The spirit in Newtown is guided by artists who have given willingly, whether it was the many jazz evening at the old Kippies, or the musings of the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa at the Bassline, or the protest theatre led by Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon at the Market Theatre.
Newtown today is personified by a grittiness that spills over from inner city Jozi and an aura created by the professionals and students at the Market Theatre Photo Workshop and the nearby drama schools. That it is not really a trendy pristine enclave like the rejuvenated Braamfontein or Maboneng Precinct – its heritage sets it apart.
Pivotal to the area is Niki’s Oasis, a jazz venue and restaurant that will be 20 years old next year. Images of jazz masters watch over proceedings every Friday and Saturday when the city’s young lions hold sway there, channelling their heroes. Niki Rwaxa is the matriarch who presides over the venue, which was established in the height of the new democratic dispensation. “In those days we used to come to Market Theatre and Kippies to spend our days and nights in this area,” Rwaxa recalls. “Then Kippies closed and it was no longer a place to listen to jazz. Then I saw this old building and that is when the idea for Niki’s started from. I came from a jazz home where the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Winston Makunku Ngozi, Victor Ntoni and many others was always playing, so starting a jazz venue was the natural choice. The jazz scene in Newtown was buzzing back then and we have had some memorable performances over the years from the likes of Sibongile Khumalo, Khaya Mahlangu, Gito Baloyi and Feya Faku, plus many more wonderful, glorious experiences.”
Over the years, this respected venue has seen some good and bad times – the hardest being the recession of 2010. But it has managed to stay afloat. An area revival of sorts is on the cards, with the impending opening of a mall, currently under construction just next to the Market Theatre. Other businesses are also in the process of setting up shop in the area, which will boost traffic coming in. But Rwaxa is in no hurry to redecorate her place.
“Yes there will be some refurbishments to the restaurant, but we must be careful not to rush to modernise things,” Rwaxa says.
“Sometimes people do things for the sake of being trendy and a venue loses its essence. We are essentially a place for some of the old jazz enthusiasts and provide a platform for young artists and the younger audience that they come with. We have to strike this balance very delicately.”
News of the opening of a new jazz venue across the bridge in Braamfontein does not really concern Rwaxa and her business.
“It is good to have more and new jazz venues, because it is good for the art form,” she explains.
“Competition is good, but we have our people who come in here, and sometimes it is not about the four walls, but rather the people, the ambiance and the atmosphere that people really falls in love with.”