by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & lt;BR & & lt;BR & It's 11 pm and there's a baby on the dance floor. A pretty, dreadlocked woman in two or three layers of knit tops -- and at least as many layers of pants and wraps and skirts -- bobs around with the infant in a wide, woven sling. Despite being pummeled by wave after wave of low-end wattage, the child (who turns out to be the daughter of one of tonight's DJs, JAH) appears to be sleeping comfortably.
The voice of DJ Split (in reggae parlance, opposite of hip-hop, the dude with the mic is the DJ) comes through the PA. "'Nuff love, nuff respect-pect-pect-ct-ct," the Nevis native says -- in a sharp Caribbean tenor cast adrift in echo and reverb and countless other effects -- "to Raw Island Sushi and Grille." The echo dies, the song rises back to the top of the mix and the dancing goes on.
It's Island Reggae Night at Raw, hosted by the local reggae collective, Real Life Sound. Red Stripes are on special. The rhythm is oscillating wildly between the familiar stutter stop of the classic reggae vibe and the ghetto thump of dancehall. Everywhere -- absolutely everywhere -- people are eating up this set.
Next to the woman with the baby, a short, barrel-shaped dude bends over, slaps his hands on the ground between his legs and shoves his ass in the air. He just sits there for a moment, then slowly begins wiggling around, making figure 8s in the air. He then stands up and turns toward the bar. A massive, sassy smile slaps across his face as he begins slow-grinding at no one in particular. His shirt says "Mama's Boy." It would seem like a joke if he hadn't been dancing that frantically and clumsily for the last hour, totally engrossed.
Another dozen girls occupy the floor as well, some clad in knits, clogs and $200 jeans, others in full club regalia (odd for a Wednesday). Strangers are dancing with each other. The three couples who had been snuggling in various corners over multiple bottles of wine before the set began are still necking furiously, but they're bobbing their heads.
There's little sense that the people here tonight are huge fans of reggae. They're Raw's normal clientele, mostly, entranced by this odd, refreshing spectacle in front of them. First, it was the way Split's mic worked over the more traditional, Marley-esque culture tunes favored by DJ Yochanon. Then it was the more rhythm-centric cuts of JAH, who folds house music and funk over a bed of throbbing dub. They might not be waiting on Zion, but they've connected deeply with Real Life's vibe.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hat was the whole idea. Hatched in a car ride by John Gardner (the DJ Yochanon of KYRS' Call on Yahweh reggae hour and that insane night at Raw) and his friend Juan (DJ Split), the idea, says Gardner, was using the built-in positivity of reggae to connect with people on another level. "There's lots of positive music, but this is where I come from, and Spokane's never experienced anything like it," Gardner muses "It's like Bob [Marley] said, 'One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.'"
For the totality of the job they envision, though -- not just reggae and dub music, but dancehall and acoustic work; not just music but poetry, politically conscious thought and rhetoric -- Yochanon and Split needed a crew. That's what they've spent the last year-plus developing -- and now they can boast a crew of roughly seven. In addition to Split, Yochanon and JAH, DJ Crow (who also spins under the "Small Cuts" moniker) and DJ Troylocs spin old and new dancehall ("those really heavy-hitting reggae shakers"); Daniel Zryiab is a politically minded poet and rhymer who also handles emcee duties; and Oren B Scripture is an "Arabic, Jewish-looking guy," whose acoustic guitar stylings bear the "trained in Jamaica" stamp.
With that variety of influences it ain't always going to be babies on the dance floor. You can always expect, though, something earnest and, for this town, foundation-shaking.
Real Life Sound at Raw Sushi on Wednesdays at 9 pm. Free. Call 747-0556.