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INTERVIEW: JOSÉ HENAO /// A Sound Garden at HENAO Contemporary Center
Everything here is thoughtfully crafted, from the coffee spritzer, to the new deck in the back, José Henao is trying to anticipate needs, eliminate barriers, and make guests comfortable. Hospitality is in his core. It’s all about the vibe from the moment someone walks in the door. He’s halfway through building a new deck out back when I arrive. He tells me his daughters look forward to getting the magazine each month, they “flip out” for the coloring sheets. Over the course of two hours, we talked, laughed, and got real. Here are the highlights:
José Henao Interview by Mitch Foster.
As far as I can remember, there’s always been music around me. My mom used to clean to music. My cousins always used to say she was “The fun Aunt.” She was in NYC when Salsa music was born. A lot of the really important salsa artists were the people they watched in small local venues, like this place. She would see them in 75-100 person rooms. They are all people who are historic now. It was the birth of salsa. [Wikipedia says, “Salsa emerged from New York City in the mid-1970s”] Eventually it becomes its own thing, separate from anything else. I didn’t really listen to my own music until I was in high school when LimeWire came out.
The first show I ever paid to go to was at Club Firestone w/ DJ Icey, Baby Anne, & Sharazz. There were some DJs that created this thing called Orlando Breaks. Do you remember that? DJs here created a new sound [genre] where [music] would build up and then it would crash, then build back up again. They called this style “Orlando Breaks.” In 1997 Rolling Stone Magazine called Orlando the “Seattle of electronica.” People would come from all over—the UK, all over Europe, Miami, Atlanta—and they would come to Orlando to listen to Orlando Breaks [live] with some of the best DJs at the time. I had a friend who lived in Miami who was really well connected. When we were kids we used to call him “Jan The Man,” cause you know, he was The Man! He used to drive this quick, little Acura with subs—I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. He’d come to Orlando and always tell me, “Man, I had to come get some Orlando Breaks!” They were going super late. [Editor’s Note: In 1997, the City of Orlando passed its controversial “rave ban,” which forced nightclubs to close their doors at 3 a.m., even if they stopped selling alcohol. The loophole: It doesn’t stop clubs that don’t serve alcohol from operating.] They had these huge tanks of water in these metal cages. They were selling water for $3 or $4 a bottle—when gas was like $1/gallon—and they could because … everyone was on fucking ecstasy.
When I first went to a club, I honestly thought it was lame [laughs]. We used to have house parties in high school—6, 7, 8 keggers. People used to say, “You and your brother’s parties were always the best.” We would get these giant ice blocks and carve grooves into them. We built a stand so we could angle them, and we’d pour shots from the top and by the time it gets to the bottom it’s so cold that it would taste like water. We were crazy kids. We used to throw the craziest parties. My brother is a little bit older than me and he got an apartment where would host parties. The thing that would make our parties stand out from the rest, is we wanted to make the girls comfortable enough to dance. We’d dim the lights. We’d play good dance music. We created a vibe. We wanted everyone to have a good time. When someone showed up, we’d welcome them in the door, and sometimes have them take a shot. We cultivated a big group of people we would party with. I think I still have that bend towards observing and seeing what barriers are there to people enjoying themselves, and I just constantly work on removing those barriers. It’s never going to be perfect, but it should always get a little closer as time goes on.
The first five minutes of anybody walking in are the most important. If the first person comes in and they aren’t having a great time, this sets the mood for the rest of the evening. The last thing you want is for the first group of people that show up to be really reserved and stand-offish. Because as people come in, that’s the vibe they’ll enter. You want to make people feel at home. If your goal is to make everyone have a good time, then you want to remove people’s tendency towards being reserved. If you can, put a drink in their hand, don’t shine a bright light in their eyes. If you walk into a space and the first 10 people you see are enjoying themselves, you’re in the right place.
