Ode to Brixton’s cathedral of culture

Rebirth: What Was Billie Holiday Doing in Brixton? is filmmaker Steve Kwena ­Mokoena’s obituary, in the form of a ­documentary, for the House of Nsako, a ­conscious-party venue that once regularly pulled crowds to High Street in Brixton, Johannesburg.

The film uses a faux-news format; it is part documentary, part commentary and part journalistic. It is a “digital libation” — as Mokoena would probably call it ­– about the grave of the House of Nsako.

The venue, now home to a tavern called Yankees Grove and Lounge, was at the forefront of conscious partying in its heyday.

Founded by the collective of Sifiso Ntuli and Sbu “The General” Nxumalo, the venue was an eatery, a movie house, a live-band venue and a podium for outspoken poets.

In the words of Nxumalo, it was a “cathedral of ­culture”: a tryst for lefties, a meeting place for offbeat arty types and a sanctuary for young executives retreating from the corporate world.

A self-governing entity
The House of Nsako was the closest the city of Johannesburg had to Fela Kuti’s ­Kalakuta Republic. It developed an accompanying ­aesthetic and lexicon. Money, ­previously known as Titoz, after former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, was known as Afroz; patrons were known as ­mambaz, a ­corruption of members; a mohito was known as a Castro. It was a self-governing entity, a liberated province in the formerly racist enclave of Brixton.

As one of their last acts of resistance, Ntuli and Nxumalo held a concert to commemorate the life and art of that other rebel, Billie Holiday. The American legend is, in many ways, the muse of this documentary. (Singer Pebbles Gqunta claims audaciously to be a reincarnation of Holiday.)

The documentary is narrated by ­Nxumalo, who is cast as the anchor of a news ­channel called TV Bantu. Below his almost ­silhouetted figure a news ticker runs.

In its beauty, the documentary transgresses the linear narrative. It is poetic (anti-poetic, even), relying on a stop-start ­technique with which a topic is broached, probed and left hanging, only to be returned to later. So Mokoena captures Ntuli and Nxumalo engaging in a dialogue that is not exactly a dialogue. One of them will say something that the other will, in brief, address, before going off at a tangent.

It also features several other people: poet Don Mattera, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, a Universal Church member, a car guard who has lived in the area, a vendor and many ­others from the working and lumpen classes. They have not been thrown in to achieve journalistic balance; they are ­integral to the sad but imaginatively wrought story of the decline and death of the House of Nsako.

will be serialised on DStv’s Mzansi Magic (channel 107) throughout November. The first episode will be broadcast on November 3 at 9.30pm

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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