The speakeasy culture is on the rise, recently being revived by the Roving Bantu Kitchen Restaurant in Brixton, Johannesburg.
During the golden era of the 1950s there was a cultural renaissance where South Africans expressed their freedom through live music gatherings. The kind of unity we are experiencing today is akin to that era.
Multi-cultural locations such as Sophiatown (Johannesburg), District Six (Cape Town) and Umkhumbane (Durban) became animated with culture, conversation and the kind of fun that throws caution to the wind in what author Lewis Nkosi called, “Those dancing good times where the now is all there is.”
Although Johannesburg was known as the city of gold, when it came to the fringe city location of Sophiatown, the gold was known to be in the people’s hearts.
A rich cultural environment developed in the famous shebeens such as Sis Fatty’s and Back of the Moon, and the informal places of gathering, such as House of Commons, House of Saints and Drum magazine journalist Can Themba’s House of Truth. These venues brought people of all persuasions together and earned Sophiatown the nickname “The little Paris of the Transvaal”.
Merging Culture and Activism
During the struggle years, culture merged with activism, and many South Africans became conscious and rubbed shoulders with one another. Music was at the forefront of culture as it resonated with people. And after democracy in 1994, South African culture and togetherness began to flow back into South African city life.
The metaphorical and physical walls that had divided people for so many years began to break down as the concept of African Renaissance was rebuilt.
At the centre of this social transformation was returning exile Sifiso Ntuli. Ntuli had cut his teeth in exile when he joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1981 and learnt how culture is always a primary outlet for creating change.
He explained, “My people’s culture, such as poetry, music and gumboot dance, was the easiest way to tell the world what was going on here, without saying a word. Culture was a big thing in the struggle for freedom because it is who we are, who I am.”
The Tale of Sifiso Ntuli
Ntuli spent his early exile days in Swaziland, then Tanzania, where members of the PAC made fun of these youngsters from the ANC. Ntuli got the nickname Roving Bantu, as they said, “He will be jumping from one cloud to another and never on the ground.”
This turned out to be true because he left Africa and went to New York and then Canada, where he studied electrical engineering and got involved with the Native American struggle. Ntuli made the radio documentary Umzabalazo, the Songs of Struggle, which was later transferred to Amandla!: A Revolution in Four–part Harmony, a successful documentary film, in which he acted as narrator.
Returning to South Africa, Ntuli started Dark City Jive at Tandoor in Yeoville. This was a reggae music event, and the start of a tradition that continues there to this day.
He founded the House of Nsako live music venue in Brixton that became a launch pad for many exceptional musicians of the era, including Blk Jks, The Soil, Tidal Waves and Bongeziwe Mabandla.
The African Soul Experience
Brixton is a microcosm of Johannesburg and South Africa. It is a strategic high point of Johannesburg and was the African centre for the resident baTswana moKhatla people before 1902.
Today, Brixton is a neighbourhood in transition. Ntuli is a long-time resident of Brixton, and when House of Nsako closed, together with his wife, Ashley Heron, he established the Roving Bantu Kitchen.
The Roving Bantu Kitchen is a haven for the soulful experience of Ubuntu. The intimate venue exudes the warmth of culture, cuisine, music, fine art, and conversation, contributing to the vision of a rainbow nation.
Visitors from all over the world, and people of all different classes and races congregate inside and outside the venue, transforming the quaint and colourful venue into a shared experience of culture, community, and freedom through togetherness.
This African soul experience is multi-cultural and multi-coloured, and is eloquently expressed through good food, great conversation, and lovely music.
Retelling The South African Story
Ntuli explained, “Music is a conversation and South Africans need to talk, to exorcise the ghosts of our past and create beauty from out of the beast. It is about what kind of society, what kind of heritage am I leaving behind for future South African generations. How do we build on what we are calling the African Renaissance? One method is to place culture at the forefront of the cultivation of the New South Africa we all want. Multi-disciplinary creative collaborations can continuously fan the flames of freedom.”
Many jazz and African music greats such as South African trumpeters Feya Faku and Marcus Wyatt, singer instrumentalist Siya Makuzeni, guitarist Keenan Ahrends, and LES Fantastiques from the Congo perform regularly at the kitchen.
The Roving Bantu Kitchen is part of a wider South African vision of building a new society by recreating and retelling the South African story through music, food, art, and contributing towards the national vision of creating a non-racial, non-sexist society of equality.
Ntuli believes this initiative can be replicated around the country as part of a long-term commitment to create “Temples of African Freedoms and Friendships (TAFF),” as African American philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois once suggested.
- Times: Roving Bantu Kitchen is open Thursday to Sunday from 18:00 until late.
- Afro-Soul Food: A small, fresh and wholesome menu includes traditional African meals and fusion cooking for all diets.
- Live Jazz & African Music:The Radio Bantu Live stage hosts the best of Johannesburg Jazz and African music four nights a week. There are also special events from younger musicians, poets, stand–up comedians, and documentary screenings.
- Tours: On the first Sunday of every month, The Roving Bantu Treks take visitors through the historic suburbs of Brixton, meandering from the high point, through the adjoining suburbs of Cottesloe, Jan Hofmeyer and Fietas, and ends at the Braamfontein graveyard, at the monument to Enoch Sontonga.
- Location: Roving Bantu Kitchen is situated at 125 Caroline Street, on the corner with Esher Street in Brixton.
- More Information: rovingbantu.co.za
SAA flies to Johannesburg daily from various destinations worldwide and South African cities.
Words by Struan Douglas