Cape Town’s music scene: an insider’s perspective

Cape Town is a creative melting pot of talented musicians, a potpourri of styles, and a host of great venues. Music editor Tecla Ciolfi, of popular music blog Texx and the City, gives us her scoop.

For live music, my favourite venue in Cape Town has to be The Assembly in Harrington Street. For almost eight years it has hosted every kind of event imaginable; from metal to hip hop to staple student parties.

For something a little different, I do believe that Manila Bar has to be experienced at least once. Even on a night when there isn’t a live music event happening on the top floor, there’s bound to be crazy karaoke shenanigans happening on the floor below. I also really like The Annex in Kalk Bay. It’s great for a chilled sundowner after a day at the beach, or dinner and a show later in the evening.

The word “iconic” means different things to different people, but in my opinion progressive rock group BLK JKS are iconic in a South African context simply because there is no other group quite like them. For me, they challenge the conventions of the genre pigeonhole, while creating a space and sound all their own.

Koos Kombuis is another iconic artist, not only because of the incredible body of Afrikaans rock that he has produced, but because he was one of the forces behind the “Voëlvry” movement, an anti-establishment group of Afrikaans artists that stood against the atrocities of apartheid at a time when it was not a safe or fashionable thing to do. A band like Fokofpolisiekar immediately springs to mind as legendary. They’re pretty much the bastion of South African rock ‘n’ roll, having spawned a movement and given voice to a disenchanted group of South African youths.

Cape Town abounds with young up-and-coming bands and artists. Ska/rock band Grassy Spark is currently probably the most exciting band on the scene. I’m also really enjoying rapper Dope Saint Jude’s material.

Whether you’re a visitor or a local, a Sunday afternoon concert at Kirstenbosch Gardens is simply a must-see. The venue’s location is unparalleled and the acts are always local stalwarts. If you want to experience a South African music festival in the Cape Town area, then Rocking the Daisies would probably be the pick. This festival, held in early October, is an institution and has grown to become the biggest weekend festival in the Western Cape.”

Head out of town to tune in to The Deep South’s musical riches

Only 30 minutes drive from the city centre, the southern part of the Cape Peninsual — known as The Deep South — boasts some of Cape Town’s best scenery. It’s also where good food and great music live in harmony.

Octopus’ Garden in the Old Post Office building at St James train station serves up a menu as eclectic as its décor and its entertainment offerings, with live music ranging from solo original artists to cover bands.

Built in 1939, the Brass Bell is considered an entertainment icon in entertainment in the area that stretchinges roughly along the False Bay coast from Muizenberg to Simon’s tTown. Located in the trendy harbour town of Kalk Bay and surrounded by rolling waves and tidal pools, this venue boasts 7seven different dining and entertainment areas. From karaoke to some of Cape Town’s best live music shows, it offers something for everyone.

Next door, you will find more laid back vibe of at Cape tTo Cuba, with its colourful déecor featuring an impressive hodgepodge collection of devotional objects and references to Ernest Hemingway and Cheé Guevara. Cape to Cuba hosts live music on Sundays only.

A little further south, The Annex in Simon’s Town hosts orginal live bands every Saturday night, as does.

Head even further south, to The Cape Farmhouse, which lies between Simon’s Town and Scarborough for family-friendly afternoon gatherings with local bands.

Is The Waiting Room the best live music venue in Cape Town? Maybe…

While managing a popular live music venue in trendy Observatory in the late 1990s, Angela Wieckl developed a passion for South Africa music. Today she’s a premier DJ who shares her tips for top venues, and memories of events gone by.

As far as my favourite live music venues go, after years of trying I still struggle to match the energy of The Waiting Room. The intimacy of that space when you’re watching an emotional performance is chilling. And when it’s packed to the brim, people singing along to their favourite band, the unity is euphoric.

