‘Either we crack it or die, whichever comes first,” was Politburo co-founder Sbu Nxumalo’s cryptic promise to me a few years ago. The question had been about the future of the famed Politburo Sessions, a conscious party institution he and Sifiso Ntuli had founded in 2001.
In 2005, when the interview took place, the sessions seemed to be waning in popularity, despite the impetus provided by the release of 50funkYears, a branded retrospective of struggle-era South African anthems. The Jo’burg massive, it seemed, had moved on and dumbed down and would no longer be taking its cues from a pair of middle-aged auteurs for whom dancing was a political act.
But with Yeoville being left to rot and Newtown gentrifying at a rapid rate, a cultural revival is taking root in Brixton, and who should be at the helm but the same crew who fanned the flames of their potency.
House of Nsako is an initiative of the Nuff Said Kollektive, a sprawling crew whose members are interested in furthering the arts. The recently opened venue provides a tangible incubator for some of the abstractions they have been throwing about for a while now in various guises. “It’s taken 12 years to open this [place] — for as long as I’ve been back in the country this is what I’ve been trying to do,” says an animated Ntuli, over a glass of Jack Daniels in a candle-lit section of the place. The rest of the house grooves to Chabvondoka, a protest band from Zim performing as part of an awareness-raising show, focusing on Zim, called Make Some Noise.
When Ntuli returned from Canada in 1996, he says it was the height of the “chicken run”, with whites who were edgy about the country’s future scrambling for the airports. This was how he found himself running the [House of] Tandoor, where he set up Dark City Jive, perhaps the first blueprint for the Politburo aesthetic, where Soweto soul was as at home on the turntables as Southern soul. “But then I had to get a real job, which was when I went to BMG Records [as a label manager],” he says. “That was where I ultimately realised that nobody gave a fuck about South African culture.”
Situated on High Street in Brixton’s CBD, House of Nsako’s appeal is magnified by its offbeat sense of style, its drab surroundings and its innovative programming. Money is called Afroz, the “members” are called mambas and parts of the place look like a voodoo priestess’s lair while others look like a regular inner-city beer hall. There are valuable books (one on Constantin Stalinslavsky), journals (The African Communist) and magazines (like the first few issues of Y Mag) that you just wouldn’t leave lying around. At Nsako, they are openly displayed on shelves augmenting its homely feel.
The building the club occupies is a disused bingo hall and above it is a decrepit flat. “Over the past five or six years, the colour shift has been radical,” says Ntuli. “Brixton is in the middle of the poor south and the wealthy north. If a demographical shift happens in this country, this is the first place that feels it [first].” Although Nsako’s location in Brixton was by happenstance, it suits the collective that the area was at “the heart of apartheid”, as Ntuli claims. “A lot of apartheid generals had their homes here. [Eugene] De Kock’s house is around the corner from here and General Le Gransie’s house is also here. But what this place proves wrong is the hullabaloo about crime in this country. It’s about having the vision to create beautiful spaces around what is considered hell.”
For Sam Mako, the doorman who has lived in the area since 1993, Brixton is nowadays like a township that “celebs” have just started frequenting. When he first moved into the area, he says it was easier to eke out a living on the streets as a trader, even though it was a place where “if you were a black man walking home at night white people would moer you”. But rents have hiked up dramatically, as every landlord tries to cash in on the boom in students caused by the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) expansion. “You can’t get a room now for below R1 500 or a bachelor for under R2 000 and they are charging students per bed.”
While he complains of rampant drug dealing, he is encouraged by the traffic that enters the club between Tuesday and Sunday. “It can lift Brixton to what it was before. People believe they come to Brixton, like the celebs and the white people who moved out of Brixton.”
Although it is still too early for bold declarations, there are signs that the area surrounding UJ might be the next cultural hotspot, with another live music venue (Seven Sundays) having sprung up in Jan Hofmeyer. “What was actually a fundamental reason for opening this place here is that we are surrounded by the UJ, Afda and Wits; we wanted to rally around the youth,” claims Ntuli. “I want this place to be full of kids in their late teens and 20s. Fuck my generation; we’ve forgotten why freedom was a long journey.”
101 High Street, Brixton. Tel: 072 223 2648. www.nsako.co.za