- Ron Mason Gassaway
- The Mudai Lounge
Back when we first caught wind that the Mudai Lounge was ceasing to operate as a live music venue we were upset, seeing how the space within the Ethiopian restaurant had become one of the consistently great outsider venues in town. The room was cramped, the bar was limited, and the speakers were shredded, but the bands were sensational and the crowd would feel it; you got the vibe that you were walking into a 21+ house show and that someone was about to call the cops. Plus it smelled like berbere. That's the kind of void that doesn't fill easily at a time when most venues in town are increasingly marketing themselves to our suburban neighbors and unfortunately, it's going to be one of the most difficult spots to replace.
So what happened? How did Mudai reach the breaking point? When I caught up with bartender/booker Tony Prato at SMMR BMMR, it was clear that he was relieved and just wanted to move on from his whirlwind stint at Mudai, but not before he told his story at least one more time. We knew something was off about the place, but Tony's version of events is a lot more curiously fucked than we ever imagined.
[Our numerous attempts to confirm accusations in this story with Belay Girmay at Mudai Lounge were unsuccessful.—Ed.]
END HITS: Hey Tony, so tell me. What has been your role in the local music scene over the years?
TONY: I first became involved by hosting a show on KPSU that featured local music. It somehow became more popular than I could keep up with—there's some really embarrassing footage out there of me interviewing my very first guest, Alela Diane [We found it!—Ed.]—and I ended up hosting dozens and dozens of bands before I'd really even gotten a feel for the scope of the scene. I also started to volunteer putting on a run of all ages shows on PSU campus called The Modern Age, which ran every other Friday for about a year and a half. While at the station, I was trained in sound engineering and mixed more in-studio sessions than I'd ever be able to count. I also worked as the Programming Director for a year and some change, during which time I put a real big emphasis on local music. During this time, I started sitting in as a member of the PDX Pop Now booking committee, and have continued to do so through this year.
After PSU, I worked for Matt King as a booking/production assistant at Berbati's Pan. A few weeks after I was cut from staff there, I started at Mudai.
How long did you work for the Mudai Lounge?
Since February 2010, around the time it re-opened.
What was your role there? Did it change over time?
I was originally hired to tend bar once per week. The bar was re-opening after having been shut down for an extended period of time. I'm not sure exactly what the circumstances of it being shut down that time were; I've heard conflicting stories. My roommate at the time had convinced the owner, Belay Girmay, to re-open the bar and let her run it. I was really skeptical when I first heard about this happening.
My initial duties were pretty much just serving drinks and keeping drug dealers out of the place. We'd been asked to bring in a different crowd than who'd been there before, but that was proving to be a difficult task for inner-NE Broadway. The money wasn't good, but I had free time on my hands, and we were given free run of the place, so we were enjoying it. I booked a show there (The Woolen Men and The Wild Yaks) after being unable to find a place for it anywhere else. It went surprisingly well, I was asked to book more shows, and I took on an additional shift. Before I finished what I thought was going to be a month-long run of shows, my roommate/manager had broken down and quit, taking another bartender with her. I was already booked out for a few months though, and someone had lent us a PA, so I stepped up to take over the day to day operations, negotiated a slightly better (but still undesirable) pay scale, found new bartenders to staff the place, and kept on putting shows on the calendar. My exact role was never concretely defined, so I became the de facto problem-solver for situations far beyond what I ever imagined. Meanwhile, bands kept on recommending the place to friends, and it just kept on snowballing. I worked there in some capacity about six days a week (we were closed on Mondays, except on special occasions) from April 2010 until July 2011. I also took on the task of buying (out of my pocket) and maintaining all of the sound gear after we had to return our loaner PA.
What happened? People seem surprised that the place is shutting down.
In short, it shut down because we all quit. It's really hard to explain why that was without sounding like I'm just airing a bunch of dirty laundry, but behind the scenes, there were some pretty major problems. The biggest of which was that we never got paid fairly.
I'd re-negotiated how we got paid a few times, but it was never fair. This made it very difficult to keep the bar properly staffed. I was constantly running in circles needing to cover shifts that no one else would work, then not having enough time to concentrate on booking, therefore having more open dates on the calendar that no one wanted to work. No one wanted to make a case to BOLI [Bureau of Labor and Industries] either, because no one was sure what the outcome of that would be. We wanted to continue putting on shows, so we protected the interests of the business and put up with what was going on. In fact, I worked really hard to sugar-coat the whole thing, as I was pretty sure that I'd never find a customer base if people knew how unfairly we were being treated.
Then there was the issue of security. I had a lot of sound gear that was sitting in a building with no functioning security system. I would wake up in cold sweats some times after having nightmares of my sound system disappearing. I don't even want to get into the amount of cash we were carrying out of there at night, in that neighborhood, but that too made me nervous.
