The essence of Maboneng

the essence of maboneng musicians

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I’m back in Johannesburg, in the artsy neighborhood Maboneng. In seSotho, Maboneng means Place of Light and I can’t think of a name more fitting nor beautiful. I came here the first time in 2015, when the conceptualization of the up-and-coming art neighborhood was just in its beginning. During the next five years I got to observe first hand how the neighborhood grew and expanded into a modern, artsy, hipster area. Young artists, creators, dreamers and entrepreneurs quickly flooded the former industrial spaces turned into apartments. Obscure bars, cozy cafés, concept restaurants, markets, galleries and murals are what you will find when you go to Maboneng.

My favourite thing to do here is people watching. There is no catwalk like Fox Street, the main road running through Maboneng. Everywhere you look there is either a photo shoot going, on or some other creative project being executed. Even the locals who are just existing, living their normal everyday lives, dress to impress. I sit in awe as I watch the people of Maboneng walking around with their individuality creatively wrapped around them.

This year, however, it is a less vibrant Maboneng that welcomes me. Even though there is life, light and people, it seems less loud and more grey. As I walk around trying to spot my favourite places and see what is new, it hits me how much is missing. My hangover souvlaki place, the amazing jewellery designer I always buy rings from and my Sunday market is all gone, to name a few. Just like in Durban, Covid put its mark here too. Perhaps because the economic base line in Maboneng seems to presuppose the presence of tourism, Maboneng was probably hit extra hard during the pandemic.

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As the night drew closer I notice another change in the area, the clubs! When I was here last time there was perhaps one club in all of Maboneng. Now, five years later, it feels like there are at least two per corner. Between nine PM and three AM, the music is pumping, shaking all of Maboneng and its inhabitants. Or perhaps, was it always like this? Am I just getting too old/boring for this neighbourhood? A local business owner says that the municipality used to regulate who and what kind of businesses got permission to move into Maboneng. But with the economy going anything but well the last few years, they have become more lenient to what kind of businesses they allow. Hence, the excessive amounts of clubs. I have no doubt that Maboneng will recover and start to blossom again but I do wonder at what cost?

It is apparent that the process that I’ve seen Maboneng go through these past couple of years is gentrification and commercialization. Just like what is happening in Observatory, the previously affordable industrial apartments are now expensive due to the high demand of holiday homes and rising popularity of the area. On the one hand, Maboneng is a whole lot safer than it used to be. When I first got here in 2015, it was only Fox Street that was safe enough to walk on. Today, Mabonengs’ safe zones have expanded significantly which can be seen as a positive effect of gentrification. On the other hand, all of my friends who previously lived in this area, have now moved out. The main reasons being: raised rents, too much noise at night and the general sense that Maboneng doesn’t cater to the local individual. Which brings me back to the question at what cost…

At what cost will Maboneng continue to develop? I’m afraid that the neighborhood that I love so much will focus too much on the tourist market and forget to see to the locals’ needs. I’m afraid that if the development continues like this, it will ‘develop’ away the very essence of Maboneng: the people! What gives me hope is knowing how many enthusiastic people in the Maboneng community are working tirelessly to come up with better and more sustainable solutions. Long term solutions which are not just for foreigners. Wholesome solutions for the whole of Maboneng.

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Social dancing in Johannesburg

Despite my low energy and poor health, I feel like I have some sort of balanced everyday life routine going on. A very lazy, slow routine of course. I don’t want to strain myself. When I’m not chilling in Maboneng, I’ve been attending all of Baila Afrikas dance events. On Mondays, there are kizomba socials and on Wednesday they host salsa evenings at the restaurant Carpe Diem in Sandton. One Sunday a month, Baila Africa also have a dance party but this time at the restaurant PedroPortia. It feels great to be dancing so much! I’m even starting to feel like I know a few souls in this dance community. When I got back to the backpackers last Sunday after yet another sweaty and fun dance evening, the afterparty of Curiocitys’ jazz evening was running hot! Since I’ve been dancing salsa and kizomba every Sunday since I got to Johannesburg, I have unfortunately missed the open jazz rehearsals that Curiocity hosts every week. This time however, the party doesn’t seem to want to stop.