I also think the real secret with acoustic shows is to follow the punk or ska kids, they were band nerds in school so they have really great music knowledge. They’re in pubs, coffee shops, crazy little joints where you grab a table and three beers later you’re part of the gang.

In terms of live music it’s no longer about the venue, but rather about the artist. People will go where the music pulls them, so the trick is to find the band you enjoy most and go out of your way to see them in as many places as possible.

I have been fortunate enough to be on the support line-up of a few very popular artists. What that leads to is a lot of mania — I’ve seen girls cry and hyperventilate. I’ve seen metal crowd barriers crumple like paper. I stand in awe every time a group of a thousand people shout out song lyrics at the same time.

Live music lovers unite at The House of Machines

Every night, music lovers unearth hidden gems in the form of raw original talent – folk, rock, indie, electro and more – at The House of Machines in central Cape Town.

Hidden in between Cape Town’s Bree and Loop Streets,, on the pedestrian path of Shortmarket Street,, you’ll find something different happening every evening at The House of Machines. A live music venue run by musicians and music lovers for musicians and music lovers, this venue is all its facets are geared towards an intimate, authentic music experience.

Boasting a simple menu, premium coffee and delicious cocktails fashioned by master mixologists, this tucked-away live music venue is a haven for undiscovered acoustic talent. Every week the musical atmosphere changes – and they’re all-inclusive with the styles of music that they host – : from the obvious folk, alternative indie, rock to hip hop, r’n’b and electro; even spoken word, poetry and comedy!.

With its Tuesday night Songwriters Showcase being curated by legendary local legendary singer-songwriter Andy Lund, these nights are a staple and a must-see. “The vibe is always incredible,” says Andy. “It is a destination night, people come for the whole evening to settle in and experience the evening and absorb some of the finest talent in Cape Town. For performers it’s a welcoming, supportive and appreciative crowd and Tuesday nights are all about the performer and the song! It’s a music evening, by musicians for musicians and music lovers.”

My best venues for live music photography

Photographer Laura McCullagh, who has been documenting the live music scene in Cape Town for nearly a decade now. She gives the scoop on the best venues.

It’s an interesting time to be shooting live music in Cape Town. A few years ago at virtually any random gig I’d be among at least three or four other photographers. But nowadays I’m often the only one – unless it’s a big event. So it feels like we’re in a bit of a dip at the moment  – but like anything, it comes in waves and I’m looking forward to the next upsurge, whenever it may be.

I hardly ever go to gigs without shooting these days, so I often end up judging a venue or show by how I found the shooting conditions. I have a soft spot for ROAR and its honest dinginess – and many musicians have told me they think ROAR has the best sound in Cape Town.

The (newly revamped) Mercury Live is also an old favourite, and the renovations include a great lighting rig – which is a vast improvement. Assembly has maintained its reputation for hosting some of the biggest acts that come to Cape Town, and always has good sound and plenty of seating, which is getting more important to me as I age, I’ve found.

For sheer entertainment I’m enjoying our local metal acts more and more, with all their energy and hair and head headbanging fans. iIt’s great fun shooting and watching metal.

From a purely visual perspective I tend to prefer the energetic rock, metal and punk acts and the antics of their respective fans, though sometimes you get that beautiful combination of a really emotional performance from an acoustic or gentler artist in a moody venue.

My most rocking live music venues

Live Music Guide (LMG) founder and music enthusiast Mike Smith, one of the Cape Town music scene’s biggest champions, gives the low-down on his career triumph with LMG magazine and his venue preferences.

I started LMG on my return to South Africa after many years abroad. I found it extremely difficult to get any cohesive sense of what was going on in Cape Town with regard to live music. Facebook was in its infancy and information on the internet was sporadic and disconnected. I realised there was a need for something similar to the free street magazines I had picked up in other cities while on my travels. So essentially, it started out as my own personal gig guide!

