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Another wonderful piece of writing about Ganesh by Anel Hamersma

Fresh out of university I got an acting agent and soon discovered that I was (after four years of studies) officially qualified to be in TV commercials, and not much else.

Theatre auditions were rare, and the only way to stay occupied and survive my twenties was to hit the commercial scene hard, preferably nipples first. I auditioned for toothpaste commercials and cereals and cars for places like Australia or New Zealand or France. I sat in waiting rooms dressed as a ‘business women’ or a ‘young mother’ with leggy blonde models who usually got the job. How did being an actor come to this, I thought as I applied lipstick and powder in the bathroom next to Busty Bombshell #3. And some of those auditions I got, but it was rare and not nearly enough to cover the bills.

So to make ends meet I did what every aspiring actor does: I got a job as a waitress. The obvious choice was Café Ganesh, a small, innocuous-looking place off a bare cement street in a suburb called Observatory, where we spent the majority of our time anyway. Obz was an old, grimy neighbourhood where the sound of trains and traffic relentlessly heaved and mingled with the black city smog, and beggars and eccentrics and crazies all lived happily together.

Slap bang in the middle was Cafe Ganesh, a place that – like every true Afrikana – contained a little bit of everything. The interior was electric pink and bright blue, with reams of Lion matches wallpaper stuck in between. Indian effigies squatted in the corners and eyeballed us whilst we ate Melanzane Parmigiana and crab meat samoosas. Sis Beauty cooked up her famous Umnqusho and beans whilst the speakers pumped with TKZee or Mano Chao, result being that you were never quite sure where the hell you were. Did Spain and India have a gang-bang in Gugulethu? Who knew. What was clear was that you were somewhere else.

Then, there were the people. The place was a bohemian hot-bed of crazed artists, a shotgun-salad of mixed races and ages and languages. A night at Ganesh could start off calmly at five pm with a handful of quiet souls and a couple of beers, and then burst into a feverish mess at eleven with students and foreigners and poverty-stricken intellectuals all clambering onto the bar and all over each other to get a drink or a fix or a date.

The only prerequisite for being there was that you were passionate about something, be it art or theatre or booze, and all three were consumed and ladled out in large amounts on any night of the week. Oh the people we saw! The things we did! The nights spent dancing butt-naked on tables and screaming and reading poetry! There was just enough craziness to go around to keep everything moving along in a really interesting sort of way, and we gravitated to that place like bees to a hive. It was our asylum from everything else.

Even on the nights we weren’t working we were there, drinking quarts of beer and eating falafel off melamine plates. It was our home, albeit a fairly dysfunctional home with a drinking problem. Sleeping at night mostly ceased. We were young, our livers were strong and there was such passion in that place. That was where I learned about artists. That’s where I fell in love with all of them.

About Ant

In 1991 a car smashed into Anthony Baker’s motorcycle fracturing his left elbow. Luckily the driver was insured and Anthony had extensive surgery to try and regain use of his arm. The driver was sued and eventually paid out in 1995. Ant took some of the money and disappeared to India for 7 months. Having always loved elephants, it was not difficult to become fascinated with Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu God.

Herman

On his return he put his attention to deciding what to do with what was left of the insurance money. Many of his artist friends from Observatory visited and ate at his home, clearly enjoying his food. It was also obvious that they were lacking their own creative outlet in the suburb and the idea for a cafe for artists took shape. With the help of his brilliant, creative friends, social and artistic events were dreamt up to market Cafe Ganesh … much fun was had, memories and babies were made, debates abounded and a culture of inclusion manifested as it slowly evolved into what it is today.

Ode to Café Ganesh. By Herman van Wyk.

Late nineties…

Down the street and round the corner in the bowels of a century-old building off the courtyard the haunting smell of melanzane parmigiana wafts along the crisp autumn evening breeze ravishing my senses as I walk into the colourful cafe with it’s crazily tiled floors and open plan kitchen occupied by a purveyor of fine brinjals along with his very busy but friendly kitchen staff heads bent low in amiable concentration over cutting vegetables or mixing lemon meringue along with serving customers drinks and keeping an eye on the steaming coffee pots on the stove all the while preparing scrumptious food orders which accumulate quite rapidly on the spike on a night like this where good food and a glass of wine or two puts you in exactly the right mood for the amiable conversation which inevitably develops amongst souls well fed and fortified against the cold mist coming off the ocean which heralds the coming winter when you can burn pine cones in the fireplace and have champagne with your lover huddled naked close next to you on the carpet with the fire blazing in your face and the passion rising in your blood from her soft hand gently stroking your glowing body untill you gently part her legs with your tongue and later fall into that blissfull half-dream state after you made love lying hot and moist against each other breathing and dreaming with senses heightened to a fine pitch by the intensity of the orgasm you both just had drifting into blue pools of light with elegant dolphins cajoling about the frivolous angels playing glass harps and violins making exquisite music to which the universe dance and as they get famished they make their way down to Cafe Ganesh where the haunting smell of melanzane parmigiana wafts across the courtyard of a century old building round the corner and down the street…

