Dana and the TAM - Charles Donovan

Dana Gillespie’s 2021 memoir, Weren’t Born A Man, has been celebrated as ‘eye-popping’ by The Spectator, ‘scandalous’ by The Daily Mail and ‘hilarious and moving’ by The Times, all of them fitting descriptions that still don’t quite do it justice. It’s the tale of a true artist/adventurer’s life, told with vivid humour, no regrets and an unflinching eye for detail. Dana’s life so far has been one from which every last drop of love, joy and ebullience has been wrung and we’re honoured to be publishing this special edition.

In the time we’ve known her, Dana has been an invaluable asset to us – not only as a musician, but as a thinker and an abundant source of inspiration. The TAM’s founding principles of love, fairness and community interact effortlessly with Dana’s ‘love all, serve all’ philosophy, which derives from her many years as a devotee of the late Sathya Sai Baba.

The TAM, formerly Theatrery, is a concept that flourished from grief. Our founder, Sieng Van Tran, spent the 90s and 2000s in tech, starting an e-learning company and working with his brother, Tam, who was simultaneously studying internet law. “One of the areas Tam was passionate about was music and creating a fairer record label,” says Sieng. When the company was successfully sold to an investor and the brothers were out celebrating, Tam began feeling ill. Within weeks, his life was upended by a diagnosis of a brain-stem tumour. He was given a prognosis of three months. “I lived in the staff annexe at Guy’s Hospital so I could be with him,” says Sieng, “and while he never wanted to acknowledge or talk about not making it, one night he said that if he didn’t make it, I had to promise him something.” That promise was to launch an arts/music/entertainment venue/concept designed as a complete online and offline ethical ecosystem, encompassing live and recorded music, merchandise, visual art and dining. In its first incarnation, it was launched in 2020 as Theatrery, a mashup of ‘theatre’ and ‘eatery’, finding its ideal home in the sprawling Mercato Metropolitano, in Elephant & Castle, London.

Thanks to the intervention of her long-time co-writer and guitarist, Jake Zaitz, and a separate recommendation by her pianist, Dino Baptiste, Dana first visited Theatrery in November 2020. “And,” she says, “the moment I walked in I thought, ‘This is really something special’. It affected me deeply. I sang a couple of songs with the band, came home and something bothered me. I thought Theatrery was a terrible name. Theatre to me sounds like Shakespeare and actors, which I don’t have much regard for, and eatery sounds cheap. The next morning, I was in my meditation room, and it was still bothering me. I thought ‘This place is so special, it should be called the Temple of Art and Music.’”. Then it hit her; the acronym TAM. The connection to Sieng’s late brother was too obvious to ignore. “I immediately called Sieng to tell him.” So, thanks to the machinations of fate and serendipity, Theatrery reopened in summer 2021 as the TAM.

In addition to relaunching established musicians who aren’t getting the exposure they deserve, the TAM will be dedicated to nurturing new artists, presenting live music seven nights a week and sustaining a community through word of mouth rather than aggressive advertising campaigns. All of this takes place against an immersive backdrop of original art, vintage radiograms and rescued upright pianos. Indeed, the decor is put together with the ‘three Rs’ of sustainability very much in mind: Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose. To those three Rs, you could also add a U for ‘upcycling’ – witness the beautiful ‘prosecco piano’, an upright which reached us in a superannuated state, ready for the knacker’s yard, but which has now been saved from ignominy, painstakingly fitted with valves, taps, spigots and a sprinkling of blue and white lights, and given a second chance at life. Additional upright pianos are used to create social-distancing bubbles, for as long as such things should remain necessary.

The TAM is also the principal filming location for the successful YouTube reboot of Dana’s world-music radio show, Globetrotting With Gillespie, for which she has interviewed an array of characters, including Mercato Metropolitano’s founder, Andrea Rasca, who explained the philosophy of his movement: “We truly believe that food is the nexus of everything around us. If you put people around a table, you start to solve many issues from climate change to social injustice. We’ve let corporations tell us that food should be cheap, but that means that something else is paying for it – our health and our environment. Food has to be accessible, nutritious and compatible with local cultures – if you put these three elements together, it’s good for society, people and the environment.”

Mercato Metropolitano, which houses the TAM, sprang from an idea that began at the time of the 2015 Expo in Milan. Andrea took over an abandoned car park and built a street-food enterprise in three months, using no chemicals, no plastics, no sponsors, no WiFi and no advertising. By the time the space reverted to its owner, it had welcomed 2.5 million visitors. Next, Andrea set his sights on London, leasing a space in Elephant & Castle which, at the time, had no water, no gas, no electricity. “All my friends told me not to do it,” he recalls. “That’s when you need to be a dreamer, not an accountant. I knew it was right and after six months we’d passed our first million visitors, with not a penny invested in advertising, nothing industrial, no Coca Cola, no San Pellegrino.” There are now MM sites in Mayfair and Ilford, with Berlin and New York to follow. “It’s not a place for shareholders to become rich; we deliver an experience that’s sustainable from a social and economic point of view.”

No home could be more fitting for the TAM, which shares Andrea’s vision. It is not about creating an artificial community but building a space so that the community grows itself. Plans for the TAM include an in-house radio station and a record label which, not unlike John Peel’s Dandelion in the 1960s, will seek to treat musicians equitably and give them the freedom and support to do what they do best. There will be retail space at the TAM for CDs and merchandise and some of the profits will be reinvested in community ventures, including a summer academy for children with theatre, art and music classes. There will be employment opportunities at all levels for musicians and artists, so visitors may discover that the person bringing the drinks to their table is also a virtuoso bass player or drummer.

Following the loss of his brother, Sieng experienced a period of depression. But today he views the bereavement very differently, partly because of some ancient wisdom passed to him by Dana – “don’t spent time grieving; whatever you’ve lost will come back to you in another form.” The Temple of Art and Music is the form in which Sieng’s brother has come back to him. It’s a place permeated by love and goodness at every level, from the way it operates to the artists it embraces. “When I hear Sieng say he wants to help underdog musicians and make things equal,” says Dana, “I’m just astounded by his caring. And the TAM is a caring, thoughtful, uplifted place – it’s not some head-banging joint, some ghastly, grubby, money-making place where you go to get pissed. It’s different. It’s creative and it teases the mind.”

Dana’s involvement with the TAM marks an exciting milestone in our evolution. While it could never be said that she has failed – her life since she turned 15 has been one of constant high-profile work in music, film and stage – the TAM fervently believes she should be reaching more people. Sieng calls her music ‘mantras of goodness’, a description certainly supported by her recent albums, Under My Bed (2019) and Deep Pockets (2021), both of them filled with exquisite three-to-five-minute capsules of love, experience and wisdom. Dana is the kind of artist our platform was designed for.

We anticipate many happy years ahead in collaboration with her.

Charles Donovan