And of course there was just the overall mismanagement of the entire establishment. Even when he was around, Belay never seemed to understand how much effort I put into having music there, which was the only thing supporting his business. Then it got to the point where I rarely even saw him anymore. The restaurant wasn't making any money, and I was expected to bring in all of the income for the entire building, but was given no resources to do it. Orders wouldn't get paid for, and we'd run out of necessary items, like soda, and be forced to pay higher prices for lower-quality products at the grocery store. Often times, Belay wouldn't be around, so I'd lend money to the business just to stock the bar, which created an unending cycle of paying myself back with money from the register, then not having enough cash left to pay for another order, so I'd have to lend money in again. Things kept on breaking, but nothing was getting fixed.
It got to the point where I knew I'd have to make a decision to leave. I was really starting to wonder what kind of pitfalls were waiting around the next corner, so I made an estimate for how much longer it could last and stuck to it. I gave it one month from June 21st, booked a really solid run of shows starting in July, and cancelled everything after. I wanted to make a formal announcement about the final shows to the press, but I wanted to give my notice first. Belay was nowhere to be found, and wasn't answering his phone. I didn't see him again for three weeks, but by that time I was so wrapped up in the day to day that I never got the chance to make a formal announcement, which is why I'm talking about it after the fact now.
The last month felt like bringing a plane in for a crash landing, and just hoping that the wings didn't fall off at the last minute. Another metaphor I've used is Tetris. It kept on getting harder and harder, and as good as you get, you know that eventually everything is going to fail. There was a new challenge every single day in that last month. One by one, all but one fridge in the entire building broke. Supplies had to be carried from Safeway every single day. I found out that there was no ASCAP license and they sent us a notification to pay licensing fees for what they estimated to be a 275 capacity venue (I'm told the capacity was 50). Restaurant staff didn't show up for days at a time, leaving the bar in violation of OLCC rules about having food available. When they did show up, they would leave doors unlocked that I didn't have keys to. I can't believe we made it through. I can't believe this whole experience even happened.
How did you conceptualize the role of the Mudai Lounge in the Portland music scene?
It was a perfect storm that allowed it to happen when it did. I reluctantly took the bartending job, someone lent us a PA, somehow none of the neighbors cared about the noise (and neither did the police, for that matter) and there had been a hole to fill as a lot of other venues were closing. Mudai's upsurge came at the same time that a lot of other underground/DIY spaces were disappearing. Most notably, in my mind: Dekum Manor, Ducketts, and Dunes. Suddenly there was a need for more show spaces in NE, and we were able to fill that hole. As I mentioned before, my original intention was not to turn the place into a venue. If I lied and said that I had a master plan for Mudai, I would say that my goal was to create a space where people could experience creative, uncommon forms of music in an unassuming setting that didn't feel as if the subcultures that it catered to were being repackaged and sold back to its participants. At least, that's what I've always wanted in a venue, and I think that's what we had for awhile.
My ethos for booking was fairly simple: work with music you're passionate about, make sure performers feel comfortable with the space, and make sure everybody leaves happy. When Tuviya Edelhart (aka Toby) joined the team in the fall of last year, things really took off. We had similar ideas for what a show space should be, but different enough interests that we were constantly expanding each others' horizons. While I had been booking more rock 'n' roll/garage/art-punk bands, he brought in a much heavier scene, and the two of them meshed really well together.
What do you think will happen now that Mudai is closing?
We've been mourning the loss of a lot of venues in Portland over the past year, but we really haven't been celebrating emerging spaces. I guess it's easier to look back fondly than to look forward with hope, but there will always be something new to replace what was. Of course, it's hard to sing the praises of any space too soon, but there are plenty of good venues in this city that have stood the test of time: The Know, East End, and Valentines are all of a similar size as Mudai was, and they'll probably all leave a much bigger impact than Mudai's short stint as a show space did.
But, there was something unique about Mudai's vibe. To speak in marketing terms, there was a demographic that we reached with Mudai that is otherwise not entirely or inappropriately catered to, and I don't know if anyone is going to figure out how to reach that audience again. A lot of new bars I see opening up look very polished and suburbanite-friendly, and the ones that aren't don't seem to be able to reach a large enough crowd to survive. For years we've been seeing old gritty Portland being overtaken by condo-dwelling "put a bird on it" culture, yet I know that there is a large group of people that want something other than that. I guess the question is whether or not someone is going to figure out what that is and how to provide it.
I also think we're going to see a few D.I.Y. spaces popping up, which is not something you can analyze in marketing terms. There is a strong will within the underground music scene of Portland, and it will find a way.
How was the last show?
The last show was Macrocosm, Edibles, and Blood Beach. It was one of those rare occasions when I got three bands that I think should play together, but haven't, to all come together on the same bill. From garage-psych to psych-rock to psych-metal, it was a very psychedelic night. I'm really happy that Macrocosm played last. They were the the perfect band to close the book on Mudai. If you were there, you know what I'm talking about. There's video out there, but if it's not burned into your memory, it's probably not quite the same.
How do you feel about moving on? What's next for you?
There's a range of emotions. Obviously, there was some turmoil, but all in all, I turned a crack den into a music venue with no resources other than my laptop and my cell phone. I did that. If I can figure out exactly how to market those skills, I'm sure I'll be alright.
[Our numerous attempts to confirm accusations in this story with Belay Girmay at Mudai Lounge were unsuccessful.—Ed.]