Live music has been at the pulse of South African society for centuries. The multicultural nature of Johannesburg has made it the centre of this live music scene in South Africa. After the gold rush in the late 19th century, Johannesburg became a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicities and races; all looking for a piece of the gold pie! People came from all over the country – meaning a mix of languages, cultures and musical intonations was inevitable.
The focus of this listicle is on old (hubs of history) and new (creators of history) live music venues in Johannesburg. The focus is on venues that accommodate(d) jazz, hip-hop and poetry – music genres that have thrived in Johannesburg throughout different periods of its history. These venues tell stories about changes in musical landscapes in South Africa and about the history of not only music but of South African society; as changes in music venues point to changes in social and historical environments.
“This place is the hub of jazz music in Johannesburg… When you walk onto the stage at Kippies for your first set as an aspiring musician, you know you have made it,” Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse once said about Kippies.
The venue has been in operation since 1986 and was named after the legendary saxophone player Kippie Moeketsi. Moeketsi played with South Africa’s leading musicians, including Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa to name a few. Throughout the years the venue became a place for musicians to connect, create, and continue the legacy of Moeketsi.
The club was closed in 2005 after severe structural problems were discovered, but it was restored and reopened in 2009 as a national heritage site with a statue of Kippie Moeketsi outside the venue.
Kippies is now part of the Market Theatre Complex in Newtown which is a cultural hub offering theatre, dance studios, museums, performance space, retail, office and residential spaces.
About the 2000’s (black) band scene in South Africa, Kwanele Sosibo says, “In their jamming formations, they often mingled with a flourishing poetry and hip-hop scene, with its attendant Afro-bohemian affectations and, in the best of cases, incisive social commentary.”
The Bassline, founded by Brad Holmes in 1994 was (and still is) the go-to venue for most of these musicians. Originally in Melville (and now in Newtown), the Bassline stage has seen performances from almost all prominent South African musician. It has been (and largely continues to be) a space where artists can craft their art freely, withoiut fear of conforming. Bassline was part of an era!
3. Niki’s Oasis:
Siya Makhuzeni, Lira, Ezra Ngcukana, Bra Victor Ntoni, Feya Faku, Stanley Jordan and Kenny Garret. What do these jazz greats all have in common? Niki’s Oasis. Located opposite the Market Theatre Complex and, the Mary Fitzgerald Square, Niki’s Oasis is a Johannesburg jazz venue that opened it’s doors during South Africa’s second year of democracy. Nikiwe Rwaxa – the owner – turned her love of good food and music into a business.
4. Horror café:
The Horror cafe was established in 1998 as a platform for up and coming, ‘underground’ musicians and poets. The venue was part of the South African Breweries (SAB) Centenary building in Newtown, and its stage was a platform for many popular South African hip hop and soul artists, including Tumi and The Volume, Kwani Experience, Mak Manaka and Last Days Fam.
When the venue closed down, several attempts were made by the owner to reopen it elsewhere, including having a fundraising event where the likes of conscious hip hoppers like Zubz the Last Letta and Hymphatic Thabs performed.
The Horror Cafe eventually closed shop for good in October 2007.
5. The Blues Room:
The Blues Room was an up market jazz venue in Sandton which closed down in 2011.
6. The Orbit:
The Orbit has become one of the most recognised jazz venues in South Africa. The venue is located in Johannesburg’s hippie-central, Braamfontein. The Orbit is the brainchild of 3 fervent jazz lovers, Aymeric Péguillan, Dan Sermand & Kevin Naidoo.
The Orbit has been credited as being one of the few venues that gives artists and musicians creative space, and musical acknowledgement and recognition. The venue has hosted some of the finest local and international jazz musicians, including Herbie Tsoaeli, Banz Oester, Nduduzo Makhathini, Kyle Sheperd, Sibongile Khumalo, etc.