A couple of the bigger bands – and industry folk – initially viewed LMG with a bit of scepticism. Apparently many magazines had come and gone in previous years and they wanted to see if LMG had any legs before getting too excited. But once they understood how serious we were about putting out quality music journalism, we had their full support.

It’s no secret that I’ve always loved Mercury Live’s ethic of providing stepping stones to any young band trying to “make it”. From their Sixgun Sessions on Monday nights for brand new talent, to the more intimate Wednesday shows downstairs and the main Friday night shows, a band could progress through the ranks if they were good enough.

The Assembly is hands down the best all round venue for a medium to large crowd. Like any entity in the music industry, including magazines and bands, venues have a tough balancing act between running costs, production costs, musician costs and revenues. For The Assembly to have maintained their position and reputation takes immense effort.

Other favourite hangouts are R.O.A.R.  – still the best sound in Cape Town – in Observatory and Blah Blah Bar in Gardens.

We are blessed with great acoustic venues. The Waiting Room rates very highly, but if you also want a meal, then Café Roux and Alma Café are also fantastic. For interesting line-ups that will introduce you to new talent and often leave your jaw on the floor, I really enjoy the weekly Barleycorn Music Club shows at the Villager Rugby Club in Claremont.

My top live music venues in the city

DJ and live music lover Angela Weickl recommends a diverse mix of live music venues in Cape Town’s city centre

Recreating the comfort of home, while showcasing talent from across Cape Town and beyond, The Waiting Room on Long Street offers the best location venue to experience live acoustic music on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The intimate space, scattered with armchairs and couches, creates a relaxed setting for audiences more inclined to listening than rump shakingdancing. That said, there are nights when the energy is so contagious that chairs are pushed aside and the dancefloor is opened up for a bout of midweek revelryboogie.

Housed in an old warehouse, The Assembly on Harrington Street in District Six is the largest music venue in Cape Town. The venue’s capacity alone qualifies it as the destination for any local or international band with a large following too large for its counterparts (but not quite large enough to fill stadiums!). Although the venue places a lot of focus on electronic music, the live music contingent of line-up ranges from pop to rock and includes metal, too.

An institution within Cape Town’s city bowl realm, Mercury Live and Lounge remains is thea venue that has launched many an iconic local music career. Large enough to meet the needs of bands with avid big followings, the space club is designed to not feel cavernous on intimate nights, but is also works for conducive to sweaty mosh pits and euphoric fist- pumping crowd anthems.

If your music taste is more discerning, The Crypt jazz restaurant is an ideal choice. Situated deep within Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral, the venue hosts an array of live jazz music from Tuesday to Saturday nights, the only venue in the city that holds this claimto do so.

Synergy Live: trance meets rock at this multi-genre festival

Synergy Live started out as a trance festival for hardcore trance hippies. It’s evolved over the years to become one of Cape Town’s most diverse summer music festivals, with electro side by side with some of the best live international and local acts.

Just over an hour’s drive from Cape Town city centre lies the Theewaterskloof Dam. One of the largest in the Western Cape (the province that Cape Town calls home), this dam plays host to a yearly gathering of music lovers and party seekers that takes place around November – the start of summer season in Cape Town. This gathering is called Synergy Live, a music festival with a strong reputation for offering acts that satisfy various tastes, all set against some of the most spectacular landscapes found in South Africa.

Synergy Live has its roots in Vortex, a trance festival that commanded much respect among the Cape Town folk who were inclined to festivals of this nature (aka trance hippies). It grew with the times to become a festival offering more than just “doof-doof”, and now secures some of the finest international bands (mostly alternative). The likes of The Prodigy, Bombay Bicycle Club and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have all graced the main stage at Synergy live, as well as local festival favourites such as Taxi Violence, aKING and Desmond and the Tutus.

This doesn’t in the least mean the electronic component has been discarded; there are several stages dedicated to different electro. Red Bull Studio Live, dubbed “the church of electronic dance music”, is where you’ll find some of the most progressive DJs. Synergy Live also features a “beach club” on the dam’s shore and a comedy club.

