reserved this club specifically for DJs who can select from a vast array of urban music to suit the sophisticated, multicultural Los Angelinos that attend.
“We believe that the West Side of L.A. did not have a real dance club offering the layout and sound that this particular room had,” he says. “We felt because of our strong connections to the music industry through the success of Temple Bar, that the next logical step was for us to offer another great venue, [but] this time highlighting the high-caliber DJ talent that we only get a little taste of at Temple Bar.”

Casual Elegance
   Much had to be changed with regards to the layout. The West End had a basic black-box décor with virtually none of the continental cool the Ryans wanted for their new space. They had planned to use some of the furnishings originally in The Temple Bar, but went instead with an “eastern-Buddhist” motif. Says Louie: “The space tells us where to go as the ideas unfold.”
   In addition to their own ideas, the Ryans enlisted interior designer Nathalie Cohen to assist them. Having worked on television and film commercials, Cohen was ideally suited to realize the Ryans’ vision at a reasonable price. “There’s some really great designers out here in L.A., and I found that even the places that were done up were so overdone that they were cold – I was afraid to walk in,” says Cohen of her research into similarly themed bars and restaurants in the area. “And I also remembered that these people had a special situation. It was going to be a DJ lounge, so it had to be different; [a place in which a] 20-, 30-something crowd [would] feel comfortable. They don’t want to feel like they’re in their grandmother’s antique living room.”
   The main room of Zanzibar offers a study in casual elegance. The former band stage was turned into a DJ booth, with two lounge areas to each side featuring low tables and poufs. The black drink rails were knocked down to make more space on the varnished hardwood dancefloor, and another lounge area next to the sound booth was included. “We ended up doing soft architecture,” Cohen elaborates. “We decided to divide the room up with 14-foot-high, four-foot-wide chocolate linen curtains that slide really freely [from the ceiling]. So if you want to divide up the stages with those free-floating curtains, it sort of blocks off the sound, and it makes it a little more private, but you can open them up. They’re fun. I went to go see the club when it was packed one night and there were people sort of playing around with them.”

Restrained Sound,
Soft Light

For sound and especially lighting, the Ryans decided that in the case of Zanzibar, less was definitely more. The club’s sound engineer Swan Montgomery worked for many years as The West End’s primary soundman, and currently works at The Temple Bar, so he had a deep understanding of Zanzibar’s legacy system, which includes Carvin loudspeakers with various power sources (Crest, QSC, Yamaha and JBL) and varied signal processing (Rane, Symetrix, AB, DOD, DigiTech, Alesis and Yamaha). The DJ booth features a Pioneer DJM-600 mixer, two Technics turntables, two Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD players, and a JBL SR4702 monitor.
   As for lighting, Zanzibar’s system is meant to create an intimate, subdued atmosphere. Montgomery counts about 20 par-56 cans trained on the stage, as well as two Martin 812 RoboScans and some Martin StarFlash units, which are handled by Martin’s since-discontinued 2008 controller. In addition, up to five slide projectors are brought in at a time, projecting images of Hindu gods and North African art onto the walls to add to the atmosphere.
   During the late part of the afternoon, the main portion of the club is closed, and a side bar (referred to by Irish expatriate Louie as a “snug”) opens for Happy Hour, attended by many West Side media professionals. And while extra audio can easily be added to this room, the Ryans choose to keep the speakers out. “Sometimes if you want to go to an area of the club where you just want to get away from it for a little bit, the sound doesn’t get into that area,” says Montgomery. “You can hear it, but it’s not going to be very loud, so you can at least be able to have a conversation. And some people like to be able to do that, and come back into the scene and dancing and everything.”
“That Best-Kept-Secret Feel”
From the looks of it, the Ryans’ instincts have paid off quite handsomely. Bentley, who approached the Ryans about moving the bossa:nova night over to Zanzibar during the club’s renovation period, finds his new home a vast improvement over the club night’s previous residency at Santa Monica’s Club Sugar. Since the move, bossa:nova has presented such global talents as Germany’s Trüby Trio and England’s Mr. Scruff. “We always had a few fundamental problems with Sugar, such as building/soundproofing issues, no full bar, and a lack of promotional support,” says Bentley, “so I saw Zanzibar as a unique opportunity to come into a newly renovated venue, and partner with a group of people who I genuinely trust and like. [Zanzibar] feels like another world, and definitely has that best-kept-secret feel at this point. When I play other gigs, which is frequent, it’s always an adjustment. Zanzibar feels like home base for me.”
   The Ryans have also achieved a subtle romantic mood that also keeps the young and single coming back. After the club’s grand opening, “[patrons] looked like they had lived in there forever,” Cohen recalls, “but it had only been open for a few days. There were people on the dancefloor, people leaning on the bar, having a drink, socializing and it was this beautiful mixed crowd, all ages. There were people making out on the couches, and I just turned to my boyfriend and said, ‘Well, that’s the biggest trophy I could get right there!’”

1301 5th Street,
Santa Monica, California,
(310) 451-2221

2 - Symetrix 532E dual channel 31-band graphic equalizers
1 - AB 215LT stereo 15-band graphic equalizer
1 - DOD 215 dual 15-band graphic equalizer
1 - Rane ME 15B microGraphic equalizer

1 - Alesis MicroVerb4 preset/programmable 18-bit signal processor
1 - DigiTech Studio Quad V2 multi effects processor
1 - Yamaha Reverb multi-effect processor

2 - Pioneer CDJ-1000 digital vinyl turntables
2 - Technics SL-1200 MK2 turntables
1 - JBL EON 4702 X two-way monitor
1 - Pioneer DJM-600 professional DJ mixer
1 - QSC PLX 3402 amplifier

4 - Carvin 15-inch two-way 400W speakers
4 - Carvin double 18-inch 1600W subwoofers
2 - Carvin double 15-inch three-way 800W speakers
1 - Carvin SL24 mixing console

2 - Crest CA12 power amplifiers
2 - Yamaha P3500 amplifiers
1 - CREST FAG01 amplifier
1 - Crest V900 power amplifier
1 - JBL MPX600 amplifier

20 - Par-56 cans
2 - Martin Professional 812 Roboscan scanners
1 - Martin Professional 2008 controller
Plus: Martin Professional StarFlash projectors

Copyright 2003 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2003 TESTA Communications