/ 5 July 2024

Discovering Cape Town’s eclectic listening bars, where nightlife is redefined

DJ Matt Hichens
Resonating: DJ Matt Hichens does his thing at the One Park listening bar in Cape Town, known for its curated line-up of local DJs and diverse mix of genres. Photo: Charles Leonard

With the popularity of listening bars on the rise globally, it’s no surprise Cape Town is home to a few of its own. 

On the City Bowl scene, dominated by rock venues and clubs that pose a risk to the longevity of one’s eardrums, One Park and Babbi’s eclectic sounds are a breath of fresh air for the Capetonian nightlifer.

A listening bar can be described as an establishment you frequent with the intention of listening to music in an attentive and focused manner. 

Unlike in most traditional bars, where the music is predominantly relegated to background noise, listening bars offer a space for concentrated listening. 

They are home to high-quality sound systems and feature a curated line-up of non-traditional genres. 

The phenomenon of the listening bar has its roots in Japan, with the first said to be The Lion, which opened in Tokyo in 1926, and played mostly classical music. 

Since then, listening bars have, of course, evolved and now offer an array of unique options that cater to an assortment of tastes, from vinyl to analogue, as well as digital. 

One Park, just off Cape Town’s bustling Kloof Street, is known for its curated line-up of local DJs and its eclectic mix of genres played from the beautifully designed DJ booth and over custom-built speakers. 

Opened in 2022 by business partners Matt Hichens and Mishka Mohammed, it has grown to become a favourite watering hole for people from all walks of life — but with adventurous ears. Its events boast a wide range of musical genres, ranging from jazz to electronica to hip-hop and soul. 

For example, it hosts events such as Dead Calm, which features a selection of ambient and drone music, while Domain Expansion explores left-field electronic, and even the occasional anime night is hosted within its walls. 

When asked what he would like the space to represent, Hichens, who is a DJ himself, emphasised accessibility and diversity. 

“We’re very cognisant of representation within the scene,” he states. 

“I think there are a lot of [DJs] that are unseen, and don’t get to showcase and thrive in these spaces, so we try to find a balance between new talent as well as people that have also been doing it for years.” 

Hichens encourages DJs to play the same music they would if their friends were over for dinner, which helps create an intimate atmosphere. 

The diversity of the line-ups reflects in the crowd One Park attracts — people across a spectrum of ages, professions and cultures. 

One Park does not serve as a listening bar only, but also hosts art exhibitions, on occasion, and pop-up restaurants and wine bars. 

One recent show featured the work of local artist Callan Grecia, known for his brightly coloured abstract paintings that explore and reshape traditional cubist portraiture. 

These events are often hosted on the first floor of the space, which is also home to its kitchen. Offering a selection of Asian fusion food, and wines, it is a unique departure from the traditional menus of many of the other restaurants residing in and around Kloof Street. 

Another space that fills the sonic vacuum that nightclubs have created is the newest addition to Bree Street’s ever-bustling nightlife, Babbi — a small listening bar tucked away in an inconspicuous alleyway. 

Babbi initially opened at the end of last year as a place for the founders and their friends to come together to enjoy good music and food. 

While it may be small, most nights it is packed to the rafters. The space offers a selection of food, wines and records, as well as recently branching out into live music events. 

With very little social media presence, it operates largely on a “need-to-know” basis and you are often pleasantly surprised by what you find upon a spontaneous visit. 

Similar to One Park, Babbi attracts a wide variety of clientele, from people who are musicians themselves to those who simply enjoy a well-curated evening of music. 

Boasting a large and ever-growing collection of vinyl records, with the soulful jazz of legendary British folk singer Joan Armatrading playing during my visit, Babbi also offers house, kwaito, blues and almost any other genre one can think of. 

“I think there are enough spaces in Cape Town where you can go and dance and shake a leg,” suggests Fernando Damon, a musician and Babbi’s daytime manager. 

“There are not enough spaces to just take in some music, sit in silence, play some checkers or chess, and listen to some cool stuff.”

Babbi is also famous for its delicious food, such as its sesame seed cookies, which are freshly baked each day. 

As well as this, it offers a new set menu each Sunday, ranging from succulent Picanha steaks and aromatic curries to more classic meals such as bangers and mash.

The immense popularity of these young-owned locations might be indicative of the need for more eclectic spaces in Cape Town’s city centre as well as the rest of the country. 

People are looking for venues and owners who understand the wants and needs of the modern consumer and many are growing weary of hearing the same golden oldies, repetitive techno or bland, generic commercial FM-radio-style playlists. 

This is not to say that these spaces do not have a place in Cape Town’s scene but rather that consumers are looking for broader spectrum of options to choose from. 

They want spaces in which they can experience good music, art and food, as well as connect with like-minded individuals. 

Perhaps One Park and Babbi will inspire more such establishments to open, as people are allowed to indulge in the value of listening culture and curated line-ups, as well as spaces that foster a sense of community. 

“I’ve always looked at One Park as an extension of the home, our home,” reflects Hichens. 

“I think people have started to really resonate with that.” 

These spaces also offer a more sustainable way of interacting with the music scene, because local artists are platformed, as opposed to the many international headliners who are flown in to play at large events each festive season. 

These unique and immersive locations are a crucial part of revitalising Cape Town’s creative milieu in the post-Covid landscape. 

They provide visitors with a rich cultural experience as well as simply allowing them to connect with music and each other.