By Michelle Trauring
At the height of his “Club Kid” days, Carlos Lama could be found under the disco balls of every major dance floor in New York, from Palladium to Danceteria to Studio 54.
They were a weekly necessity, his therapy and remedy. And around this time last year, Lama found himself missing those nights — and that music.
“I still have so many of those records that you would get in the ’80s, some really awful dance music that I cherish still,” Lama said with a laugh. “I say awful, but it’s nostalgic-awful.”
Sensing he wasn’t alone, the local musician and actor assumed his disc jockey persona, DJ Mister Lama, and rolled out on stage in his wheelchair at the Southampton Arts Center for the first-ever “Saturday Night Stomp.” To his surprise, the all-out dance party would be a wild success and blossom into a near-monthly tradition, which will close out this year on December 28.
“It’s very gratifying and it’s super fun,” Lama said. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s an unabashed overt pleasure. For this one, I do have some friends who do lighting and I really want to up the game since, coincidentally, it just so happens to be my birthday — which was not by design.”
The happy accident is ever appropriate, considering Lama cannot remember a time when music was not a critical part of his life, from his earliest musical memory of his Peruvian grandmother singing him a Spanish lullaby, to the country music of his East Texas roots.
His father’s vinyl collection would become the soundtrack of his youth, the boy inheriting not only his love for music, but many of the records themselves — which now live among his collection of 3,000 at home in Sag Harbor that “mercifully, my wife does not mind me having,” Lama said, referring to spouse Andrea Grover who just happens to be the executive director of Guild Hall.
But the heart of both his Saturday Night Stomp set and his personal record collection are the dance music and funk of the 1970s and 1980s, he said, conjuring up memories of those New York nights — until life as he knew was altered in a single moment.
“I broke my back in a car wreck when I was 23. That changed everything, my whole life,” he said. “I was a dancer. I think all that energy that went toward movement made its way to music.”
It would be 10 years before Lama landed his first gig as a DJ, spinning tracks at his friend’s Halloween party. Each transition was a problem he had to solve — “trying to figure out what goes into what, and what’s gonna go after that, and what’s gonna go after that,” he said — and he was hooked.
This form of expression was both unexpected and magnetic, he said, especially as he watched people get up and dance.
“It was the response: the visceral, physical, emotional, ecstatic response that people have,” he said. “It’s pre-linguistic, if that makes sense. It’s not logical. Oh God, I’m gonna sound like a hokey New Age person, but it’s energetic. It’s vibrational. You’re compelled to move and you don’t necessarily know why, and you don’t need to know why. It’s just for the sheer joy of it.”
From his earliest days up until now — his experience since including a radio show, “Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers,” that he has broadcast from three different states — Lama still feels a thrill when he juxtaposes sound, style and even beats per minute, or discovers music completely off his radar.
“Nothing makes me happier than having a box of records I’ve never heard before, and figuring them out and seeing what the story is behind it,” he said. “Some DJs don’t take requests, but I love it, because I could be hearing something new and I’m also guaranteeing that at least those people will be out there dancing. Even if it’s a song that I don’t really even like, I’ll play it nine times out of 10.”
At a recent dance party, a guest requested a late-1970s Talking Heads song — “It was definitely not ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ ‘Burning Down the House’ type of thing,” Lama said — and at first, he hesitated.
“I said, ‘Nobody’s gonna dance to that,’ and she said, ‘I used to be a DJ in New York, trust me,’ and I said, ‘Okay…’” Lama recalled. “I put that song on and instantly, like, an impromptu conga line formed and went around the whole place. It was crazy. I was like, okay! I love being proven wrong.”
And so, if the urge to make a request strikes on Saturday night while dancing under the disco ball, don’t be shy and make it — but don’t forget to wish DJ Mister Lama a very happy, groovy birthday.
Saturday Night Stomp, a pre-New Year’s Eve dance party with DJ Mister Lama, will be held on December 28 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $15 and $10 for Friends of SAC. For more information, call 631-283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.