Zoning in on Funktionality

The girl in gold platforms and cowboy hat pays for her cyber-tonic and sashays over to the dancefloor where everyone is loosened up with movement and intent on continuing this strange communion just so long as the bass groove keeps on pumping.

It’s past pumpkin time on the corner of Loop and Shortmarket streets in Cape Town and the transformation from weekday office banality to weekend dancefloor hedonism is kicking in.

It might have been easier to find parking in the area when this corner was still the home of a Taiwanese karaoke bar. These days it takes some forbearance. The building now houses the Funktion — a multi-purpose trend emporium by day that is rapidly becoming one of the city’s prime dance floors by night. “Jies!” exclaims one breathless patron, resting his weary bod against an old Ford Cortina parked on the corner. “The music’s quite a pluck. It really takes you off. I mean, hang bananas with cheese!”

The venue’s metamorphosis began towards the end of last year when Cape Town’s legendary family-run hair salon, Bartholomew’s, relocated from its 13-year-old Burg Street address. It didn’t take long for a bunch of entrepreneurial live wires with their heads tuned into the global trend towards multi-functional urban spaces to spot the opportunity for a good thing.

Now the Funktion’s the perfect antidote to that skittish Nineties consciousness, ready to satiate your every consumer whim. If your hair’s drab, there’s Bartholomew’s. If you’re thirsty, take a seat on one of the faux snakeskin barstools and place your order from a range of smart cocktails or wash down a sandwich with a double shot of espresso. The rails on the right of the salon entrance display a range of designer streetwear by Unknown Leather, not to mention the party gear and hats by Philippe Urban.

The Funktion seems to have taken a step towards grafting the musical and design equation of an international trend in multi-cultural, cyber-active partying on to a local context. “There are international influences, but it’s not like a mutual agreement between ourselves and people overseas — it’s more of a stolen thing,” says Shukrie Joel (see picture) , one of the more vocal members of the collective behind the Funktion buzz.

In response to all the fliers distributed in the backpackers’ lodges that line Long Street, a lot of foreigners visit the Funktion and, says Joel, many attest to being blown away by the originality of what they find there.

“Living in an almost Third World country, we South Africans try so hard to be on a par. Because mentally we think we’re behind, we try so hard that we’re actually sometimes far ahead. I get people from New York and London coming up to me and saying: ‘What kind of music’s this?’ Somehow, you’d think they’d know.

“There’s a lot of music out there,” continues the denim-clad Joel, running his fingers through his short shock of acid yellow-green hair. “But it boils down to what you’re selecting. It’s what you pick out that actually matters.”

Design-wise, the Funktion has a kind of playful, post-industrial feel. Toy bulldozers sit alongside a decrepit Singer sewing machine on foil-covered factory piping that tracks the ceiling. In fitting prominence alongside the bar, overhung with a giant suspended speaker, stands the DJ’s booth signposted in blue and silver: Grooves of Distinction (GOD), from whence the music-meisters while away the days spinning and weaving tracks from their signature blends of drum’n’bass, breakbeats and house.

Displayed on transparent perspex shelves running along the glass shopfront, the compact discs form a dynamic collage with the street outside, at one with the rush-hour traffic. Also on sale at the record store, run by Joel and Matthew Buck, are prized vinyls and imported music magazines.

The doors are open from 9am to 5pm weekdays and stay that way on Friday and Saturday nights till late. During the day, the spacious open-plan design invokes a freewheeling, loungey feel. At night it’s a different story, more like the bar with the big insects in Star Wars.

Although the majority of the patrons it attracts are white, it doesn’t resemble the retrogressive cloistering of the rock scene in South Africa. At the same time it is not deeply located in the polemics of indigenous reality, like the jazz haven Manenberg’s down the road,.

Whereas pockets of nightlife in Johannesburg reflect the Rainbow Nation rhetoric that buzzes forth from beer adverts and sitcoms on television screens across the country, nocturnal sojourns in Cape Town are a bit like a trip in a time machine. It’s that feeling of segregation. Ebony here, ivory there and an illusion of perfect harmony beneath the mountain. Says DJ Trevor Mitchell: “As someone who grew up on the Cape Flats, my perspective is that to rave in town — to go into the CBD and socialise with whites and vice versa — was like crossing the border.

Still, the Funktion does “attract a number of people from the Cape Flats”, say Mitchell and Joel, “especially during the day”. The problem is that “few black kids can travel that distance. It’s a matter of transport.”

“There’s a lot of potential in the Cape Flats which people aren’t exposing,” says Joel. “These musicians don’t have a platform.”

On alternate Saturday nights the venue hosts The Sublime Group with DJs Greg Steele and Steve Croeser playing drum’n’bass (artists like LTJ Bukem, Photek and Alex Reece) which incorporates the township rap element to a greater extent than the Friday night gigs.

Every Friday the Funktion goes “Blu” — an experimental evening that provides the DJs with a platform for auteurship. Expect to hear sounds like Portishead, Tricky, Funki Porcini, Goldie and the Chemical Brothers. This innovation is gathering serious momentum and it’s not only due to the absence of a cover charge.

“It gives us a chance to present things differently — to make use of a certain sample on vinyl, to layer the sounds to play with the tempo and mess around with the beats,” says Joel. “There’s more to this music than the four-by-four house beat that people subject themselves to at places like the Boiler Room. We’re trying to promote the DJs’ talent for composition. Remixing instead of playing a straight track or a straight set.”

* Plans are afoot to make use of the second floor of the building as a studio for photographers and graphic designers. Interested parties should contact Philip Bartholomew on (021) 24-3502

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