ONCE I FLEW
I got hit by a car when I was in 9th grade. I was on Semoran Blvd and had my cousin on the handlebars. My head went through the windshield and my legs flipped up. I woke up in the air and I just remember seeing the sky—the ground—the sky—the ground—then I hit the ground and tumbled and tumbled. I put my arms out and slid. I got up to walk and fell down and noticed my leg was broken. Somebody ran up—I’ll never forget—he had on these wide lens Oakley sunglasses and I saw my head was fucking blood red. There wasn’t an inch of my face that wasn’t blood, and rocks, and glass. It was just embedded all over my face—hence the face scars. One of my legs is slightly shorter than the other because of it.
JOEY’S BIG BAG
First big, big thing outside of downtown I went to was a 3-day festival. I only went to one day. I was living with my mom, and driving out of the neighborhood I see this car flashing its lights and honking. It was my friend Joey. He’s got this big smile on his face and he’s like, “I got something for you!” He opens his trunk and it’s just stuffed full of shrooms. He hands me this big ball of shrooms wrapped in wax paper and then I went to the festival. I gave some to my buddy and his girlfriend who were having a hard time. He started breakdancing and really getting loose—like one-handed flips and this circle forms around him. The crowd is cheering him on and it seemed like he had become one with his dancing and his energy and everything for a minute. When he came out of it, everybody was cheering for him and his girlfriend came running up and wrapped her loving arms around him.
I spent a year after high school doing nothing. I thought, “I gotta do something.” I joined the army. To get full benefits, it’s three years, so I signed up for three years. The army taught me self-reliance — “there’s no excuse.” It taught me to keep my time focused on my target. Not to allow my time to be lost or pulled in different directions, you know? My mother and father are both Columbian, born and raised. My father had landed a contract with Disney—maintaining and fabricating footwear for Disney characters and dancers—and he kept telling me he needed help. When my three years were up, I thought I would come help the family business for six months, then reenlist. But I ended up staying for 10 years working on the organizational structure and growing the family business—USA Shoe Company at 5610 Edgewater.
In 2011, the building across the street from our business went up for sale and we bought it. That eventually became the HENAO Center. It was an upholstery shop before we got it. We rented it to a church and a thrift store for a few years. We ended up having to evict them. [Editor’s Note: It was incredible seeing videos of what they walked into when they took over. Spoiler alert: it was a mess.] The building was a wreck when we got our tenants out. There were squatters living here and a bin of needles. Out back was all undeveloped land, where a homeless village resided. The neighbour and I cleared the land. We started working on the building. We were stripping the floors and it started looking nice. A friend of mine and I tried to start a creative space and gallery a couple times. It didn’t work out. I took a break. I eventually reached out to someone involved with Millenia Fine Art Gallery. Through those conversations I was able to put together our first fine art show here. The first sound system was bookshelf JBL speakers. We started doing poetry and comedy. People had to be really quiet. This building was just concrete block walls painted white and two bathrooms. The first year we were barely able to keep the place open and put some money back into it. I think we had $70,000 in sales.
We just turned five in October. I had a three year old and a six month old when we opened. We’ve gone through a lot of hard shit getting this place up. We’ve done a lot of sacrificing. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of my wife, Meagan. She went to school for visual merchandising and landed a job at Hilton Grand Vacations at the beginning of the pandemic. If it wasn’t for her, we would have probably had to end up selling the building. Could you imagine if this covid thing was worse? We got really lucky, and it’s still shit. It wreaked a lot of businesses.
A SOUND GARDEN
Now, our space is formerly known as the HENAO Contemporary Center. I originally wanted to call it The Black Dot Gallery. Because it’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, it’s insignificant, like a little black dot, yet I wanted it to be an underground heavyweight in the art exhibits that we brought to Orlando. But the artist we had for the first show didn’t like it. He said it sounded too insignificant and talked me into using my last name. He said “you’ve got a good name, with the double vowel—HENAO.” He’s right and we were running out of time, so we pulled the trigger. I’ve been trying to figure out what to call this place for years now because if someone comes, and it’s their first time here, I worry they won’t tell other people about it because they can’t pronounce the name. That’s a barrier. [Editor’s Note: It’s HEN•OWW, for the record]. Henao is a very common Columbian surname. One day, A Sound Garden just popped into mind.
