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a city by city guide to the best indie clubs, bars, record shops and local bands

Cape Town, South Africa
By Johan Hugo

As a tourist destination, Cape Town is probably best-known for its natural beauty and attendant outdoor activities: hiking, cycling, rockclimbing, scuba and sharkcage diving etc. However, it is also home to a vibrant nightlife, though not exactly a huge indie scene. Nevertheless, there are usually options for those willing to stretch the definition of indie just a little bit. Since it is strung along and around the narrow slopes of Table Mountain, Cape Town has the feel somehow less of a single metropolis, than of a cluster of smallish, connected villages, each with very much its own flavour and character. In terms of nightlife, the three most important centres are probably the area around Observatory (or just plain Obs), with a very definite stoner-student-hippie vibe; so-called “gay town”, centred around the long-established Bronx nightclub in Somerset Road, Green Point; and – most diversely and importantly - the City Bowl, especially centred on Long Street, which is a hive of bars, restaurants, cafés, shops and venues. If ever at a loose end in Cape Town, there is always something happening in Long Street – which is also home to a number of backpackers for that very reason, and which is best traversed on foot (though people tend to drive like maniacs, so be careful!).


Clubs

Evol
Hectic On Hope, 69 Hope Street, above the (very skanky) Stag’s Head pub. every Friday night
This long-running club night has kept the indie flame burning in Cape Town through a number of incarnations and for a number of years now. There is a huge rotating rosters of DJs (usually 2 or 3 per night) and it can be hard to know what to expect: everything from goth to indiepop, shoegaze to electro, jangle to skatepunk goes, and even some hip-hop on occasion. Usually interesting though. A warning though: this kicks off very late – there is seldom much happening till well after midnight, but it carries on till 4am. Occasionally also hosts bands as part of the night. This venue is only open on Fridays.

Untamed Youth
Fiction DJ Bar, 226 Long Street, every Tuesday Night
Fiction is a smallish, uber-trendy bar with an equally small dance-floor. It hosts a number of different nights, but Untamed Youth on Tuesdays have become wildly popular. Billed as “indie-rock”, the music nevertheless leans heavily towards dance-punk and electro, and is usually heaving by midnight – it can be a little clautrophobic at times! Admission is cheap, and the bar even more so.
(www.fictionbar.com)


Venues

 

Mercury Live
43 De Villiers Street, Zonnebloem
Mercury is the older kid on the block, and had kept the Cape Town live scene going virtually single-handed for a number of years. For that reason, it is still the venue of choice for a number of bands, and regularly hosts some great gigs, even though it is, frankly, a bit of a dive and the sound isn’t always great. It is reasonably priced, and tends to attract a slightly rockier, younger crowd.
(www.mercuryl.co.za)

The Assembly
61 Harrington Street, District 6
Definitely Cape Town’s newest and premier live venue, with both a large stage for established acts, and a smaller Annexe for up-and-coming bands. It is large, well-appointed and skinny-jean trendy, though admission prices tend to the steep side (offset slightly by fairly reasonable bar prices) and a reputation for bands only getting going rather late.
(www.theassembly.co.za)

The Waiting Room
273 Long Street, above Royale Eatery (The staircase up is rather easy to miss, and resembles little more than a fire-escape – keep a sharp eye out for it!)
Not an obvious gig venue, this is nevertheless quite an important spot on the Cape Town live circuit. A beautifully cosy – and rather hidden-away - string of lounges near the top of Long Street, this is a great place for discovering and enjoying newer and/or more intimate acts. Monday nights, especially, have come to provide a regular platform for a wide variety of gigs. With no dance-floor, this is strictly a sit-down venue, and always a good night out. Gigs tend to start earlier than elsewhere in Cape Town, so settle in early.
(www.waitingroombar.blogspot.com)

Zula Sound Bar
196 Long Street
Probably the busiest – and most eclectic – venue in Cape Town, there is something on here virtually every night, from stand-up comedy to poetry slams to bands, but with a definite leaning towards hip-hop culture generally. However, it does also play host to bands, and has seen some great gigs. Also doubles as a restaurant, and since it tends to become quite packed, is a good place to get to earlier than later.
(www.zulabar.co.za)

Speedway 105 Café
105 Hope Street (Actually, it’s tucked away a little off Hope Street, down a short ¬cul-de-sac – don’t miss it!)
A fairly new, smallish venue catering more to the rocky side of the spectrum, this is mainly a biker-oriented, tattoo-friendly bar, but which has started hosting the occasional great little gig. A fairly rough joint, but worth keeping an eye on.


