The Hone Collective | South Bay’s Native Son
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South Bay’s Native Son

Preserving San Jose's Soul With Tommy Aguilar

by. Nina Tabios

San Jose winters bite the hardest. Tonight was no different. Gliding down San Jose’s Japantown at night was like driving through black ice. The neighborhood, for all its restaurants, retail spots, galleries and proud heritage, is usually quiet; even more so at night when darkness takes over, dimly illuminated by orange streetlights.  


Ghost town vibes aside, it’s easy to spot Tommy Aguilar’s office-gallery, tucked away from the main Japantown sliver. The brightly lit space is inviting. A single chair in the corner gives it a living room feel, simple and homey. It was only a few months ago, Tommy recalls, where magic happened within these walls.


“She needed a band for the show,” he remembers. For his current music series, The Changing Same, he connected a November booking, LA singer Alex Isley, with Current Personae, a band from Stockton, Calif. The two exchanged music over email and did their homework. All was left was to meet in person and run a quick rehearsal before the show. The only space available was Tommy’s office.


“We were worried it would be too loud, that the sound would boom through the walls,” he said. “But we had the full band in here: drum kit, bass, everything. She (Alex) wasn’t belting out during the rehearsal but just watching them feel each other out for the first time and run through the performance in a one-take type of session…” He’s shaking his head as he remembers the moment. “Man, that was beautiful.”


The chemistry that night was no coincidence. Tommy’s entire career built upon connecting dots, music or otherwise. It’s appropriate his space is named Curate Good, the beaker for his events brand, Universal Grammar.


Curate Good’s walls hold pieces from their last exhibit called, “While You Were Sleeping.” It’s a collection of photos from their current music series, The Changing Same’s (or TCS) first year: LA neo-soul band The Internet hanging out right before they hit the stage in front of a packed First Street, SoSuperSam and Ali Shaheed both bathed in Continental Bar’s red lights during their sets. The exhibit’s name is an ode to a hashtag Tommy and his Universal Grammar crew made up: #sanjosesleeps. For all the work his team does, a majority of the San Jose population is invisible at their events. The same small circle of creatives show their support, but new faces are hard to come by – strange, considering that San Jose houses nearly a million people.


San Jose’s culture scene is growing though. From SoFA district, the downtown San Jose main culture strip stretches north. On First Street, between the Santa Clara and San Fernando Streets houses the Bermuda Triangle, an infamous trifecta of bars known for top-notch drinks and local debauchery. A few more blocks north is San Pedro Square, the San Jose equivalent to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. A burgeoning Silicon Valley trickled into the local art, food, music and retail scene which struggled to sustain itself for years prior.

When I interned at a local weekly publication, I’d come across new restaurants, new shops, prospecting new ideas in downtown San Jose. But as soon as they opened, they disappeared almost as quickly as they came to fruition.


It was a similar case for the nightclubs and music venues. Vault, a bank turned club saw formative years before it turned into Empire in 2011, then into Playhouse the following year. Currently, it stands as The Gold Club, a gentleman’s club that opened in 2013.


Club Wet was the go-to nightclub. It pulled in star acts such as Nicki Minaj, Nas, Jermaine Dupri and DJ AM. The club shut down in 2011 by city officials after club security failed to call emergency services for a woman injured in a fight during a New Years Eve party, according to an article by San Jose Inside.

Sofa Lounge, Motif, Toons, Liquid Lounge, Pearl, Club Miami, Sabor and others closed down or reinvented itself. Reinvention isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but constant revision suggests a disconnect with its audience. It’s a sign of a city’s misaligned identity.


There was something that hindered San Jose from fully establishing the local scene to match the innovating spirit of its people. The nightclub scene was only filling one need, but San Jose had other culture desires to fill.


This is where Tommy and his Universal Grammar brand make their first benchmark. He and his crew hosted their first events in 2001. Tommy had to be savvy because venues were scarce, save for a few art galleries in downtown San Jose. He carefully curated his events so the vibe was not only just right, but didn’t wane, lull or overwhelm. Tapping into local talent was vital to harbor in a varied audience.


“I saw it as an answer to try to bring something that no one else was,” he explains. “Instead of me driving to San Francisco and Oakland to see artists I liked, I was like, ‘Why can’t we present it in San Jose?’ And for me the answer was that we totally could.”


For the first show, Tommy commissioned artists to do live paintings, pulled in a b-boy DJ then a house DJ, followed by a hip-hop band and then closed with a jazz band. For the next six shows, he always booked localized, top-shelf artists as the centerpiece. Soon, Tommy’s hunches on San Jose’s culture proved true: there was a niche audience here that shared his same desires.

Within its 15 years of existence, the brand went through a number of phases. Shifts in the music industry, audience migration, urban and culture change constantly challenged Tommy’s will and desire to continue to build this scene he dreamed of.


Starting in 2006, every five years he lost solid supporters and artists; people that believed in his movement but felt the South Bay was sorely lacking in other sustainable ways. There were no hard feelings, but the thinning audiences didn’t help to his cause.


“It was just that first wave of audience disappearing (when reality hit,)” he remembers. “I could see that my audience was now thin, so when I tried to do the same shit I was doing for the last five years, I had a few shows that were just dead. Like no one was out to see these Beat Junkie DJs, and it felt like a straight failure.”


