/ 7 April 2024

Long after tonight is all over …

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Take the floor: The dance area and DJ booth at Kitchener’s, on the corner of De Beer and Juta streets in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, which closed its doors this weekend. Photo: Charles Leonard

“Quish, quish,” my sneakers go on the sticky dance floor as I’m heading to the DJ booth in the corner with my bag of records. 

It is late Saturday morning and I’m coming to do a quick sound check before my hour-long set starts at noon to kick off the Kitchener’s send-off. The club-cum-bar is closing after 15 years as central to what was interesting about club culture in Joburg.

We — my friend Marc Latilla and I, who DJ’d at the bar as the Reform Sound System on a regular basis from 2009 up to around 2014 — got an invite on Friday to play on Saturday.

I said “yes” but Marc couldn’t make it at such short notice.

It was also too late to make it onto the flyer, hence the empty bar and the post-jol state of the floor. 

The advantage is that I won’t be getting any requests, I smile to myself. And I can be as self-indulgent as I want to be, I think, as I cue up the avant garde jazz classic The Creator has a Master Plan, an unusual interpretation by Le Jazz Club de Tananarive.

When we started our Thursday night sessions in 2009, the Milner Park Hotel, where Kitchener’s is located here in Braamfontein, was still a one-star establishment. 

Andrew Clements had just started hiring out the venue for left-of-centre parties and gigs. 

You would find weary-looking guys looking up from their dop as you started your session at 7pm. It was simple to clear the bar for friends arriving soonish for our nights — just drop some hip-hop and the regulars would unsteadily scurry off to their rooms upstairs.

Other than music, Latilla’s perhaps bigger passion is Joburg’s history. On his fascinating blog Johannesburg 1912 he has been painstakingly writing up the history of the city’s suburbs, illustrated with maps and historical and current photos. 

Braamfontein, Afrikaans for “bramble fountain”, has been known by this name since 1888, he writes.

The Milner Park Hotel, or Kitchener’s as it’s known now, is considered the oldest bar in Johannesburg. It’s on the corner of De Beer and Juta streets, which in the 1890s had a very strong German community with thriving German-owned businesses, Latilla writes, and was even known as “Little Germany”. 

Built in 1898, it was originally known as the Hansa Bar and Hotel.

In their book 101 Beloved Bars of Southern Africa, Chris Marais and Pat Hopkins write: “In 1899, Southern Africa slipped into the cataclysmic Boer War, also known as British high commissioner Sir Alfred Milner’s ‘Little War’. At the end of the conflict in 1902, Milner had a meeting with the strong-willed commander of the British forces General Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, at a small, newly built hotel in what is now Braamfontein. 

“This inn, whose name is lost in the mists of time, served as a watering hole for British troops and as a stopover for postal riders between Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is not clear if Milner had by then won Kitchener over, or what they discussed. 

“What is known is that they met in the hotel’s carvery bar: an intimate room with a small, leather-padded elbow-rest wooden bar, pressed-steel ceiling, smoked-glass-partioned kiosks, sash windows, heavy drapes and velvet-patterned wallpaper. Soon after, this establishment changed its name to the Milner Park Hotel, and the pub’s to Kitchener’s Carvery Bar in acknowledgment of the honour bestowed on them.”

Clements wanders over with a cold beer, lost in thought. I play singles by Gregory Isaacs, Thomas Mapfumo, Amy Winehouse, Minnie Riperton, Letta Mbulu, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Camp Lo, The Movers, Cymande and The Jazz Ministers. 

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These songs would have worked back in our sessions — they were attended by people who cared about music, who would give you approving winks. 

That has always been a Kitchener’s thing with everyone who played here. Not just a place to quench your thirst, but also to tickle your musical taste buds, a welcoming bar.

The pub remains empty and music fan Clements comes over when I do one of those combo things where I play the original — Backstabbers by the O’Jays — mixed into the song sampling it — Wish I Didn’t Miss You by Angie Stone.