Thousands of people flock to Synergy Live each November. Make sure you’re one of them.

Tasty tunes: where to dine while the band plays on

Cape Town boasts an array of delightful venues where you can savour a delicious meal and enjoy quality live music. Here’s a few ideas of where to go for a sublime experience.

We’re not talking pub food here. Nor are we talking raucous singalongs and jangling guitar solos. The venues mentioned here are all “listening” venues. The artists who play at these places are carefully selected as both popular and well suited to the intimate experience that these shows offer.

Café Roux is nestled in the Noordhoek Farm Village, very close to the easterly end of Chapmans Peak and a good hour’s drive from Cape Town’s city centre. While it’s hard to find fault with any of the venues mentioned below, Café Roux’s line up is absolutely second to none with regard to the high profile stars they regularly feature. The food is delicious and the atmosphere welcoming.

Not too far away, the rustic setting of The Cape Farmhouse has become a very popular spot for both music and food lovers. The farmhouse boasts a fantastic restaurant headed by the talented Phil Mansergh, and hosts a fortnightly music concert under the name Farmhouse Rocks. These Saturday afternoon concerts begin at 3pm, making it a great day out for the whole family.

The most centrally located is the delightful Alma Café, in the heart of the leafy suburb of Rosebank and a quick 10 minute drive from the city centre. Previously a suburban corner store, the Alma Café has been transformed into a warm, comfortable and intimate live music venue that serves delicious home-style meals. A somewhat unique feature of this family-run venue is that music is the absolute focus. To this end, food or drinks are served before the performance begins and respectful silence is requested while the music is played.

The most northerly of these restaurants is Die Boer (Afrikaans for “The Farmer”), located in the suburb of Durbanville, just under an hour’s drive from the city. Like Café Roux, Die Boer has a virtually non-stop music menu and very often features acts whose home language is, indeed, Afrikaans. It seats 120 people, all with an unobstructed view of the stage. Guests are offered an intimate, upmarket, yet affordable dinner-theatre experience.

And now for something completely different: The Crypt Jazz Restaurant is in the basement of the St George’s Anglican Cathedral itself — located in the heart of the city centre. Every week, from Tuesday to Saturday, The Crypt plays host to an amazing array of local and international jazz musicians to create an atmosphere that is quite unique. If you enjoy something different, not to mention special, try this.

The Barleycorn Music Club: Cape Town’s acoustic institution

For more than 30 years, the Barleycorn Music Club has provided a showcase opportunity for Cape Town’s aspiring – and established – acoustic musicians.

What started as a folk music club in the South African coastal city of Port Elizabeth in the 1970s has become one of Cape Town’s favourite music establishments, where live music lovers can relax in a true “listening” environment to some of the best original music around.

Every Monday night the not-for-profit Barleycorn Music Club presents at least four acts. The events are run by a hard-working, committee of volunteers who take it in turns to host shows, which keeps things fresh and interesting. There are no hard-and-fast rules about who plays, but it is usually a mix of  established acts supported by newcomers.

The shows feature a mix of touring and local Cape Town acts and are generally acoustic-based, although “electric” acts are welcome, as long as melodic delivery is prominent in the act. While no specific genres are turned away, death metal and gangsta rap fans should probably seek their entertainment elsewhere. Testament to the pedigree of the Barleycorn is that many a South African household name got their start here. David Kramer recorded his first album, “Bakgat” at the Barleycorn. Other well-known artists to have played here are Freshlyground, Flat Stanley, Amampondo, Steve Newman and Tony Cox, to name but a few.

Popular annual events to look out for are the Barleycorn Music Festival in March, as well as the popular Barleycorn Songwriter’s Competition, open to all and hosted in August.

The Barleycorn Music Club is now based at the Villager Rugby Club, 11 Lansdowne Road, Claremont, Cape Town. Shows are held every Monday at 20h00.