story by Danny Simon
photo by Olivier Koning
Follow the golden dragon up twenty-five stairs from the grit of Nu‘uanu Avenue and you’ll find yourself in a shifting world of pleasure and imagination. The Dragon Upstairs follows in the tradition of jazz, which fuses rhythms and styles, things foreign and familiar; the décor is a mix of Chinatown gimcrack and Moulin Rouge joie de vivre. A quintet is deep into a Miles Davis tune, and the audience is nodding, keeping time and dreaming. Blood-red walls are covered with curios: oversize masks, gold-framed mirrors and over the bar, a stuffed parrot that keeps all of proprietor Hank Taufaasau’s secrets.
Hank owns the Dragon Upstairs and Hank’s Café below; both have remained successful Chinatown haunts amid a flurry of failures. The secret of Hank’s success, he says, is to “keep things simple and give people what they want.” In the case of the Dragon, it’s jazz. Taufaasau opened the Dragon Upstairs because he wanted to be part of the jazz scene; after witnessing an improvised concert between local pianist Pierre Grill and veteran bassist Ernie Provencher, Hank decided to create a space for locals to play and listen to jazz. (Hank recently took up bass, so look for him on gigs in the future.)
Five nights a week, musicians perform squeezed in a corner of the Dragon, practically in the lap of the audience. Every other Friday, singer/percussionist Ginai and multi-instrumentalist Pierre Grill wander through a vaudevillian night-dream; Grill plays bass with his feet, piano with one hand and trumpet/trombone with the other—it’s not just novelty, it’s heroic madness. On Saturday nights, Satomi Yarimizo leads a quartet that explores bebop and beyond; Her group drifts into wondrous and unfamiliar territory; they take risks and more often than not, they reap the rewards.
Musical exploration has a true home in the Dragon Upstairs; the music thrives when performer and patron alike are willing to voyage together into the unpredictable. “I want musicians who are willing to take risks and go for it,” says Hank. “If that means it gets messy, so what?” HH
The Dragon Upstairs