“There are venues and there are institutions”, I was once told: a friend attempting to draw categories in Johannesburg’s night-time cartography. Undoubtedly, Kitchener’s (or KCB) falls into the latter group. It’s the ‘go-to’ club when you have no prior plans. It’s the comfort of knowing the sound and crowd to expect when you arrive. It’s the ease of no dress code and affordable entrance fees. It’s the knowledge that you’ll likely see at least ten other people you know. “If the question is, where do we go to party [tonight], we are the first call”, says DJ/manager Andrew Clements.
Among the audiences, artists and curators of KCB are those who speak of it as ‘home’. “Home isn’t where you come from”, said author Pierce Brown, “It’s where you find light when all grows dark.”
If KCB is a home, it is one whose family stretches back generations. The pub/hotel was built in 1902 and is regarded as the second oldest building in Johannesburg. It is a testament to the historical centrality of our night venues. Radium Beer Hall, Kitchener’s Carvery Bar (KCB), Guildhall Pub have watched generations of dreamers and workers spill their histories over bar counters — wrestling with the possibilities and futures of the city. Marc Latilla, one of the first DJs to ever play at KCB, has sought to archive the venue’s history: another indication that night-dwellers are often keepers of suppressed urban narratives.
According to Latilla, by the end of the 18th century, Braamfontein had transformed from farmlands into a thriving middle-class suburb. The Milner Park Hotel, now known as Kitchener’s, was built in 1902, surrounded by German businesses. It served as a drinking hole for British troops, as well as postal riders on their way to Pretoria. In 1902, towards the end of the Second South African War, Lord Milner had a meeting with the notorious commander of the British forces, General Lord Kitchener, in the newly-built hotel. Kitchener had been a brutal warlord: primary instigator of South Africa’s concentration camps, in which thousands of Boers and black Africans were killed, mostly women and children. The name ‘Kitchener’s’ is thought to have arisen from this “auspicious” meeting.
If KCB is a home, this is the family’s ugly origins: it’s ancestral elder, a colonial brute, whose legacy continues to cause disquiet among his descendants. Still, his portrait hangs from the mantelpiece, above the figurative fireplace, where his great grandchildren dance and cuss and caress and worship, along with the descendants of his victims. These young ones burst through at night, trampling on grandma’s wooden floors, spilling on the old carpet, brushing past the velvet wallpaper. Each time, confronting history with a cocktail of detachment, denial, and dissent. It is a story of “dancing on graves”, of repossessing haunted spaces. You see it not only here but in the parties at the old train station, Halloween blowouts at the Voortrekker Monument, projected images of Hector Peterson at Soweto’s Zone 6.
The new generation of revelers took root at KCB in 2009, when Andrew Clements began using and hiring out the old hotel for parties. “This used to be just an old man’s club”, Andrew explains,“where a bunch of 60-year-olds would come every day at lunchtime, have a few beers, and then come back again after work. By 6 or 7 the place would close up”. But as DJ’s re-imagined the dusty Bar and Carvery, and the parties grew, and KCB quickly became a living room for young creatives, experimenters, hipsters, and students.
If KCB is a home, then, like any other home, it is not just about love, safety, memory and identity. There is also domestic power and sources of conflict. A strong sense of community often comes with a shared culture: away of dressing, speaking, moving on the dance floor, that has the potential to alienate others. Money, too, can also mess with families. One regular told me that he experienced a class territorialism that would make it difficult for someone who regularly partied at a tavern to party at KCB. To add to this are gender disparities, with femme bodies particularly under threat. Elders and relatives may try to intervene: we’ve seen dance floor dissent at the monthly Pussy Parties, the introduction of a female bouncer, regular and recognizable door staff, and a huge diversity of music genres to boost inclusivity. But families, inevitably, are sources of both contest and comfort.
If KCB is a home, it is one built on music. For years, DJ’s Rosie Parade and Danger Ngozi, of Broaden a New Sound, have curated its sonic identity,rooted in quality, pioneering music. There are family reunions with regular artists and promoters: 2 Sides of the Beat, Kid Fonque, BeatNN and Subterranean Wavelength. And then there are visits from distant relatives. This year: Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire, Hussein Kalonji, Tama Sumo and Lakuti. And of course there are family events: Disco de la Mode is a group trip to the beach; Below the Bassline a spiritual gathering around the dinner table, and Zonke Bonke like your uncle’s birthday party.The soundtrack is not from your radio or television. It’s the specially-curated playlists that this family has come to love: exchanging sounds, travels and collections across time and space. Like all good household gatherings, the food keeps coming till the early hours of the morning. At 4am, you’re helping your exhausted cousin out the door. And, as author Wendy Wunder once said of a home: “It feels good to leave. Even better to come back”.