On any given Friday or Saturday night, you’ll arrive at Island Paradise to a line of people that stretches down the side of the building. As you get closer to the entrance, the heat and music waft outward from the opened door. Finally, once you are ushered in, the atmosphere enfolds you — it’s a feeling that’s similar to stepping off an airplane into the warmth of the tropics. The sounds and rhythms of the Caribbean and Africa pulsate from the sound system, as people inch their way through the crowded space, and the tiny dance floor is packed with couples moving to the beats. Welcome to Island Paradise.
Island Paradise is run by partners Tennyson Williams and Karl Tomlinson, who have created a winning formula. They opened Island Paradise in November of 1997, but it had been in the works for many years. Tennyson and Karl are both from Kingston, Jamaica, and they met in the late 1980s in San Jose. “We did our own little promotion business–DJ business,” said Karl, and while they both worked in other professions, they maintained their “fundamental desire to stay connected to our roots. The best way we knew how to do that was through the music that got us through some of the tough times as we were growing up. It’s the desire to perpetuate the culture, the vibes, the feeling.”
Their vision was to provide a place for the hard-working people of the African Diaspora to go to celebrate, to listen and dance to their music, and to connect with others from their homelands. According to Tennyson, “We knew that Caribbean, Central American, South American, and African people were looking for ways to express themselves after a hard day at work. Being that we were all aliens here, that we knew what it was like to be working and we knew that, come Friday, we were all looking for something to do.”
Another reason for the success of Island Paradise Club is its musical diversity. The club’s DJs spin a varied format, mixing reggae, R&B, salsa, soukous, merengue and dancehall. “We want the DJs to play a mixture of music,” explained Tennyson, “to create a blend to make an evening entertaining. In my opinion, it becomes somewhat boring to play the same music, the same rhythm, over and over again. We try to offer a variety.” This mix keeps the dance floor lively by offering selections to please the clientele who hail from throughout the world.
While Island Paradise was created to be a place to break out and have fun, they have also struck a balance by building an “adult” atmosphere. “Our goal is to attract the more mature crowd, so what we have done with the style of music is we try to minimize the hip-hop, the dancehall (I use the term loosely) plus we maintain a strong dress code. And we ID check everyone for 21 years and older. We feel that the more mature crowd had been disenfranchised and that’s who we are looking for,” said Tennyson. Chuckling, he added, “Being a more mature person myself, I know what I’m looking for in a nightclub.”
The club offers an annual membership, fostering a sense of community. “We wanted to offer the folks that come on a frequent basis some kind of a discount on how to get in. If you come often and support us, you should get some benefit. If you calculate it out, buying a membership is very inexpensive. The membership does help create a sense of community, because you are now a member of the IP Club,” said Tennyson. “We also try to do things for different groups: the Jamaica Association has their parties here, birthday parties, office parties. We open it up for all kinds of events.”
On most nights Tennyson and Karl are in attendance along with the manager, Tommi. They make it a point to greet regular customers and make newcomers feel welcome with their natural charm and approachability. When asked about this strong feeling of community at Island Paradise, Karl replied, “one of the reasons we are so successful is that we have a group of regulars who watch over the club as if it is their own. They make sure to keep us up-to-date on what’s happening.”
Unlike most clubs in the Bay Area, Island Paradise runs all week long, with different formats each night. “It’s a little bit more low-key on the weekdays,” said Tennyson. “Monday nights we have Monday Night Football. On Tuesdays we have Karaoke, which is pretty lively — we get folks who are great singers and folks who are just doing it for fun. Wednesdays feature Old School R&B.’ Thursdays we go more to the dancehall-type rhythms. We have a new Jamaican DJ from Atlanta, DJ Ace, and we are going to feature him on Thursdays, and then Fridays and Saturdays we have the rotating DJs.” (The club is closed on Sundays through the winter of 2000-01).
As far as featuring live music in the club, Tennyson said, “We have no problem doing live shows but we need to get acts that will stimulate business, and often that’s difficult. Here in the Bay Area, folks seems to lean toward DJs. In some parts of the country bands are still prevalent, but for some reason, here they prefer to hear DJs.”
According to Karl, he and Tennyson have built a solid working partnership, where their strengths balance each other out. When they disagree they manage to come to a middle ground on what works to keep the partnership and the business going forward and being strong. Karl mused, “You have to get to what’s the real issue–What’s the fear? The hope?”
It’s a winning combination, and the club recently celebrated its third anniversary in November 2000 with a jam-packed party catered by Elaine. But when they first opened the club, they had no idea of the resistance they would face by opening their business in Alameda, the former site of the U.S. Navy base.
Tennyson explained, “To be honest, we didn’t know what Alameda was all about. We had to fight off a lot of people who stereotype what it is that we’re trying to do. Obviously most of the people here at the club are of African descent, and [the people of Alameda] were focused on what they perceived we were all about, based on their upbringing. But they didn’t realize that we are from a different culture and therefore their understanding of what we are all about is a lot different. It was a challenge.” To overcome these stereotypes, Tennyson and Karl met with the police department, the chief of police, the fire department.
“We got involved with the local business association. I was a member and on the board of the West Alameda Business Association,” said Tennyson. They also joined in the local activities. “We participated in the 4th of July Parade, to bring the Caribbean culture to them, so they could understand that there was nothing to fear. It was great, we had costumes and the music, and it was a lot different than what they were used to. They were used to the 4th of July Parade being a military parade.” Tennyson agreed that they’ve helped to change the face of Alameda.
The future looks bright for IP. When asked about their plans, Tennyson responded, “We are actively looking to find a bigger place that has a kitchen that would enable us to present the flavor and color and the greatness of the different cultures that we represent. Elaine caters, which is nice, but if we can offer dinner so folks can come, eat and stay for the music, we’d love to be able to make that happen.”
At the end of another busy Friday evening, when Tommi was asked what has kept her working at Island Paradise, she responded, “It’s the music. It’s happy music and it’s good for the soul.” An Oakland native, she didn’t know anything about reggae and Caribbean music when she started at the club when it first opened. “Now, if I don’t hear the music for a few days, I miss it.”
The music, the people, the culture. At the far end of Webster Street in Alameda, California, Island Paradise is a unique venue where you can be transported to the tropics, year-round.
For more information about Island Paradise’s entertainment schedule and for detailed directions to the club, check out their web page at: http://www.islandparadiseclub.com