Braamfontein is the centre of a creative revival, and at its heart is renowned jazz club The Orbit. Jazz musician Thandi Ntuli shares where to go to access the energy.
The insider: Getaway’s Welcome Lishivha lived in Braamfontein as a student for four years until 2013. We sent him back to his student haunt and to meet award-winning jazz muso Thandi Ntuli. After doing this story, Welcome relocated back to the groovin’ city where’s now a local.
I was fresh out of high school and a liberal arts student at Wits University’s Braamfontein Campus East. It was the first time I’d left home to face the world on my own as a young adult. ‘Braam’ was my ’hood for four years and, although I remember those days as socially vibrant, they were also filled with naïveté. So I’m apprehensive about going back there on assignment and reliving the memories of stumbling my way into adulthood, of trying to find my place in the big world. I’m not one to revel in nostalgia and how things once were.
But it’s 2017 now and hopefully Braam has forgotten. It’s also changed significantly in four years, and I don’t even know where to start. What I do know is I want a slice of its music and art community, which has taken hold since The Orbit jazz club opened in 2014, a year after I left. My jazz habit has grown with the rise of artists like Nduduzo Makhathini, Thandi Ntuli and Nomfundo Xaluva, all regular performers there.
As a young black person finding my place in South Africa today, I feel an affinity with their creative endeavours, dedicated to making sense of and commenting on our post-apartheid land. Plus, they’re young like me and also searching for their place in the world.
I have the best possible access to their world: Thandi Ntuli herself. Like me, Thandi comes from Soshanguve, Pretoria’s biggest township. She’s lived in Joburg for five years now, and is making waves in the local jazz scene with her unique and soothing melodies and well-received debut album, The Offering. (She’s also just been named 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz)
We meet at Unisa’s ZK Matthews Hall, where Thandi is in rehearsal. In person, she’s calm and so softly spoken that you know every word she says has been thoroughly thought through.
‘The beauty about the jazz scene in Joburg, compared to other parts of the country, is that there are venues where artists can play their music and experiment with various themes and techniques with an appreciative audience,’ she says, and then mentions she’s performing in a five-piece band, The Rebirth of Cool (a twist on Miles Davis’s famous jazz album, Birth of the Cool), at The Orbit that very night. Talk about cosmic alignment! And just like that I’m elated to be back in my old stomping ground.
Braamfontein is a cultural hub that’s gaining momentum by the day. It’s home to new coffee shops and restaurants and a variety of activities that are surfing the wave of urban regeneration in the city centre. It’s also home to legendary bar Great Dane and its neighbour, Kitchener’s, one of Joburg’s oldest nightspots. Despite the flutter of new places opening around them, they seem to have hung onto their authentic vibe. This is where to head if you want to meet hipster locals.
But I’m looking for something different tonight, so I head to The Orbit. I fall in love the moment I walk in. The Orbit is where my expectation of a classic jazz club meets dreamy reality. The house lights on the ground floor are a bit dim, and seating is at tables. The lights are focused on the stage. Upstairs looks more chic but the ambience is relaxed. Here, too, the lights are low, and the tables are full of glamour and buzz. The crowd is young, some engaged in deep conversations while others are leaning over the bar. Then there’s an announcement to respect the artists by giving the music full attention, and people turn to the stage.
The Rebirth of Cool starts to play. Thandi is ablaze with passion. She moves effortlessly between vocals and piano riffs, in communion with the band and audience. It feels like she’s in conversation with us, introducing her songs, making a joke here and there. She has us eating out of her hands, and when it’s all over the house rises as one to a standing ovation. But it isn’t over. Band members Tha_Muzik and DJ Kenzhero take to the decks and send the place into a frenzy with oldschool and contemporary music, and I dance the night away with artists and music lovers until 4am.
The next day I finally cave in to the nostalgia of ‘the good old days’. I head to the Neighbourgoods Market for lunch with an old varsity friend, and after that amble through the Wits Art Museum to see an exhibition of the works by the American iconoclast, Andy Warhol. The museum opened in 2012 and now holds more than 10000 works, both historical and contemporary. At dinnertime I head over Nelson Mandela Bridge to Newtown, Braam’s neighbouring district, to my favourite restaurant, The Potato Shed.
But I’m still hunting jazz so on Sunday morning I head to Westdene, near historic Sophiatown, once the home of South African jazz. ‘If you’re looking for an intimate setup of live performances, poetry and a community of artists, photographers, writers, musicians and poets, this is the place,’ Thandi had told me. That place is the Afrikan Freedom Station. Its purpose is to keep the important memories and melodies of Sophiatown alive.
I arrive in time for an open poetry reading, which starts with introductions around the room. Sitting right next to me is the award-winning poet, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, who has published four poetry anthologies. Her most recent is Ice Cream Headache in My Bone and she reads from it. It feels a lot like sharing poetry with your circle of friends in a lounge. After each reading or performance, there is silence, allowing people to share feelings and thoughts evoked by the poems.
