By William Lake
Last April, Brandon Kempt and his band, BD and the Chics, were in the middle of a tour. After performing in Seattle, they flew to New Orleans to play at Gasa Gasa, one of Kempt’s favorite venues and only a block away from his New Orleans home. Gasa Gasa is a smaller venue than what BD and the Chics would usually play at, but Kempt loves it for its unique position in the community as a hub of indie music in New Orleans. Two days after BD and the Chics’ performance, Gasa Gasa shut it’s doors indefinitely as a part of the nationwide quarantine.
In July, the group that owned Gasa Gasa announced they were putting the music venue up for sale. Rumors abounded that plans were in place for Gasa Gasa to be bought out and either torn down or altered radically. When he heard the news, Kempt was deeply disheartened, “I felt like it was a huge loss to the community… stages like this one are important for musicians on all levels, they’re just culturally important. More than they are to any single musician, they belong to the community.”
When Kempt’s brother-in-law, who owns several bars in New Orleans, came to him with a plan to possibly acquire Gasa Gasa, Kempt jumped on it. After several months of negotiations, in October a group, led by Kempt as the majority owner, purchased the venue. However, despite a strong desire to retain the original spirit of Gasa Gasa as much as possible, changes had to be made in order to comply with Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the city government of New Orleans. “We had to completely pivot our thinking on the way a music venue is run with quarantine,” said Kempt.
The major innovation that Kempt came up with pertained to the alley next to Gasa Gasa. In the venues heyday, Kempt described the alley as simply somewhere where people went outside to smoke cigarettes. Kempt took the alleyway and transformed it into a courtyard bar, replete with patio tables and an expanded bar. Ken Cox, who did of the mural work for Turkey and the Wolf, came and did several paintings. Kempt also employed a cocktail specialist, who designed a menu for Gasa Gasa that features over a dozen specialized drinks. Wary of losing the venues identity, Kempt made sure the pricing on these drinks remained low, “We kept [the drinks] cheap so it is accessible to all the same people it was before” he said. And while the city prohibition on live music remains in place, Kempt and his team have tried to adapt and find new ways to feature talented musicians. Currently, fans can sit in the courtyard and watch musicians on a projector screen as they perform live on the stage inside.
This new business model has seen some success for Kempt and the rest of the ownership group, “On the weekends, we have to turn people away. It is just too much business, and that is great. That’s what we need to survive” said Kempt. Despite this, Gasa Gasa, like many New Orleans bars and venues, is essentially enduring one week at a time, with weekend revenue going almost entirely towards the covering of rent and expenses for the rest of the week. “People in this business are at their wits end. We’re talking about people that their whole life is based on their business” said Kempt. When asked about the city’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kempt indicated that most business owners in the city were disapproving. “It’s really tough because it
makes sense… When the city government is stepping on people being able to be open, having restrictions is understandable, but saying people can’t be open at all is unacceptable. Knowing what the [city’s] economy is based on, restaurants and bars, it’s amazing to me that they think just saying ‘no’ is an acceptable answer… I don’t approve of the job they’ve done, and I hope the [Covid-19] numbers stay down, because they seem to dictate everything” said Kempt.
With the city’s planned shutdown of bars and venues for Mardi Gras looming, Kempt and many others face a difficult future. However, should they survive to the reallowing of live music by city officials, Kempt plans to keep the new additions to Gasa Gasa as a permanent fixture. First and foremost, said Kempt, is “making sure that Gasa in on the top of peoples mind as a drinking hangout.” Beyond that, he hopes that Mayor Latoya Cantrell recognizes the pain those in his industry are feeling right now, “she’s being really cautious, and I do respect that. But these places have to stay open. That’s what I got into this business for. To make sure that this place remained a music venue, that it didn’t lose what it meant to the community.”