We’ve done a lot of cool things and had a lot of cool people here—from Preacher Lawson to Phony Ppl. But I feel like we still haven’t “made it” as a venue. People are like moments, they come and they go. I just try to stay in my own lane and better the space that I have. I’m always inspired by the Israelis who transformed the desert. I feel good. People are starting to come back and they feel good about the space. But don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard for everyone in my position. (I’m) out here working every day to meet new safety standards so people can enjoy the outside and stay safe. Just before COVID hit we spent $15/16K to get a commercial-sized septic system in here. We had to fight the county on it. Anytime you put in a permit for anything, they have the opportunity to start looking into you and what you do. They have the power to say “no.”
We went out to Iraq and I was there from day one. We totally destroyed that country. There were so many bombs going off that the ground was shaking constantly. You’re just feeling explosions. When everything finally calmed down, it was weird because it was the first time I’d heard quiet in so long. In the Army, I was maintaining a focus of what my job is and what I have control of, and just doing that to the best of my ability. Maybe that’s what’s been keeping my mental frame in focus today. I can’t do anything about it, so what can I do something about? Well, we’ve got this yard and it needs work, so let’s put some work into it. The food trucks needed a place to park, so we helped them out and they helped us out.
It all depends on what you want. If you set a goal and you’re flexible in your approach to it, you can get there. The trouble is, people think, “it has to work this way.” Know the point where you want to go. But from here to there, you don’t know what the path is like. Be open to change. Stop watching TV and get off of social media. Go out and do something. You have to put blinders on to the news, and everything, because it’s too easy to wallow in it and feel powerless—because we’re fucking powerless. Exercise and eat good food. There’s a quote I like by, I think [Jordan B.] Peterson, which goes something like, “It’s often hard to figure out what it is you like, but it’s very easy to know what you dislike.” So if you find yourself at home a lot and depressed, come up with a list of activities—things you can do. Maybe some stuff you were interested in as a kid. Maybe some stuff you’ve never done. Start with something on the list. Make yourself get out of the house, and do it. The things that have made me feel the best, have been volunteering—doing things for other people. One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had is going to Second Harvest Food Bank and helping bag meals.
Yeah, man. How could you not have aliens? There is so much fucking space out there. Do they come out to earth? Probably, I have no idea. All those jet pilots that have seen shit…you know? If there are other species, we’ve got to be considered a hostile race to them. It’s because if we see something, we would shoot at it, that’s the chimp in us. The first time I went to Columbia, I was 18 years old. We stayed at my dad’s friend’s house and they had a celebration for him because they haven’t seen him in 20+ years. My dad got drunk and passed out in the guest room. I’m in the bed next to the entry door watching TV. I kept hearing the horses outside neighing, my dad’s snoring, I couldn’t sleep. I’m changing the channels, and from one second to the next, I could hear the TV but could see in my peripheral the door had opened and there was this intense light coming from the door and I could see a figure—a silhouette. Then there were two. And three. Then they were around the bed and I couldn’t move. I felt my muscles straining. I wanted to see who it was, my neck was turning slightly, I could feel my neck straining. My arm is coming up slightly, with every ounce of strength I had. I noticed my hand was moving up faster than my neck was turning. So I said “fuck it, if I can’t see them, I’m going to let them know that I know they’re here.” So I lifted my middle finger and flipped them off with all my might. The second I did that, my neck went free and my head went BOOM! I’m sitting in the bed, the horses are still going. I came to and I was telling myself, “It was just a dream. It was just a dream.” I was so freaked out, I jumped in my dad’s bed and squeezed between him and the wall.
SIGT MAGAZINE ISSUE #12
The Final Issue.
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