/ 18 May 2012

All hail Sue, Sin City’s salon queen

Sue Mabale
Sue Mabale

The late folk and country raconteur Johnny Cash has an irony-soaked song called A Boy Named Sue. I first heard it piping through the speakers one dark, criminally cold winter night aboard a bus pushing 160km/h from Gotham City to the south, through Washington DC.

As with the greater part of his liturgical repertoire – lyrics that often scale up to devil’s creek or offer a peep-through to God – Cash’s A Boy Named Sue kept me awake much of the night as an eerie thin wind howled behind us. On the road to heaven. Or to hell. It sure felt good. I tripped out and dozed off.

Well, this is a story about “a girl named Sue” and it is neither a song nor an attempt at affecting a hip pose. Sue would have laughed and harangued me for that, so sharp and with-it she was. At 62, Sue Mabale was by no means a girl in age, or even a boxed-in sense of gender. She was a visionary – and Johannesburg’s nightlife would have been duller without her.

But Sue is dead, baby.

The founder and owner of the African salon and juke-joint Ekhaya on Yeoville’s Raleigh Street, Sue checked out on Sunday May 6. She was certified dead that afternoon at Milpark Hospital, a result of a recurring heart condition, said her son, Kabelo “KB” Mabale.

To toeka
She leaves two adult sons, KB and Tsile, as well as a pair of huge, intimidating boots and a legacy to continue or destroy, depending on how much of her vision and the chops for business they have imbibed from her.

Although the city denizens might associate her with her Yeoville joint, the story of Sue and this city goes back to toeka – 20 or so years ago.

Growing up in Orlando East, Soweto, Sue became one of the few who would use her township parlay, storytelling gift, wit, survival and marketing suss to make a name in the 1970s and 1980s white advertising world. She did all sorts of things, from market analysis to voice-overs and promotions.

I first met her in 1992, not too long after she had opened one of the very first black-owned, upscale bohemian shebeens, Sonny’s, on Pretorious Street adjacent to the then swanky eatery Mi-Vami in Hillbrow. It was just before the 1994 freedom explosion and not that long since both Hillbrow and Yeoville – both Sue’s stomping grounds – had been designated “grey areas”.

Grey? Well, they were anything but! Hillbrow was in the thick of heady times like no other in its vibrant La bohéme history – a result of the confluence of characters it attracted. It was the right time, political stakes were shifting and a new kind of black middle class was emerging.

Black cool and consciousness
Black swag was popping out everywhere. Newly created English black urban radio stations such as Metro FM and upmarket black publications such as Tribute magazine were showcasing a new kind of black cool and consciousness.

In Hillbrow, black entrepreneurs, mostly in the retail sector, were carving out their niche. Returning exiles from all over the world’s capitals and backwaters were still trying to make sense of the lay of the land. Coffee shops, bookshops, record shops and fast-food joints were abuzz with the energy and colour of new clients.

Hillbrow’s riot of neon told a story of charming recklessness that affirmed individualism over submission while letting you believe that your dreams of making it in this city were not misplaced. It is from this urban cultural vortex that Sue set forth to create a space for intelligent jive talk, leisure, good music and relaxation among one’s peers.

Her clientele ran the gamut from models, doctors, con men, style mavens, engineers, scientists, radio DJs and politicians, although we called them “activists” back then. Much as the place did not have the postcard seduction of, say Café de Flore or its long-lasting rival Deux Magot (Two Devils) in Paris’s Left Bank – where the likes of Paul Satre, Albert Camus, Boris Vian, James Baldwin and Miles Davis held court on existentialism and subversive art-forms – Sonny’s was instructive as a gathering hole for black folks who dared to dream.

It was also a place where left-field ideas and raconteurs bloomed. It was one of the few places outside the traditional – such as the township shebeens Tilly’s in White City, Irene’s in Orlando East, Gabsile’s in Ndofaya and Rowena’s in Rockville – that gave the then black, middle-class fun-seekers a sense of city cultural real-estate pride.

Tough street cred
It was not unlike the 1960s (still trading) salon Elaine’s, manned by the Jewish matriarch of New York “society”, or London’s hip joint Annabel’s, where Annabel Goldsmith captained a tight ship behind her husband Mark Birley.

Sue ruled her outlets with an attractive set of white teeth and tough street cred.

She was not a shebeen queen in the strictest sense, but she was whip-smart and came with a built-in bullshit detector. For writers and columnists, such as our mutual friend Suzette Mafuna, she was a gift to cherish. She could tell immediately whether you were a chance-taker, a wannabe, a will-be, a has-been, and yet she was equally generous with praise, hugs and affirmation in a city where it is easy to sink into alienation.

Her Yeoville outlet, Ekhaya, was a slightly different beast to her first venture. But it was also of its time.

Post-1994 Yeoville became the unofficial pan-African capital of Johannesburg and the country. In texture, imagery and patois, it resembled a miniature Brooklyn, Jamaica’s Kingston, Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a slice of central Lagos and Paris’s barbers’ zone, all at the crack of a whip.

Class-agnostic Yeoville
Sue expanded on the promise Sonny’s suggested, although this was more of a home away from home for many of its patrons. Part salon, part shebeen, part your aunty’s African home cuisine, part bistro, part jazz juke joint, it catered to a class-agnostic Yeoville in its broader sense.

Once again Sue included everyone in her inner sanctum, or so you felt. To this day, her clients are weeping rivers of tears.

Now based in Cape Town, Sello “Sekgalo” Sekgonyane remembers Sue for her good deeds. “Listen man, she didn’t have to, but Sue bought me the ticket I needed to get out of Johannesburg in pursuit of my business dreams. She bought me a plane ticket and a cellphone, and that is just the material gifts. Her greatest gift to her customers was love and laughter. She carried off both in style.”

Jazz magazine Discography‘s publisher, Dudley Moloi, said both Sue and Ekhaya offered a place where South Africans, in particular, could have a social life culturally unique to themselves in an entertainment landscape dotted with all kinds of continental blast.

Art scribe Edward Tsumele is known for shockingly off-the-cuff bombast and inarticulate boastfulness, but this time round he spoke for many when he said: “Sue maintained some kind of sanity amid Yeoville’s and Time Square’s madness.”

Talking about the mad, truth be told, Ekhaya’s charm is partly owed to fact that it was – and still is – an asylum of some kind. How dare one survive in this business without a wee dose of craziness?

So, hail Sue: this time round, a Girl Named Sue. She deserves a 21-gun salute although she would have laughed at the thought.