UG’s next home would be Sofa Lounge, also located in the SoFA. There, he cultivated a new crowd. Old Yelp reviews from 2008 tout Sofa Lounge for having good drinks, attentive bartenders but most of all, good music and vibes. No doubt, the work of Tommy Aguilar.


However, the Yelp reviews end there. Sure enough, in 2008-2009, the streets were dead again. Another cycle of audience dips, redevelopment and need to find a new home brought UG to formulate Live at the Pagoda in the Fairmont Hotel in 2010.


The Pagoda had two connected rooms: one housed the bar and a lounge area, the other room was big enough to mount a stage and fit at least 50-plus in there comfortably. The space held sophisticated air which lent itself to its crowds: young, modern folk with a taste for cool in every varied sense of the word. Tommy’s curation always attracted artisans from every form and walk.  


This was my first introduction to Universal Grammar. I caught acts like Yuna, Andy Allo, Hiatus Kaiyote, Little Dragon, Mayer Hawthorne, Kaytranada, Jose James, Tiron & Ayomari and countless others. It was so refreshing to hear music I found via digital digging in a life atmosphere. At the time, some of these acts hadn’t performed in San Francisco yet. Some sounds barely broke music’s barrier.


“We did some future Latino shit on our last night,” Tommy remembers. “That was the kind of space we were. We weren’t just doing the Kaytranada-future sound, but also the Latin alternative realm. Not just rock bands, but electronic shit too; Cumbia-electronic, etc. We were pushing the global stamp before anyone was really trying to market that. I still don’t think anyone is really doing that.”


The savvy and wit that first fueled Universal Grammar and embedded itself into the brand now was matched with gumption and resilience. After years of continuously needing to switch venues, re-cultivate itself and whole audiences every few years, the easy route would’ve been to take his talents elsewhere. But ever since finding their current home at The Continental Bar in SoFA district, Tommy’s resilience is starting to pay off.


So what does this mean for San Jose’s identity? Tommy insists that UG is just one piece of the greater puzzle. A thriving San Jose means a booming tech industry, and Silicon Valley’s success ensued a migration of foreigners (both nationally and internationally) into the South Bay that want a piece of the pie. Granted, this influx is good: high rises are cropping up in spaces that were dirt lots just two years ago. There’s a new density that hopefully out flows onto the streets.


Yet the city still grapples in defining its identity. Tech might have put it on the map, but the homegrown art scene has held San Jose down for years, building bridges internally and with the few outsiders that integrate. There’s no denying the need to embrace technologic advancements but for guys like Tommy, new Silicon Valley is far from the ideal.


“My reality of San Jose doesn’t include tech,” he says. “I grew up on the East Side, I still live in the hood and embrace that counter culture, that analog culture if you will, of artisans.”

From the beginning, the challenge has always been to for others see the world he’s built as a staple in their community.  TCS has got to be UG’s most successful endeavor yet. Looking back on the first year roster, San Jose saw  Soulection’s SPZRKT, twin-producer duo Christian Rich, Fresh Selects crooner SiR, turntable legend DJ Neil Armstrong, StarRo and local selectors as the main attractions. Their involvement with the bi-annual San Jose Jazz seasons saw First Street flood with hundreds of people to catch The Internet. They hosted newcomer beatsmith Taylor McFerrin in the spring and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed in the summer. TCS continues to rally quality music acts to downtown San Jose in 2016. To let music serve as a culture driver and definer.


“I do this because when Flamingosis is on the decks and I’m in a space where I can hear his music on blast, that feeds my soul,” he says. “If only 100 people are going to experience it, that’s great. Would I like it to be sold out? Hell yeah, because obviously the energy would be another level — for both the artist and the audience.”


Nearly two decades in the making and UG currently remains a diamond in the rough. There’s no question that those that ride for Tommy – both near and far – respect what he does as a curator and advocate for his community. But maybe Tommy is a personification of the very city that he’s trying to bolster: an underdog with an itch to bring bright, new ideas in hopes of driving growth. Silicon Valley strengthened the South Bay with technology; Tommy, through music.


A few weeks ago, Tommy brought Peruvian beat producers, Dengue Dengue Dengue into the Continental. Armed with beat pads and a single turntable between the two of them, the duo transformed the venue into a Cumbia-trap galaxy. Donning Peruvian masks as stage costumes, the atmosphere was contagious. There’s no surefire way to tell if attendees were there because they were familiar with the music or were just passing by the bar and got curious. By looking at the dance floor, you couldn’t tell the difference between the two. By the end of the night, people were marking the show as “unforgettable”; a week prior, the same words were said at TCS’s showing of soul trio, King. I remember thinking the same thing at every single Live at the Pagoda show, from Robert Glasper Experiment to DJ Haircut. “Unforgettable” is one of many words to describe what UG consistently brings to the table and a small descriptor of what the brand represents. Through due diligence and a genuine desire to create something unique and challenging, Tommy and Universal Grammar put on for the city of San Jose, and prove that the South Bay is nothing to be slept on.

Cover. Reggie Biala

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