Intensitiesby Mlilo Mpondo / 11.03.2013
In a second year political science class I vaguely remember a lecture on the “reclaiming of public space”. This notion of reclamation was centred on a people’s migration towards the city centre, most of whom, thanks to apartheid, had been excluded from it. This narrative beautifully illustrates the rush of the disenfranchised from the squalor of their peripheral realities, driven by their quest for the Holy Grail of self-actualization, the ANC’s now glib “better life”. Bearing no resemblance to the two-bed-roomed zinc constructions in which they were reared, no stench of over-flowing drain pipes. In the city, the sun seems to illuminate a different shade of orange when it sets, painting all the buildings in nuances of gold.
It’s Friday night and I find myself on the top floor of an abandoned building last Friday night. The roof top of the poignantly named King Kong, watching the surrounding buildings watch us. On nights like these there is a quiet nod of acknowledgement between the city and its travellers, its lights flirt with us, inviting us to become a part of it. Ten Cities is a project that aims to discover the culture of a city, by looking and listening to their nightclubs. Over a half smoked cigarette and a diluted half glass of cheap whisky, Johannes narrates the conception of Ten Cities. He is the director of the Goethe Institute’s Nairobi branch and one of the main protagonists behind the Ten Cities.
With his world-diluted German accent he explains that the idea was quite grandiose and bigger than what one would expect from a project based on DJs and clubs; at it’s essence 10 Cities is an attempt to tackle and remould academic theories around public space. A discourse that defines itself as “self emancipation of people from domination”, if you will. A debate he emphatically contends was largely controlled by old white male academic rhetoric. The point being that the people who actually occupy and use these spaces were excluded from the conversation while a bourgeois albeit educated elite dictated what the relevant points of discussion were to be. And most importantly, these “old white farts” thought that their theories on public spheres were universal.
Enter the Goethe Institute and Ten Cities, a contestation of elitist academic theories, and a sub-cultural exploration of cities as diverse as Luanda, Kiev and Johannesburg, all prised open through the crowbar of late night club culture. The enigma of club culture is the metamorphosis which takes place in these spaces. There’s a reason why everyone from Fiddy to Kanye to Jozi and AKA sing about “the club”. Clubs are a semi-autonomous space where the more shrouded desires can be explored. In the dark where the only certainty is that you are alive, time and sense have no obligations to the rules of gravity and the only gospel which holds true is that which is present in the now. Body movements become a source of dialogue; senses are heightened, the constructs of social identity dissolve. In this permissive state, the barriers between society’s strict social strata are semi-suspended, so long as you can make it past the bouncer and his velvet rope, affording people a certain kind of liberation.
The selection of each city for this project is largely based on the characteristics of its urbanization. If you look at it more closely, cities are massive conduits for social and financial upliftment. Escaping poverty allows people the possibility to self-actualize. And when people actively reclaim spaces from which they were previously excluded, political discourse becomes re-constructed. In much the same way, the public sphere is remodelled in a club, and the audience dictates as a collective.
The cities which form a part of the project each have an acute and distinct club culture of their own. This has a hand in engaging the cultural progression of each city as experienced through its night life. One need only take a look back at the history of South African music to perceive the translation of our politics on dancefloors and in our music. Politics has been making the jump from parliament and newspapers and into dancehalls and shebeens, to be lauded or critiqued, since the first wave of urbanisation as part of the gold rush that founded Johannesburg. More than music it became a way of life, a cultural revolution in speech, style and dance. Dance, music and politics have always shared the same bed. Dance frequently challenges conventions just as music redefines and shapes political and social views.
The mixture of Kiev DJ’s Vakula and the Dubmasta, Mzansi’s Dirty Paraffin and Kenyan hip hop and Marabi instrumentalists, is the theatre of fluidity at its best. Ten Cities is a hive of cross continental and cross cultural influences and ideas. It mirrors the indulgence and the freedoms of club life; where (on good nights) race, sexual orientation, ego, wealth and the other constructs that tend to define us, are dissolved to form a momentary, single movement.
Clubs, music, dancing and DJ’s have a unique ability to narrate our desires and passions. The dancefloor becomes the canvas. In African cultures dance has always been a medium for conversation and enlightenment, a way of communing with that which is intangible and perhaps forbidden, but always felt. Dancefloors are gateways for trance like spiritual sorcery, for escapism, tied together by those exquisite moments of unity and the single purpose of getting down to this tune, now. The club is the place for those suspended mid-air waiting for the night to come so that they can finally come to life.
*All images © Masimba Sasa and Kamohelo Khoaripe.