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Chicago, IL

As a storyteller you find yourself in different places, in different situations, and with different people constantly.

My stories started innocently enough in Miami where I was born to wonderful Cuban immigrants. I learned my craft at the University of Florida where I earned a degree in journalism and studied photojournalism and videography. I covered music, local issues, and sports for publications like The Gainesville Sun, Reax magazine, and The Fine Print where I was a contributor when it won Best New Publication from Campus Progress.

My time covering music at UF lead me to traveling the country with local Gainesville band Morningbell after I graduated to shoot a documentary that I'm currently editing. 

To learn more about documentary I worked as the Digital Arts and Publishing Intern at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. I assisted in the producetion and marketing of such books as Iraq | Perspectives, Colors of Confinement, In This Timeless Time, and One Place. In addition, I co-edited the festival program for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.  

I currently find myself newly married and searching for more stories in Chicago. If you have a story or adventure shoot me an email at jmoraphoto@gmail.com

Stomping Grounds

The Takers performing at Common Grounds in Gainesville, FL. Photograph by Joel Mora.

It’s been two acts and the crowd is starting the headliner pack, where everyone packs into the front when the headlining act is about to come out. In Gainesville freeze warnings would keep everyone at home, but because of its reputation the Common Grounds has been able to bring a national act into town. A tour bus has occupied the parking lot where you would usually see about eight cars and a fleet of Five-Star Pizza delivery cars. MURS, a major label rap artist on the rise, is the headliner that the 300 people came to see, which is close to the limit for the Common Grounds. He comes out on stage, takes off his hoodie revealing a Gators T-shirt and the crowd loses it. The beat drops and MURS raps, “Unless we try the innocent will die. You can’t close your eyes you’ll be livin’ in a lie.” Everyone is hooked. And only a couple of days ago Nigel Hamm, one of the owners, told me hip-hop wasn’t doing well in Common Grounds, but when it comes to this venue nothing is ever certain.

Entering the Common Grounds feels like being a child sneaking into the neighbor’s backyard to recover a ball. Yet, instead of leaving in haste, you realize you’ve found the rabbit hole. Once inside it’s hard to decipher who is working or just hanging out. “I hand my money to whoever is behind the bar and hope I get a drink in return,” says Claudio Balladares who frequents CG.

I arrive at CG in the afternoon and the gate is locked, so I call Nigel. When I peak through the fence, I see a familiar short afro and beard. When the gate opens, my bartender stretches out his arm and says, “Hi I’m Nigel come in.” As Nigel and I walk towards the bar, I can’t help but think to myself, “Thank God I always tipped.” I mention our bartender and bartendee relationship to him. Nigel gives me his signature laugh of dropping his head, grinning and laughing with his body cocking back and forth. “Yea (laughs), working the bar is more lucrative than owning the place.” But Nigel opened CG because of a dream not the money.

If Common Grounds sounds like a good name for a coffee shop, instead of a music venue, that is because it started it out as one. Nigel moved to Gainesville when he was 21 and opened a coffee shop. “I always wanted to open a coffee house/bar since freshman year of high school. I wanted to have a place where there would be all different types of people. Sometimes you go to bars and everyone’s the same.” The original Common Grounds opened in 1996 at a smaller location only nine blocks away from its current home. After finding that bands in Gainesville were looking for more venues to play in, Nigel opened up the doors. Soon the focus went from brewing coffee to the music. Much of the music coming out of Common Grounds from 1996 to 2004 was punk rock. As more bands wanted to play CG, Nigel noticed that a transition needed to happen. “We were doing shows too big for the other place, and we always wanted to make it sound as good as possible,” says Nigel. Jason Rockhill, who CO-owns CG with Nigel, was a staff member at the old location and recalls, “When the espresso maker broke they didn’t fix it.” Nigel moved in to the bigger building and brought the name with him.

Larger Spaces Larger Issues

MURS isn’t the first national artist to play at CG. They have had people ranging from Kenny Chesney to Cold War Kids to Talib Kwali. Some of them performed here before they were famous. It may have started when Frank Black played here only months before he reunited with The Pixies. But because they’ve played here, people across the country recognize CG as one of “the” places to play in Gainesville. However, most CG shows consist of local bands and not all of them can fill up the venue. Two days before the MURS show three local bands played to about 45 people. For CO-owner Jason Rockhill it’s always a struggle.

