The Cape Town suburb of Observatory is known for being a small bohemian enclave, providing low cost housing for students, artists and ‘free spirits’ of all sorts. Walk down Lower Main Road past the quaint mini-Victorian houses and sushi restaurants, and you’ll find all the familiar student-town tropes: aging hippies, overpriced vintage clothing, and laptop-ridden coffee shops. In Obs, as the neighborhood is affectionately known, international “semester abroad” students blend in like sore thumbs, sticking together in a herd, just like the International Students Office told them to. This is Africa after all – safety in numbers.
Jokes aside, Observatory has always been one of Cape Town’s most important cultural hubs, and at one point the center of this hub was The Independent Armchair Theatre, a live music venue, no-frills bar and all-around cool hangout space.
The Armchair Theatre was the kind of place where you could meet your future spouse, or your future weed dealer. It had a “come as you are” attitude that attracted all walks of life, including a nerdy brown kid from Cape Town notoriously provincial Northern Suburbs (me.) The Armchair was where I played my first live gig with my first band and where I saw some of my musical heroes play live.
I’ll never forget watching Tiago from 340 ml play his unique brand of Mozambican dub guitar from about 10 centimeters away. Or taking my cousins to see afro-pop band Freshlyground when they were still an underground student act (they recently got a ‘shout-out’ from Barack Obama on his 2013 trip to Cape Town. Not so underground anymore.) The intimate venue was the perfect place for new bands to showcase their abilities, and for some bigger names to play to an intimate crowd.
As there weren’t that many options for live acts to play in Cape Town at the time (arguably there still aren’t), The Independent Armchair Theatre became a cornerstone of the local music scene, and it attracted some international attention as well: Scratch, beatboxer from the now world famous US hip hop band The Roots, performed a solo set there. Swedish folk revivalist Jose Gonzalez played there after releasing his sublime Veneer album, and Rodriguez (the focus of the film Searching for Sugarman)played there in 2005, during one of his many trips to Cape Town, once he had found out he was a superstar in South Africa.
The building itself was somewhat of a landmark. Painted blood red, the big square structure featured an actual armchair above the entrance. The décor inside The Armchair was minimal bohemian grunge, housing a couple of big leather couches; a well used foosball table, and some homely lamps. The stage itself was not very big, but the frayed Persian rug and colorful mood lighting made up for it. On Monday nights they had a special where you could get a pizza at Diva’s across the road and head back into the Armchair for a classic film screening, all for 30 rand, which is roughly 3 dollars. What’s not to like?
However, the Armchair for me represents not only an affordable and hip venue that I hung out at in my undergrad days. It also represents the first time I fully felt what it could mean to live in a post-racial society. Even during the last days of apartheid, Observatory was considered a “grey” neighborhood, where people of all races lived together in relatively close proximity, contrary to the laws of the time. It always occupied this alternative space in Cape Town’s collective imagination. Even though most of my time growing up was spent during post-apartheid era, I, like everyone I know, was still affected by its hangover. During most of my early schooling in previously White neighborhoods, I was the only person of color in the room. In Observatory, as a “brown” or “Coloured” kid from the suburbs, I was able to socialize with Black African kids from the townships, make music and create memories together. At the time we thought nothing of it, but in hindsight I realize that these were the seeds of the growth of the nation our parents fought for.
While the building still stands in the middle of Lower Main Rd, today The Independent Armchair Theatre is no more. Due to financial struggles, stifling noise laws and whining neighbors, the Armchair had to shut its doors in 2008. It reopened in 2006 as The Obviouzly (sic) Armchair Backpackers and Pub. Thankfully this gaudy name saved me the trouble of popping into my old haunt to see what the new owners have done with the place – some things are just better left unseen. I’d prefer to keep the memories intact as I walk past the big red square of a building; and imagine the foosball table, my friends, and the music that changed my life.
* Images of Observatory streetscenes by Barry Christianson.