A night with Mabonengs finest: the artists

I have actually never seen the Hide Out Bar this packed. It seems like every 20-something year old in all of Maboneng is here tonight. They are spilling over everywhere, out onto the street, up on the bar, on the roof and up on the tables. I catch a friends eyes as she happily yells something at someone, she smiles and waves for me to come over but the table is full and I feel a bit overwhelmed from all of the commotion. Trying to get away from some of the noise, I go out into the courtyard of Curiocity. It is also packed but at least the volume is less here. I end up melting together with one of the groups outside. It’s a group consisting of mostly young, drunk men. They are happy and exhilarated from the performance that just ended. After asking me a thousand questions, trying to get my number, they give up. Somebody starts to beatbox and pretty soon the whole group is swinging side to side, cheering the improviser on.

The quality of the impromtu rap battle varies… it is evident it was none of the guys up on stage earlier. But it doesn’t matter, we laugh loads and when somebody loses their thread somebody else is eager to jump in and take over. A girl, that I later learn is the singer Nomvuselelo, comes by and drops the smoothest, most magnificent bars that I have ever heard. She is cocky, her lyrics intelligent and her rhythm unmistakable. The whole group goes crazy when she is done and I feel a sense of pride that it was a girl that delivered the mic drop, especially in this context where men where taking majority of the space. Suddenly, they are all turned looking at me. “Sweden! Sweden! Sweden!” They want me to rap. They. Want. Me. To. Rap. LOL! I die inside as I realize the socially awkward situation I have put myself in. In that very moment, I cannot think of anything worse than making a fool out of myself in front of all these strangers. I cannot rap to save my life. On the other hand, how embarrassing wouldn’t it also be if I said no and left? That did not feel like a viable option either in this social context. I realize that if I don’t want to be a party pooper, and actually contribute to the amazing energy that has been created in this little group, I am going to have to rap. I try to get out of it but I realize the only way out is through. I start saying random words in Swedish, nothing rhymes, not all words are proper words but it doesn’t matter. I’m hitting the beat and everyone is hyping me up. When I finish rambling what is basically a grocery list the group is ecstatic! Their enthusiasm and kindness (everyone was well aware of how terrible my rapping was) makes me warm and safe. I laugh as they ask me for one more. “Have I not damaged your ears enough?” When they insist I surrender. They change the beat and I draw breath. The lyric that comes out I haven’t listened to in years, it is my old teenage anthem, I din trappuppgång, by Stockholmssyndromet. I know it by heart. When I finish the group explodes! One runs in, the other one to the left and back. In all the commotion, somebody starts another beat and somebody new starts improvising. The euphoria rushing through my body is overwhelming. I dared! And it was messy and imperfect and so much fun!

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After an hour or so it starts to drizzle and the group becomes smaller as people go back inside. We all huddle close together under the stairs trying to protect each other from the rain. The rapping has stopped but the conversation is loud and messy. Somebody shouts something that I can’t really hear but everyone falls silent. They are all looking at this one woman with the longest nails I have ever seen. The silence is pregnant with anticipation. When she starts to sing I understand why. The woman is the artist Kallo Matlanyane, she has a voice that can be liked with Lauryn Hill, and a deliverance that could make even the hardest of statues soft. The rain increases but nobody wants to leave. Everyone is bewitched to the ground by this moment, enchanted by the presence her voice commands. The amount of talent that is held by this neighborhood is just mind blowing. When the bar closes, nobody wants the night to end. I have the same feeling but I’m leaving Jozi in less than 24 hours so maybe the rational choice is to stay home and sleep. When they ask me to continue the party elsewhere I happily accept, why deny myself a propper Maboneng night?
Outside it is raining cats and dogs. We who have gathered outside look at each other as we take each other’s hands and run out into the rain. It doesn’t take long before we are recreating an mtv music video from the early 2000s. As we dance and goof around I feel happy. I am probably going to get the flu after this rain dance but right now that is not important. I mean, how often do you get the chance to play?

If you want to experience the night in video form you can click here!

4 thoughts on “The essence of Maboneng”

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