Jason is a large man with a red-tinted beard (get used to the beards.) His height can over power, and his strength can pull you off a stage - twice. That’s how I noticed Jason for the first time. During a concert at the CG, one fan had too much to drink and thought they should be part of the show. He climbed on stage and began dancing as if he was trying to entice a snake out of a basket. Jason came in and forced him off. Within 5 minutes, the fan climbed on stage again and Jason grabbed the fan, put him over his shoulder and “escorted” the fan out. When I met with Jason to talk to him and realized he was that security guy I thought to myself “Thank God I always behaved.” But according to Jason getting on stage won’t get to you kicked out, it’s just that “everything has to be gauged.” “Do you know Girl Talk? Well, everyone in the crowd thinks they’re supposed to be onstage with him. So I would just stand with a flashlight on stage and if I saw anyone who wasn’t dancing I’d make them get off. You can’t be on stage just standing there. Do something. I’m sure I’m the biggest dick on earth to them.”

When Jason started working at CG in the old location, he would work security and make flyers. “It was pretty natural to make the switch into becoming the owner. Nigel’s old partner had left and he needed someone else and I wanted to buy in and do it,” says Jason. As much as Jason loves being a part of CG, he doesn’t romanticize it. “With any business it’s particularly about being lucky, having good relationships and refusing to close.” With Gainesville being a college town, it’s difficult for businesses to stay open throughout the year, or at all. “After Thanksgiving things go down hill and summer is a complete crapshoot,” says Jason. For him many of the problems come from what he believes is the decline of live music fans. “If I could I would advise someone not to open a music venue, and it’s not because I don’t like this place, it’s just that you really have to love it. People don’t go out to shows like they used to. There are other things that pull people’s attention, things that aren’t as culturally significant. We believe in this but there isn’t a lot of people that do. You can’t make all your money selling PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer).” As Jason sits there, his energy level starts to rise and he wants people to realize what they have in Gainesville. “Certain kinds of people seek out this stuff. You have to be dragged or seek it out. If you get the bug, you get the bug. It’s a difficult sell.” He believes people don’t know what’s out there. “I want there to be this service that just goes up to people and slaps them in the face and tells them who’s playing in town and what venues are good. People are in a walking slumber and they need to wake up.”

Salvation from the Asian Sensation

After the first half of his set, MURS has the audience bobbing their heads. His shirt has turned into a darker blue due to the sweat. His dreadlocks are messier than usual with two large pieces in the air making him look like Bugs Bunny. The show could go downhill from here, but MURS does the unthinkable. My ears are on alert when I hear a familiar drumbeat and MURS starts singing “I want you to know.” I can’t figure it out yet and when I realize it, MURS sings, “Another version of me, is he perverted like me, will he go down on you in a theater.” MURS is singing Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know, and the crowd of mostly males with large baseball hats, hoodies and baggy jeans loves it. MURS has tapped into one thing that is keeping the Common Grounds alive – Karaoke.

If you come to the Common Grounds on a Monday, you can witness the growing Asian sensation. On a special Thursday session a week before the MURS show, patrons lined-up at the bar for their PBR’s and others enjoyed the atmosphere before the Karaoke began. The men and women look the same from the waist down with jeans so tight they invite the eye to study the contours of the body. One thing that helps separate the sexes is beards, which seem to be a fashion staple for the men. The abundance of beards gives the impression a revolution is about to start. But it all stops when they hear “Saturday in the park, I think it was the 4th of July,” from Amanda who is brave enough to start the Karaoke, “I hope you guys like Chicago.” The feel good melodies of Chicago’s soft rock have the crowd swaying their heads in a trance. Air Supply could come in with a camera crew at this point and film their next Time-Life’s Sounds Of The 70s infomercial. Soon the heads would stop swaying and the fists would start pumping.

One brave soul apparently had too many PBR’s before he made his attempt at AC/DC’s For Those About to Rock (We Salute You). The screen highlights the words We Salute You and on a delay, the drunken rock-n-roller yells “WEEASALUUTEYOU!” When the song ends, Hairy Karaoke, the host of Karaoke nights at the Grounds, watches the man join his friends at a table. “I haven’t seen anyone crash and burn like that since Princess Di,” says Hairy to get the attention of the new British faces in the crowd. A wave of moans, ooh’s, and applause fill the room. No one seems too offended. “It’s gonna be that kind of night ladies and gentlemen,” says Hairy.

Hairy Karaoke, or Nick Zolnierowski as he is known when he is bartending, always wants to see how far he can take his jokes. “I’m just glad people around here have a sense of humor.” Nick’s Karaoke stage name is the one of the best descriptions I can give you of the man. He is hairy. You’ll notice this hairiness just by looking at his beard. Unlike some other beards that frequent CG, Nick doesn’t seem to be the type of person to be chanting “Viva la revolucion!” If a nest of bluebirds were hiding in his beard, I wouldn’t be surprised. Just like many of the employees here, Nick first came to CG to hang out and was soon asked to do security. When Nick used to participate in Karaoke, he put his name in as Hairy Karaoke. After one of the Karaoke hosts left, Nick took over and his vibe seemed to grab people. He tries to create more of a show than just people singing. Nick had a plan when he saw Yunas, a Karaoke host from Boston, walk in one night. “This guy came in and was dressed in leather and cowboy boots and I went up to him and said ‘You look like the wrestler the Undertaker.’” Before Yunas went up to sing his song, he introduced him with the theme song used when the Undertaker comes out to wrestle. At first, you hear something resembling a medieval choir singing and Yunas appears in front of the crowd and goes on to breathe fire. When he is done, Yunas starts singing Machine Head by Bush, “Breathe in Breathe out Breathe in Breathe out!" “I’ve never seen a crowd so pumped up,” recalls Nick.