Bars
 

The Perseverance Tavern
83 Buitenkant Street
The so-called “Percy’s” is one of the oldest pubs in South Africa – and looks it. It’s a typical English-style pub which attracts a host of regulars and always has a good atmosphere. Service can be on the slowish side, but it’s the sort of place which has been there long enough to have its own rhythms. They serve healthy portions of well-prepared pub fare. Closed on Sundays.
(www.perseverancetavern.co.za)
 
Mr. Pickwick’s
158 Long Street
One of a myriad of bars and restaurants in Long Street, Mr. Pickwick’s is another Cape Town institution. While it serves both alcohol and (great) meals, it is particularly famous for its fantastic range of fabulous milkshakes. Stays open very late, and is a favourite spot for a last linger after a night out.
 
Marvel
236 Long Street
A smallish bar with a distinctly hipsterish feel, right at the top of Long Street. Usually has live DJs mixing hiphop, R&B and other beats (though it’s far too small for dancing, really) and generally pays a lot of attention to atmosphere.
(www.marvel-bar.co.za)
 
Jo’Burg
218 Long Street
In the middle of Long Street, this was the cool hangout in Cape Town for a number of years, but it’s now a little past its prime. Still tends to draw an interestingly diverse crowd, and since it’s also small, builds up a vibrant atmosphere very quickly. Usually has live DJs, though the music tends to be a little overloud for easy conversation.
(www.joburgbar.com)
 
Kennedy’s Cigar Lounge & The Dubliner @ Kennedy’s
251 Long Street
The Dubliner manages to be an Irish pub without being generic, and along with Kennedy’s (which is situated on top of it) has the plush and luxurious feel of an old-style gentleman’s club: all wingback chairs tucked away in different nooks, cigars and posters of every moustache and hairy chest ever to appear on the silver screen. Often has live music, especially in season.
(www.kennedys.co.za)
 
A Touch of Madness
12 Nuttall Road, Observatory
Just off the main strip of Lower Main Road, Obz, A Touch of Madness takes up the whole of a beautiful old house, with several different rooms, each with a fireplace and a ragbag assortment of couches and chairs. Like the rest of Obz, the vibe is distinctly shabby chic, and the food isn’t great, but it’s got a lot of character and a cosy feel.
(www.cafeatom.co.za)
 
Roxy’s Café
Dunkley Square, corner of Dunkley and Wandel streets
One of Cape Town’s best-kept secrets, this little two-storey corner establishment oozes charm without being ingratiating. Situated on leafy Dunkley Square, it is cramped and rickety, but beautifully vintage-decorated with a classic movie theme, and several cosy little nooks and crannies.


Record Shops

In general, avoid Musica – the largest chain – like the plague: very generic, and overpriced. Look & Listen is probably the best bet in terms of the chains, but that isn’t saying much.

Mabu Vinyl
2 Rheede Street, Gardens
This is the classic Cape Town used record store, dealing in secondhand CDs and cassettes, and a huge collection of classic vinyl. Also stocks a good selection independently-released local albums, and with a passionate and knowledgeable staff. Also does iPod and other equipment repairs.
(www.mabuvinyl.co.za)

Revolution Records
85 Lower Main road, Observatory
Much smaller than Mabu, but also with a good vinyl collection, as well as secondhand CDs. Does turntable repairs – a rarity in Cape Town.


Local Bands

 

The older generation of established Cape Town bands are very much in the conventional, skinny-jeans clad, indie-rock vein. Bands like The Parlotones, The Dirty Skirts, Ashtray Electric and Taxi Violence are good, competent fun for a night out, but nothing earthshaking.