One of the co-founders of the space, Dan Sermand said in a statement in 2014, “We’re jazz fanatics who’ve lived in Joburg and hung out in some of the world’s great clubs, so we are passionate about creating a home the South African jazz movement deserves.”
7. Afrikan Freedom Station:
In a taxi from Melville to Braamfontein my eye catches a sticker just above the door frame. A red star surrounded by a yellow circle, with black words that read ‘AFRIKAN FREEDOM STATION’. The ‘Afrocentric’ space in Westdene doubles as a multimedia gallery and performance space. Located close to what used to be Sophiatown, one could say the Station has inherited the free flowing air of creativity that Sophiatown was known for. “Today the AFRIKAN FREEDOM STATION aims to connect generations old and new through art,” their website says.
The intimate venue has hosted exhibitions by many visual artists, including the owners work Steve Kwena Mokwena, and has had performances by prominent jazz, hip-hop and poetry artists like Ntsiki Mazwai, Mak Manaka, Masello Motana, Nduduzo Makhathini, Herbie Tsoaeli, Malcolm Jiyane, Mandla Mlangeni etc.
The Afrikan Freedom Station also regularly hosts film screenings and events, and is known for selling affordable but delicious home-cooked meals.
Kitchener’s Carvery Bar is one of Johannesburg’s oldest pubs. Although it is primarily known as a ‘party venue’, it also prides itself on its progressive music policy and is always pumping with indie gigs, Afro-beats and everything in between.
Kitchner’s is the playground for new and experimental bands, with one of the most recent live performances being that of jazz-funk-rock band The Brother Moves On. Keeping up with the young and vibrant audience that frequent the place, most performances are eclectic mixes of soul, hip hop, indie-folk music, with DJ’s playing banging beats in between.
The club is divided into four areas, but the performance area – an indoor room with a cigarette-burned red carpet, is perfect for intimate performances, but can sometimes get so full you hardly have space to breath.
9. The Bannister
Like Kitchners, The Bannister Hotel is primarily known as a party venue. It’s first and foremost a hotel, with a bar that frequents house music heads, but has a basement for live music performances below all the noise.
Bands that perform at the Bannister are also a mix of eclectic, new-school funk, with elements of jazz and hip-hop infused in them. Fresh sounds from The Muffinz, Nakhane Toure, Nomsa Mazwai and energetic bands like The Brother Moves On can be expected from the basement.
The venue is simple and intimate, but performances here do not happen as often as they should.
10. The Wits Great Hall:
The Wits Great Hall has become prominent as one of the best jazz venues to perform in. The Great Hall, which is situated right at the centre of Wits University, “has a rich heritage that dates back to the world premiere of the SA musical, King Kong and beyond.”
The venue has hosted performances by jazz greats like Carlo Mombelli, listen to a clip of a performance by Carlo Mombelli and The Stories Ensemble below:
11. Ko’Spotong Braamfontein:
KoSpotong bar is a franchise known for serving ‘kasi’ food and deep house DJ’s, but the recently opened Braamfontein chapter – at the foot of Mandela Bridge – seems to be designed with the appreciation of live music in mind. The space promises to be a hub of ‘alternative’ contemporary Afro-soul bands and musicians (The Muffinz have a residency there until the end of August).
12. The Bus Factory:
Within the Newtown Cultural Precinct sits an old bus shed on 03 President Street, which is now an artistic hub incorporating the Market Theatre Lab, Market Photo Workshop, Imbali Visual Literacy Project. It also hosts monthly poetry sessions called Word n Sound poetry sessions. Goes to show that poetry is NOT dead in Jozi.
13. Mary Fitzgerald Square:
Mary Fitzgerald Square may be an open space (located in the center of the Newtown Cultural Precinct), but it has been the home of The Back To The City Festival (and many others) for some years now. The Square was the meeting ground for many unions and political gatherings during the apartheid era, and now it is the meeting place of Cool Kids, Hip-hop heads and hipsters.