From left: The Wild Hare’s Zeleke Gessesse with two of Bob Marley’s sons, Damian and Stephen
Everyone has a story, as we writers relish pointing out. But when I stopped by Wrigleyville’s longtime reggae club The Wild Hare last night to interview the owner, Zeleke Gessesse, about why he’s closing the place on May 15th after 25 years, I found myself in the presence of someone with a Story—capital S, plus italics.
There was almost no one in the bar when The Creative Director and I showed up around 10 p.m. to meet my publicist friend Michael (who, after stumbling upon The Wild Hare recently and hearing the tale you’re about to read, offered to help get the word out about the club’s last month in business) and his boyfriend, Eric.
Rachel, the bartender, asked what we wanted to drink. A sign behind the bar advertised $4 rum punch, which I wanted, kind of, but I also wanted—well, something else. Observing my indecision, Rachel offered to make us a round of Rachel Specials. “What’s that?” I asked. She smiled and started mixing.
A trim man with a youthful swagger and dreadlocks pulled into a ponytail that hung to his waist approached and introduced himself as Zeke (“No one can say Zeleke! So it’s Zeke!”). I suddenly felt like Emily Post trying to fit in at the original Woodstock. There were high fives instead of handshakes, explosive laughter over I didn’t yet know what, and the immediate sense that whatever “cool” is, this guy was it—and maybe I wasn’t.
Gessesse, 52, started talking, and I started writing—so fast that the word “reggae” kept appearing in my notebook as “rejee” and, eventually, my cramped hand could only form illegible squiggles. The timeline is a bit of a blur, and I didn’t get in every follow-up question I would have liked, but here’s the gist, according to Gessesse:
“Wait, you left Ethiopia because of what?” I asked, sipping my neon-yellow Rachel Special. (“What’s in this?” I asked her. “I don’t know. Is it good?” she replied.)
“It was a major revolution,” Gessesse said, widening his eyes. “The Soviets! The communists heard our band playing in a bar—we had Afros, you know; we were doing James Brown—and they didn’t like it at all.”
Rather than take up fascist music, Gessesse and his bandmates—who were either still teenagers or nearly so at the time—escaped by walking across the Sahara for five days. The Ethiopian reggae band, Dallol, found its way to Jamaica, where the guys lived for a time in Bob Marley’s house, with Marley’s wife, Rita, acting as their manager. (They later toured with Bob’s son Ziggy for seven years; Ziggy is one of the many reggae legends who have played The Wild Hare repeatedly.) Eventually they became political refugees, a status they obtained, Gessesse says, after someone from a U.S. embassy saw the band playing in a bar and asked what they wanted to do. “We want to go to school in America,” they said, and so they did (Gessesse attended Harold Washington College and graduated from Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago).
And on it goes: The band’s first Chicago gig was at The Cubby Bear, where the then-owner of The Wild Hare heard them and decided to change the theme of his bar from country to reggae. After The Wild Hare closed, Rita Marley helped Gessesse and his partners negotiate a deal to buy the place.
A busy night at The Wild Hare, in Wrigleyville
There were ups and downs, but mostly ups. The Chicago Urban League helped out when there was a spot of trouble with the neighbors over noise and “everything else” in the late ’80s, Gessesse says. A couple of movies shot scenes in the bar, including Love Jones. The club became a musical landmark and attracted all sorts of names. Cubs fans made The Wild Hare an unexpected postgame party spot and came by the dozen in their blue T-shirts and caps, as did a diverse crowd of reggae-loving regulars. After securing funding from the Chicago philanthropist Ann Lurie, Gessesse founded One Love Africa and opened 30 schools in isolated Ethiopian villages. His band won two Grammys and had an album go platinum, which we saw when Gessesse asked us if we wanted to visit the “green room,”—i.e., his office. We did.
With the music booming overhead and customers beginning to trickle through the front door, we stood in the club’s basement sipping more Rachael Specials (this time pink and green) and peering at news clippings, photos of Gessesse with Mayor Daley, and snapshots of Gessesse’s three children. So, I asked, “Why, after everything, does this feel like the right time to bid Chicago farewell?”
First, Gessesse said, he wants to thank the city of Chicago—especially the Chicago Urban League, alderman Tom Tunney, and the Lurie Foundation—for making the dreams of an Ethiopian reggae band come true (neither Tunney nor the Chicago Urban League returned my calls Friday before this post went live). But it’s time to complete the circle.
“We’re not closing. We’re relocating,” he explained. “The Wild Hare Ethiopia is going to be the next big thing. It’s time for me to get home, and there are so many young people there. The youth of Africa need music.”
And what about Chicago? What are we supposed to do?
Gessesse gave a rueful shrug. “We sold the building to a private equity group. It’ll probably become another sports bar.”
Photography: Julie Collins/rosemountainphoto.com