The big up-and-coming scene in Cape Town for the last few years has been the so-called “Belville” (one of the suburbs) scene, featuring mainly Afrikaans bands, who tend towards the heavier side of rock, and – while famous mostly for being Afrikaans – have delivered some great bands, chiefly aligned around the “VanFokKingTasties” collective (four intermingled bands – hardrockers Fokofpolisiekar, aKing and Van Coke Kartel, as well as the rather Postal Service-ish Die Heuwels Fantasties). Associated bands include the exciting Zebra & Giraffe.

Just lately, though, there are a number of really interesting younger bands coming through who are well worth watching out for: Dear John Love Emma (an 8-piece playing “melodramatic pop” somewhere between The Dresden Dolls and Architecture in Helsinki), their side-project Eat This, Horse (a rather stomping, jagged rock band), Beatenberg (a somewhat jazzy 3-piece beat combo), Coal (all-girl Goth band… if you’d call Mazzy Star goth), The Sleepers (heavier rock somewhere between Interpol and Alice in Chains) and The Great Apes (great, ballsy, swampy, stomping classic rock).

Lastly, worth looking out for are the slightly more off-kilter artists on Righard Kapp’s Jaunted Haunts Press, most of whom rarely gig, but the releases by Kapp, The Buckfever Underground, Ramon Galvan and Ella Joyce Buckley are beautifully produced and packaged in numbered, hand-printed cardboard sleeves.


Miscellaneous

Media
The weekly Mail & Guardian (also by some distance the best SA newspaper) which appears on Fridays has a very comprehensive listing of area-specific movies, theatre, art and gigs. There is also a free community paper, The Next 48 Hours, which appears on Fridays with a roundup of the weekend’s events. A newish initiative is the 021 Magazine, which is monthly and includes live events, as well as restaurant roundups and so on. The website www.whatson.co.za usually has a fairly comprehensive listing of events in its Cape Town section.

Labia Cinema
68 Orange Street; Second Floor, Lifestyle Centre, 50 Kloof Street.
By far the best cinema in Cape Town, and a landmark local institution, this independently-owned complex has been keeping cinephilia alive in Cape Town for decades. There are 4 screens at the original, lovely theatre in Orange Street, and 2 new screens at the new Lifestyle Centre, just around the corner in Kloof Street. They tend to show not just less commercial movies than the main theatres, but also host frequent themed festivals, and have a real commitment to documentaries. In addition, it is far cheaper than the commercial theatres, have various movie-and-meal special deals on with different restaurants every night, and is the only cinema in town which allows drinks into the theatre. And apart from all that, it is just a genuinely charming place, and not to be missed.
(www.labia.co.za)

The Book Lounge
71 Roeland Street, City Bowl (corner of Roeland and Buitenkant streets)
The finest independent bookstore in the country, with not just a wide and unconventional, cosmopolitan selection, but also a very busy and diverse event schedule (usually at least 2 launches/readings/discussions per week, and often more, not including the kids’ storytime every Saturday morning). Situated in a lovely old building, and with a real oldworldly feel, it also has a coffeeshop, and stocks a small selection of imported indiepop CDs and local artists.
(www.booklounge.co.za)

Clarke’s Bookshop
211 Long Street
One of the oldest bookshops in the country, they stock a very wide variety of especially South African books, both new and secondhand. A real Cape Town institution.
(www.clarkesbooks.co.za)

Neighbourgoods Market
373-375 Albert Road, Woodstock
A wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning, this is a craft, organic produce and homemade delicacy market which is exquisitely hosted every Saturday morning at the refurbished Old Biscuit Mill in rapidly gentrifying Woodstock. Very trendy and a place to be seen, but well worth visiting. Also at or near the Biscuit Mill are a number of small galleries, jewellery, clothing and funky furniture shops.
(www.neighbourgoodsmarket.co.za)

Main Cape Town photo © Cape Town Blog
Mercury live shot by Jenna Cato Bass

If you'd like to recommend a club, bar, record shop, band or any indie delight for inclusion in the Indie Travel Guide, please email us. If we've included a link to your band/shop etc, it would be lovely if you could link back to us. Thank you!

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