That evening, I find myself back at The Orbit for its Window Session, an open-mic jam. I’m told that jazz and whisky go hand in hand, but I opt for a Pinot Noir. I’d hate to be made bold by hard liquor and take to the stage, mistaking quality art for a karaoke bar. Instead, I sit and listen to jazz being expertly fused with a variety of genres, from Afro-fusion to hip-hop.
It’s all about improvisation and I watch talented musicians – guitarists from as far away as Ghana, pianists and vocalists from South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho – who’ve never played together sit down and create something special. It’s the furthest thing from karaoke and while taking in the varied musical offerings, I feel a profound communion between the audience and the musicians. It transcends the (very few) words that are sung between the improvised harmonies of the instruments.
Surrounded by a predominantly young and racially diverse crowd, I suddenly feel my soul welling with hope, leaving me teary with delight. It strikes me that we’re all trying to find our place in the world, and that in music and its appreciation there’s a great sense of belonging and community. Thinking about the politically volatile days of Sophiatown and postapartheid South Africa and its challenges, we’ve always found a way to gather joyously around music. It is music that has consistently proven itself as the voice that truly speaks to the soul, beyond warped social categories.
Plan your trip to Joburg
From OR Tambo Airport, take the R24 until you connect with Albertina Sisulu Road. Turn left on Bertrams Road and curve with the road past Hillbrow.
Go here for jazz
The Orbit has performances nightly and shows cost R150. Don’t miss the Free Window sessions on Sundays. You can also order food at the venue. Book a table at least three days ahead of time. 0113396645, theorbit.co.za
Niki’s Oasis in Newtown has a chilled, old-school vibe, which is part of the charm. It features artists across various musical genres (Thandi played here when she first arrived in Jozi). It also serves food. 0114921134, find it on Facebook.
Visit the Wits Arts Museum. Entrance is free and it’s open from Wednesday to Sunday (10am to 4pm). Photographer Gideon Mendel’s ‘Drowning World’ exhibition is on until 25 February. wits.ac.za/wam
Shop at the Neighbourgoods Market. It’s a good vibe to start a Saturday. 0814162605, neighbourgoodsmarket.co.za.
See a show at the Joburg Theatre. There’s everything from music to dance to drama. joburgtheatre.com
Salsa with Ahora Si! at The Bannister Hotel. Lessons are free on the last Sunday of each month. 0735061858, ahorasi.co.za/ahorasi
Go to a poetry reading or other live performance at the Afrikan Freedom Station in nearby Westdene. The venue is intimate, sessions encourage discussion and it’s for free. They are currently closed because they are relocating. Follow them on Facebook for updates and the reveal for their new venue.
Go on a Sophiatown tour with Sophiatown The Mix. Proceeds go towards improving the area. They also have poetry sessions, book launches, music and exhibits on their premises. sophiatownthemix.com
86 Public is in the heart of the Braam buzz and serves great pizza. It’s a lovely spot to hang out. Tel 0114033055.
Love Food Kitchen is an affordable option with good, fresh meals (from R50). Get there before 2pm, though – they do a limited number of meals which get snapped up quickly. Tel 0836026511.
Kitchener’s is one of Joburg’s oldest bars, dating back to 1906. It’s a great spot to meet colourful Braamies. It hosts live music, DJ nights, comedy and other events. Entry from R20. Tel 0114030166.
Great Dane has a good vibe and is especially ideal for drinks after visiting the Neighbourgoods Market. The queue outside can be long, though. Open Thursdays to Saturdays. Tel 0114031136, find them on Facebook too.
The Potato Shed is in nearby Newtown. It has stunning decor and is known for serving potatoes in unconventional ways. Try the Fries Four Ways (R48) and the Lamb Poker (R160), cooked in a coal pit. Tel 0105906133.
Once in Joburg is close to Braam’s nightlife. There are dorms (if you just want a place to crash) plus a restaurant on site. From R175 for a dorm bed, from R850 for a room (sleeps three). Tel 0876250639.
Mapungubwe Hotel is in Newtown so you can move between Braamfontein and Maboneng easily. Rooms are modern and simple (some are self-catering) and it has a pool deck. Double room from R850. Tel 0114292600.
Protea Hotel Johannesburg Parktonian All-Suite is also a nice option and is up the road from The Orbit. Rooms are well equiped and it’s super convenient. Rooms from R998 a room that sleeps two and R1140 for a room that sleeps two.
Our December issue features the only 4X4 guide to Lesotho you’ll ever need, an incredible slackpacking adventure in Namibia, 50 ways to boost your summer holidays here in SA, 12 stays in Simon’s Town and a Mpumalanga road trip we like better than the Panorama Route.