Baltimore's multicultural playground

Culture: Thriving ethnic communities add to the diversity of food and entertainment that can be enjoyed in the region.

November 14, 1999|By Robyn F. Johnson | Robyn F. Johnson,Special to the Sun

There's a wealth of culture in metropolitan Baltimore, born of thriving ethnic communities and kept alive through food, stories and song.

State tourism officials see a gold mine and are developing a brochure touting the state's diversity.

"It really hasn't been done in a comprehensive way, and that's what we want to do," says Hannah Byron of the state division of tourism. "We need a way to tell the story to make it interesting to bring people to the state."

Interviews in the Baltimore area show the range of entertainment is not limited to Maryland's largest city. Good times are found everywhere, from dining and dancing in Randallstown to a Howard County market specializing in the rich and varied aspects of Asian culture.

Old flavor of 'The Avenue'

There's no dance floor at Courtney's Restaurant and Lounge, but that's a minor detail on Tuesday nights.

"You can dance anywhere you want to dance," says Ricardo "Mr. Rick" Martin, a Department of Defense employee and regular at the Randallstown nightspot.

Customers line up in the middle of the restaurant and dance to oldies. They're dressed in business suits and jogging suits, in high-heeled shoes or their stockinged feet. The attire doesn't matter as long as one rule is followed: Have fun.

At Courtney's "some of the old flavor of Pennsylvania Avenue still exists," says Norman Ringgold, a human resources development consultant. Ringgold remembers "The Avenue" in its heyday when well-to-do African-Americans frequented the Sphinx Club and everybody found a seat at the Royal Theater.

Courtney's is the culmination of a dream for owner Sallie Ferguson. She wanted a place with the comfortable feel and food of her childhood in the Carolinas.

The menu boasts of down-home favorites such as candied yams, collard greens and, on Sundays, hog maws and chitterlings. Collages depicting the cultural history of African-Americans hang from the walls. In addition to dancing on Tuesdays, there's jazz on Saturday nights. The patrons, ranging from 20-something to 80-something, insist you don't have to be African-American to enjoy Courtney's.

Want to salsa?

In Fells Point, a former movie theater has become the Latin Palace, the place to dance the merengue or salsa. The building is home to Las Palmas Restaurant, Casa Salsa Dance Club, conference rooms and a cigar lounge.

Owner J. Enrique Ribadeneira says the idea for the Latin Palace came from Baltimore's Hispanic community. People wanted a gathering place built on the themes of community involvement and enterprise.

"We felt that there was a need to bring something different," Ribadeneira says, standing under an enormous chandelier near the building's entrance. "So far the response has been fantastic."

The music, diverse clientele and international menu combine to give guests a taste of Miami's South Beach in Baltimore. Whether the palate craves pasticcio, plantains or paella, award-winning chef Jose Villanueva brings his own touch to the dining table.

After dinner in the second-floor restaurant, it might be time to take a turn on the Casa Salsa dance floor. Teachers give classes in the fluid movements of Latin dance styles. Some of the students are naturals and some seem to have two left feet, but there is joy in learning.

Lively rhythms of klezmer

Equally upbeat and lively rhythms can be found in klezmer, a style of Jewish music. "Sadegurer Chussidl" may not ring a bell, but in klezmer it is as popular as "Hava Nagila."

Klezmer's earliest roots date to 16th-century Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Traveling musicians, known as klezmorim, played at weddings and other events and picked up gypsy melodies along the way. A resurging interest in klezmer over the past 20 years has brought in such diverse influences as reggae and country western, Tchaikovsky and Jimi Hendrix.

"Jewish music has always been fluid," said Mayer Pasternak, vice president of Tara Publications. His Owings Mills-based company makes a wide range of Jewish music and cultural information available through its Web site (http://www.jewishmusic.com).

The rhythms of traditional klezmer somersault through the air, bend around the ears, jump into the feet and dare the body to resist the urge to dance. Listening to the music is like riding a roller coaster. Songs build, pause, then fly fast and furious until coming to a complete stop.

Maryland is home to several klezmer groups, including Avraham Rosenblum and Diaspora, Machaya Klezmer Band, Charm City Klezmer and the Baltimore Klezmer Orchestra. The Tummelers, four medical professionals, studied old recordings to make their music as authentic as possible.

"We have a responsibility to transmit this music," said Dr. Judy Stamberg, a genetics professor at the University of Maryland Medical School and the group's pianist. "I don't want this music to get lost."

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