“Can I get you another beer?”

“Of course, thanks.”

It has always been a pleasure playing here, I think, as I play a favourite from the days when we DJ’d at Kitchener’s every month: De La Soul’s hip-hop classic Eye Know.

We never saw any carving happening in the Kitchener’s Carvery Bar, as it was formally known. It was always, but always, a peaceful joint.

My time is almost up. It is 10 to one when a friendly looking person in a grey T-shirt carrying a record bag strolls in with an entourage of five.

“I’m Charles,” I introduce myself.

He shakes my hand: “I’m Mr Blanket.”

I don’t share the weak joke that pops into my head that he will probably only be playing covers.

At the end of parties at the Wigan Casino that was closely associated with Northern Soul, the DJs normally ended their weekenders with the same three songs. I have them on a single: first, I’m on My Way by Dean Parrish, then Time Will Pass You By by Tobi Legend and ending with Jimmy Radcliffe’s gorgeously sad Long After Tonight Is All Over.

It is just after 1pm and Mr Blanket has mixed into his set — it’s a house set that would have worked even better at 1am. But this is Kitchener’s and his friends are dancing. What more can one ask for?

Hints at a rebirth – but will it have the same interesting spirit?

In the din of mourning following the unexpected shutdown, after 15 years, of the cutting-edge partying at Braamfontein’s Kitchener’s Bar, there is a contrarian voice: “Kitchener’s isn’t going anywhere … this icon is about to get an extensive restoration and extensions too — an upstairs link into the old Milner Park Hotel,” read a reply to an Instagram repost by Johannesburg In Your Pocket. 

“Its long-standing history — now the oldest operating bar in Johannesburg — will be a beacon again for new generations.”

That reply came from Play Braam, the property developer which owns the historical hotel, and which is run by entrepreneur Adam Levy. 

We spoke on the phone last week about Kitchener’s closure after it did not renew the contract and how this incarnation of the bar, under the stewardship of Andrew Clements, has come to an end.

“Kitchener’s is transforming while Andrew is moving on — it will be there after I have moved on,” Levy tells me. “Andrew the DJ is a relic from a different time.”

While reading the room — specifically this one, where there are lots of people feeling sad about this beloved cultural institution coming to an end — might not be Levy’s strongest quality, even people who aren’t fans will concede that he has a knack for finding interesting places with potential and developing them with panache. 

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Raising the bar: Kitchener’s in Braamfontein is apparently set to undergo a revamp. Photo: Charles Leonard

Play Braam owns several other buildings in the area, including the former Neighbourgoods Market (now The Playground) and other structures housing trendy retail and restaurants. Most recently, it has unveiled the Rooftop Basketball Court and Joburg’s first-ever City Beach Club.

Kitchener’s-loving people who expect empathy from Levy should perhaps look elsewhere. He says, “When people talk about Kitchener’s they are nostalgic … about around 2010, when it was transformative, when the best days were in front of it — but then it went to pot since. My job over the last two years was to recalibrate the four blocks around Juta and De Beer streets.

“As Play Braam we are the biggest stakeholders here. With Jozi My Jozi we have reinstalled all the lighting on the Nelson Mandela bridge.”

Levy and his company have signed an agreement with the City of Johannesburg to help with the security and upkeep of Braamfontein, including installing solar lighting. 

“The demise of our city is not the only story,” he says and adds that salvaging Johannesburg does not “stop at your front door”.

He promises that, after the renovation, Kitchener’s will be double the size, and it will include access to two floors upstairs in the Milner Park Hotel. There will still be bands and DJs, he says. It will be eight to 10 weeks before it reopens.

Levy can listen to what Kitchener’s DJ Maria McCloy, who is also a cultural and fashion entrepreneur, said after the iconic bar’s shutdown: “Whatever comes in its place under new management can’t compare but one hopes the music remains interesting and the energy welcoming and affordable.”