The Island Breeze, a Lowcountry Cultural Treasure Trove

 

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Yonchak’s dreads have been 49  years in the making.  Rastafari!

Last night (15 February 2020) Caroline and I wandered down to Mosquito Beach and the Island Breeze for some Jamaican irie-ites.

Three different reggae bands mixed and matched in some joyful musical gumbo-combo kung-fu drum-dancing positive vibration.

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Last night we witnessed something very unusual: a Lowcountry historic site still in the making. Mosquito Beach was recently named to the National Historic Register, but the heartbeat at the center of this special, still-evolving place is Norm & Norma of the Island Breeze…here is the story in brief:

The Island Breeze, cultural centerpiece of Mosquito Beach:

Norm Khouri and Norma Lemon, founders and proprietors.

As the Charleston community searches for direction in how to create an atmosphere of racial understanding and harmony, many are feeling grateful for the recent naming of Mosquito Beach to the National Historic Register.

In its heyday, the 1950s and ‘60s, Mosquito Beach was the premier entertainment mecca for African-Americans in the Charleston area. Mosquito Beach had a sixteen-room hotel, restaurants, and a pavilion where African-Americans danced to live music from well-known R&B groups. Charleston’s CBS affiliate, Channel 5, produced an American Bandstand-like dance program for African-Americans called Jump Time that announced upcoming Mosquito Beach events, as did the SCETV public service show The Job Man Caravan, hosted by Bill Terrell, which garnered SCETV its first Emmy.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, as drugs became prevalent in American society, a turf war broke out between young people in the Sol Legare Community and outside gangs. Mosquito Beach acquired the reputation of being a dangerous place, and not surprisingly, suffered economically as establishments closed down and the buildings that housed them fell into disrepair. However, over the last two decades, due to more frequent police patrols and a concerted attempt to reclaim its past glory, Mosquito Beach has turned the corner to become a vibrant gathering place. A major boon to the area in recent years has been the inspired and gracious efforts of Norm Khouri and Norma Lemon, proprietors of the Island Breeze restaurant.

Norm and Norma opened 2225 Mosquito Beach Dr. in 2016 as the Island Breeze, a Jamaican restaurant where the pavilion once stood. Now the centerpiece of Mosquito Beach, Norm and Norma’s restaurant is not only fun and successful, but is also a keystone of outreach for the Sol Legare community and beyond. Among many events, they host the yearly “Gullah – Geechee Famlee Days” and recently organized a fundraising event for Bahamian hurricane relief which generated over $11,000.00. Norm and Norma have welcomed the white communities of James Island and Folly Beach to eat, drink and enjoy music with locals. Word has gotten out about Norm and Norma, both for their restaurant’s richness of character and for the reliability of their business practices. Hollywood has taken note: they recently worked with Netflix, their setting transformed into a scene in Haiti for the series Black Earth Rising, and HBO has asked to film another series there.

But most days at the Island Breeze, you will hear simply the rich intonations of the Lowcountry’s African-American patois, men telling tales of racing boats in the creek, or remembering dancing at the pavilion. You might hear folk historians on open mike night tell of the area’s rich lore, or the struggles of the civil rights era. It is no longer surprising, because of the Island Breeze, to see white people at Mosquito Beach, looking to support this important part of Charleston culture, and simply to relax and enjoy themselves. The Island Breeze embodies African-American memories of Mosquito Beach’s past, and Norm and Norma have singlehandedly—and extraordinarily effectively—taken the lead on opening up a space for a more racially integrated future in Charleston.

~ Caroline and Wesley Moore

From last night:

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And Some pix from the past for your viewing pleasure:

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Norma Lemon (on left)

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Norman Khouri (on left)

Island Breeze pool

You can play pool there for free!


[1] Let me be clear. Not only don’t have anything against juke joints, I dig them. My point is that the Island Breeze is so much more, a museum-like venue where Mosquito Beach’s own James Brown (no, not that James Brown, not the Godfather of Soul) can provide eloquent oral histories of both segregation and funkification, a place where Caribbean culture manifests itself in music, cuisine, and language.

Cool Runnings, Island Breezes

the porch at Island Breeze

When I was a kid, Channel 5, Charleston’s CBS affiliate, broadcast a locally produced American Bandstand-like dance show called Jump Time. Hosted by (I think) Big Bob Nichols, the show featured local African American teens dancing to the magnificent R&B and soul hits of the mid-60s. I tuned in religiously, and in between numbers, Big Bob (or whoever it was) would catalogue upcoming events in the exaggerated smoothness of his on-air radio voice. One of the most frequently mentioned party sites was Mosquito Beach.

Back then Folly was off limits for blacks, so they came up with their alternative. When I was watching Jump Time, I’d conjure images of a strand with a pavilion swarming with dancers listening to the likes of Rufus Thomas live. The name, Mosquito Beach, enhanced the air of mystery, its negative connotation for me reversed the way African American argot tends to flip negative denotations and turn them positive, like funky connoting not the odor of mullet-gone-bad but the syncopated riffs of Jimmy Nolan chopping away at “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

Mosquito Beach back in the day (courtesy of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History an Culture)

Truth is ain’t no ocean at Mosquito Beach, though it does front a gorgeous Lowcountry marshscape. Unfortunately, over the years, the beach became rather notorious for black-on-black violence and developed the reputation of being a place where white people weren’t welcome.

I have a pal who owns the funkiest spot on Folly, Chico-Feo. Hank had mentioned before that he used to hang out at this black roadhouse on Folly Road called Phas 2. I asked him if he’d ever been to Mosquito Beach, and he said sure. He offered to take me out there to introduce to Norman and Nora, owners of the Island Breeze, a kickass cool bar/restaurant with a huge backyard that boasts a covered stage.

I’m the kind who doesn’t like to share. I didn’t dig it when loudmouth attendants of a destination wedding party showed up at Chico, and I’m very leery of getting the word out about the Island Breeze. Like most natives of this area, I like things to remain the same. Heading down Sol Legare Road to get to Mosquito Beach is like driving through a time warp and entering the 60’s, like driving into a Jonathan Green painting. I’d really, really hate to see it ever “developed” by Charleston real estate magnates.  I’d hate to see Island Breeze overrun with tourists.

On the other hand, keeping the Island Breeze a secret borders on Scrooge-like selfishness.

Here’s yesterday’s menu. You see those prices?

Here’s what the finished product looks like.

It’s delicious!

Norman, who hails from Ocho Rios, and Norma, a James Island native, are as nice and welcoming as they can be. You got rub-a-dub reggae pulsating from the speakers, a pool table, a porch, inside dining, and very comfortable bar stools. So if you’re reading this in Charleston, you really ought to check it out. Tell Norman or Nora the Teecha with the hat sent you.