Grand Opening July 8

Renowned West African musician opens restaurant in former Nickerson Tavern

By Jordan Bailey | Jul 05, 2017
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Jordan Messan Benissan in the dining room of Me Lon Togo June 30.

Searsport — When Jordan Messan Benissan was growing up in Togo, a small West African country near Cote d’Ivoire, he never dreamed he would end up restoring a historic homestead in New England to open a restaurant there.

But his plans to study French literature at the University of Oklahoma and brush up on his English enough to return to Togo to teach the two languages took a turn when members of the music department learned of his talent in drumming.

In Africa, he said, everything is done to music and he had grown up with it all around him. His parents, aware of the threat of traditional cultures dying out, also ensured his musical experience included training in traditional West African music by master drummers.

Though most young people in Togo stay in the country to attend university, Benissan said he was drawn to study in America because of his fascination with the way in which African Americans have influenced popular culture here. He was inspired by James Brown and Mohammed Ali, and marveled at how blues music brought by African slaves evolved into classic rock and roll.

He was invited to join a jazz ensemble with professors at the school, and began getting requests to play at festivals and assemblies. The “dealbreaker” for his language track came when he was asked to train students in African drumming for a Martin Luther King Day celebration for the school and community. The performance was a huge success, and following the advice of the music professors he’d befriended, Benissan decided then to enter the growing field of ethnomusicology.

A residency at The Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland brought him to Maine, during which he performed at the Old Port Festival and recorded two albums to critical acclaim. He was featured on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and the children’s magazine “Highlights.”

“I found myself in a little place in New England where I thought I wouldn’t be getting any exposure, but I got my biggest exposure here,” Benissan said. “Something brought me here for a reason.”

Since then he has been filling cultural enrichment residencies in schools and colleges and teaching West African music and dance at Colby and Bates colleges and Watershed School in Camden.

What does all this have to do with food, you might ask. In Africa, he said, food and music go hand in hand, so he would cook West African meals for his classes once a semester. Cooking his favorite dishes from Togo for around 30 students became for him the most exciting part of his teaching. And he was getting excellent feedback from friends and colleagues for whom he cooked in Waterville.

“I know that anybody who tried my food loved it,” he said. “My passion for cooking convinced me that one day it would be nice to have my own restaurant.”

The dream came closer to reality when a private investor backed the idea. Benissan decided on the Nickerson Tavern building, a long-vacant building he had admired for some time, after unsuccessfully looking for a space in Wiscasset.

The investor's loan wasn’t quite enough to cover the purchase of the building and all the renovations that were needed, so Benissan put all his savings and salary into the project, too. A back portion of the building had to be rebuilt. Copper pipes and wiring had been stolen while the building was vacant and the plumbing and electrical work had to be redone. He finished the trim work on the inside, and painted the walls a warm reddish brown, one of the colors of clay in Togo that people would use on the outside of their homes. The outside he painted a deep blue and bright purple.

“I chose the colors — I hope I’m not crazy,” he said. “I think it’s very calming. Blue and purple are my favorite colors.”

While he was working on renovations, he said people would stop and tell him about their memories of visits to Nickerson Tavern for birthday parties or first dates. He said opening the building back up for the community is one of his biggest satisfactions of the project.

Karen Kelley of Searsport Historical Society said the Nickerson Tavern building was probably built around 1840-1850. It came into her family when her grandfather Sumner Nickerson bought it in 1920. Her grandparents would simply open up their dining room and offer public lobster dinners. When her grandmother died, the house passed down to Kelley’s mother, Valerie Murphy, known as “The Mother of Searsport,” for her service to the town.

Murphy, with her husband Bill and son Chris, restored the building in 1978 and opened a restaurant there. It changed hands a few times since then, and Kelley said she believed the building has been vacant since the early 2000s.

“My mother passed away last year,” Kelley said. “I know she’d be happy that someone’s taking care of it and loving it like she did.”

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Jordan M Bailey
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Jordan Bailey has been working for The Republican Journal since 2013. She studied philosophy at Boston College and has experience in marine science education and journalism. She lives in Belfast.

 

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