Genre Bending

After You Oughta Know, MURS enters into a cover of Sublime’s Date Rape. His ability to enter other genres is symbolic of what the rest of Common Grounds is like when it comes to music because you never know whether one night you are going to hear punk rock, Latin afro-beat, or hip-hop. For Jason having different bands and different types of music “helps but it doesn’t.” “Sometimes you can’t take 3 or 4 days a week with somebody screaming at you, but lots of people prefer to know what’s going on,” says Jason.

For a band like Umoja Orchestra, having a place like the Common Grounds is key to their growth. Being a 14-piece Latin afro-beat band, with songs in Spanish, in a town in north central Florida might seem like torture, but because of the performances and the venue Umoja Orchestra always packs CG. For Sebastián López, the lead singer and guitarist, a good show doesn’t only consist of good music but “the ambience, how the people feel and how the staff treats them.” After touring outside Florida in the summer, Umoja had a welcome back show at the Common Grounds and they were excited. Between songs, Sebastián expressed his happiness, “We played this place in South Carolina called Calypso, and there were only like four people and they couldn’t let any of our friends in because you had to be 30 to get in due to a shooting they had. It’s really great to be back here with all of you.” The change in genre brings a different crowd with an increase of long flowing skirts and bracelets with the Colombian Flag.

There was an Umoja show that the clothes didn’t matter as much. Students at the University of Florida have an Undie Dash where they jog at night in their underwear and donate their clothes to charity. After one of the runs, Common Grounds had an after-party. Due to rain, the Undie Dash didn’t happen but the after-party did. With a packed house, Umoja Orchestra was welcomed on stage by screaming college kids in their underwear. After a couple of songs Umoja played their song BDD which include the lyrics “Quitate la camisa (take off your shirt)” and as soon as Sebastián sang that phrase the entire band took off their clothes and played the rest of the show in their underwear. In the front, I watched the energy levels rise. During the last song, Sebastián and a couple of the horn players disappear and when they return Sebastián’s back is bleeding. “We got really excited and jumped off stage. I didn’t notice and someone had broken a bottle on the floor and I did a spin on my back and cut myself, but fuck it. That doesn’t happen in every venue, you have to have the right band, the right crowd and the right atmosphere.” For Sebastián, shows like the ones at CG are important. “The essence of music is performance,” says Sebastián. He says he loves to play CG because the sound is the best.

It’s All in the Sound

Doing sound for a 14-piece band one night and a rap group another night must be difficult, but for Ryan Williams, one of the sound guys, it’s a technical art. Before the MURS show began, I sat down with Ryan - who also had a beard - and he seemed relaxed. “For a group like Umoja they use all 40 channels on the sound board, but tonight I have it pretty easy with only looking over four channels,” says Ryan. However, when the show starts he seems to be just as concentrated as he might be for an Umoja show. While the show was going on, I watched Ryan work and lucky for me I have some musical background, so I had a slight idea of what he was doing, but to anyone else it might look like he’s just pushing buttons. “It’s a thankless job and people who appreciate it will let me know and that is always great.” In reality, Ryan is the ears of the Common Grounds as well as the diaphragm. He is just as passionate about engineering the sound as a musician would be in playing his instrument. “I can literally take a person’s breath away with my kick drum,” says Ryan referring to the way he makes the drum sound.

“This is the best seat of the house isn’t it,” Ryan screams at me during the show. Halfway through I realize that sound engineering is just like performing but with everyone’s back facing you. “Just think about a guitarist plucking a guitar string and the vibration traveling through the pick up, then it goes through the cable and out the amp into the mic through another cable that sends it across the room to me, and then I get to form it and send it back out through the speakers within seconds,” Ryan yells at me over the music. “I come here to see a show but I take part of a show.” As MURS screams, “Put your hands up Gainesville,” Ryan has his hands on the board.

You Have To Get Busy

Nothing is ever common at the Common Grounds. Nigel and Jason never know if 45 or 300 people will show up, but they stay open everyday to survive. Hairy never knows when people are going to sound horrible, but he tries to make the best of it. Ryan never knows when all his channels are going to be used up, but he will do anything to “take your breath away.” They look for the same dedication in the bands who want to play there. Before his last song, MURS makes everyone jump and he screams, “You gotta come to the Common Grounds and get busy.”