By Bongani Madondo
In both design and philosophy, The Chairman is South Africa’s ultimate trendoid hub: a DIY sin-stirring jazz lounge- cum-anti-establishment private club. The exterior is totally misleading. And perhaps that is the point. The surrounding area carries a contemporary visual pout reminiscent of Berlin’s formerly run-down, predominantly Turkish, inner-city borough of Kreuzberg: graffiti scrawls, unscrubbed walls, the works.
Dare to venture inside the club, though, and you are immediately whisked on a time-travelling ride from Harlem to District Six, Paris to Bucharest, now harking back to the talkies Hollywood era, now to black jazz bohemia. In style and entrepreneurial philosophy, the place evokes an international gilded-age rendezvous, straight out of The Great Gatsby, if you can imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald’s upscale- sleaze romp peopled by swanky Africans and multicultural revellers. This establishment entertains the most stimulating jazz and is the most architecturally welcoming lifestyle centre in the country.
While the design and decor are a visual boon – an experience in and of themselves – the club’s visual narrative is far from being put on, or distinct from the joint’s overall service. The wait staff are smart, affable and very efficient and although uniformed in black slacks and white slim-cut shirts, bring varying degrees of individuality and sass along with their punk hairdos.
The Chairman was founded in 2011 by sartorial maven, cultural activist and geek architect Ndabo Langa, nephew of author Mandla Langa, and is notorious for its word-of-mouth reputation (despite having an attractive and easy-to-navigate web presence). You might not know about this place unless it has been recommended to you. Most likely, the person who recommends it is a hipster – the original Portland, Oregon-style species – like the award-winning filmmaker, Khalo Matabane, for example.
Although The Chairman prides itself on being a jazz club, it is a jazz joint with a visual hunger for a cultural lifestyle experience beyond the music. In fact, it feels more like a blues speakeasy run by a Paris couturier.
Stepping into the club, like I did with a coterie of media-types from the US East Coast in South Africa to report on the Essence cultural festival in the city, you are met by music and plenty of musical references in this richly lyrical palace.
The interior is retro, although so overwhelmingly so that it looks like a theatrical pastiche, a commentary not so much on the sepia-toned 1920s-1950s, but on the contemporary generation’s sentimental enchantment with a fictive, orderly past as we venture deeper into a technological future.
The place is a visual monument, not only to jazz but to the blues, folk, bluegrass and funk. And yet musical history is not the only welcoming feature about The Chairman. The walls are adorned with paintings and stills depicting works of artists du jour, such as Mary Sibande and Blessing Ngobeni alongside (and I didn’t see this coming) a collection of taxidermy bokke. Here, it feels as though you are at once on a visit to your once-wealthy (but still stylish) uncle’s farmhouse and also smack bang in the middle of the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s swinging Sicilian party scene in The Godfather, with noisy Italian uncles and round-hipped matriarchs wearing scowls on their wrinkled faces and rouge lipsticks to (literally) die for. Look up to your right: high on the bare brick wall overlooking the courtyard you will see a mural of a mean-looking woman wearing a white skull-tight turban with gardenia to rival Lady Day demanding your attention.
THE CHAIRMAN IS LIKE A CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. WE PROUDLY SHARE OUR DIVERSE COLLECTION OF EXTRAORDINARY ARTIFACTS. THEY ALL TELL STORIES ABOUT VARYING PERSONAL EXPERIENCES, UNDOUBTEDLY ADDING A SENSE OF WONDER TO WHOM EVER THAT VISITS: JUST A FEW OF MANY OLD AND NEW OBJECTS COSYING UP IN THE NOOKS AND CRANNIES OF THE CHAIRMAN.
A seasoned world traveller might understandably have had enough of Havana’s exploited imagery, but The Chairman (its logo is a stencil of an old man with a fedora, chomping on a fat cigar) is another kind of trip – one akin to stepping into a 1940s Fulgencio Batista-era Havana cigar emporium; John Galliano’s Paris studios and, if you continue right past the indigo walls of the private rooms (one has a Grace Jones portrait from the Studio 54 era; Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is name-checked in graffiti) and out into the courtyard, a kind of home away from home. The entire place, with its five demarcated entertainment spaces – live music, wine and whiskey retreat, cigar bar, dining space and Cheers-style counter bar – has a lived-in feel, yet also a palpable splendour.
For me, what renders The Chairman an unforgettable experience are three elements. First, Langa’s searing design vision and palpable embrace of all that’s down-to-earth. Second, its world-class, roguishly named cocktails – try the Surrender Your Booty (gin martini and Cointreau with strong ginger, pineapple and lemongrass flavours), the Voodoo Child (a concoction of kiwi fruit, lemongrass, pineapple topped-up with blackcurrant vodka) or the beloved Long Pipi mocktail (ginger beer, pineapple, honey and granadilla). Third, the music and the fact that the place abhors trés chic, even when it is utterly chic, as per Frank Sinatra, in its own way.
The Chairman is classy and surprising; from the DJ decks spins and spools unexpected musical trips, such as Busi Mhlongo’s Zulu rock on the same playlist as French chanteuse Camille. How can you dislike such a place, which makes its diverse regulars and visitors to the city feel like they’ve known each other forever?
‘In style and entrepreneurial philosophy, The Chairman evokes an international gilded-age rendezvous, straight out of The Great Gatsby, if you can imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald’s upscale- sleaze romp peopled by swanky Africans and multicultural revellers. This establishment entertains the most stimulating jazz and is the most architecturally welcoming lifestyle centre in the country’