Why Bars Matter — Ashraf Jamal

Why Bars Matter

 

 

‘The pub, like pubs all over the world, was a place for debate and discussion, for the exchange of views and opinions, for argument and for the working out of problems. It was a forum, a parliament, a fountain of wisdom and a cesspool of nonsense, it was a centre for the lost and the despairing, where cowards absorbed dutch courage out of small glasses and leaned against the shiny, scratched and polished mahogany counter for support against the crushing burdens of insignificant lives. Where the disillusioned gained temporary hope, where acts of kindness were considered and murders planned’.

This passage, from Alex la Guma’s A Walk in the Night, the edgiest, coolest novel ever written out of South Africa, sets the stage: the pub, bar, pleasure dome, hole-in-the-wall, zone of liberation, innovation, lust, love, addiction, despair, dumb mistakes.

Why bars matter has everything to do with being an animal. ‘Next to breathing’, says the socio-biologist Desmond Morris, ‘drinking is the most essential of all human activities … for a man deprived of sustenance will die of thirst before he will succumb to starvation’.

We drink to live, yes, but we also drink because, being human, we know the taste of death. And, of course, because alcohol unlike h2o gives us the existential kick we need to feel alive. Alex la Guma knew this all too well. A Walk in the Night has one of the most compellingly sketched drunk souls in literature, with ‘eyes … dull and damp as pieces of gravel in a gutter’. While in the annals of painting who can forget Edgar Degas’ Absinthe Drinker?

Unlike his fellow Impressionists Degas was no soak, but he certainly had the talent to see just how vulnerable humans are. His solitary drinker, upright yet fragile, her eyes locked upon some indefinable horizon, is each and every one of us, conscious, perplexed, and fundamentally clueless.

‘All alone is all we are’, is Kurt Kobain’s finest truism. And yet, while we remain mere bare forked animals, we still cling to the belief in others. Community defines us too, and no community does that better than a community of drinkers.

In the 1930s Tom Harrison set up the Mass Observation Unit (MOU). In his research he concluded that ‘Bars are the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them; in other kinds of public building they are audiences, watchers of political, religious, dramatic, cinematic, instructional or athletic spectacles’, but in bars the surveillance system crashes, the heart slips under the radar, and anything – absolutely anything – can happen.

Which is why in my hood, Observatory – Cape Town, it is the bars such as Café Ganesh and Tagores which the cops raid. Instinctively they just know that these cells are not spaces of distraction, reverence, or numbing awe, but inter-zones in which the living separate themselves from the dead and discover what it is they must become.

Bars, at their best, allow for freedom from thought control. By sustaining the ancient ritual of buying rounds bars also keep society whole. ‘In almost all drinking places, in almost all cultures, the unwritten laws and customs involve some form of reciprocal sharing of drinks’, notes Morris. A mystic glue, drinking is of course also good for the economy; never mind the couples for whom bars are the sticking point, the place to fall in love, break up, or cheat.

As the wise drunkard Ernest Hemingway remarked, ‘Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut’. Except of course that we need to blunder, act the fool, or screw up. Which is why, as another famous soak F. Scott Fitzgerald declared, ‘First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you’.

Master of the gothic horror, Edgar Allan Poe, was not a happy chappy either. ‘I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulant in which I sometimes so madly indulge’, he writes. ‘It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom’. Yes … and no. Benjamin Franklin, the greater sage, preferred to note that ‘In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria’.

But why one drinks is not the focus here; and neither is it how one drinks, rather, it is the place in which we choose to drink that’s the real story; a place as a zone of liberation.

The African Freedom Station in Westdene, Johannesburg is, for me, one such place. It’s the Senegalese sound mixed with reggae, the slow cheap food, the buchu in the whisky, the mezzanine jammed with books, the concreted alley-way and yard where the talk ticks over, and, most of all, the re-mix of people from across the continent, the planet, who are all attuned to the realisation that we were not humans on a spiritual path, but spirits on a human path.

What matters inside the African Freedom Station – built on the bones of Triomf and Sofiatown – and what matters in every other ‘freedom station’, is the human factor; people who see through skin, money, class, caste.

Stepping out at 4am, Fela Kuti still playing, I saw across the still drag two young white boys in vests, shorts, plakkies, fat brown quarts in their hands, a brazier burning between, the fire a glittering cubist puzzle of pine off-cuts. The whole scene was bathed with a fluorescent blue light pouring through the gaping door of a pawn shop. On that unpoliced night, freedom seemed to be everywhere, as surely it must also have seemed to F. Scott Fitzgerald when, thoroughly soaked, he saw the world through ‘the rose coloured glasses of life’.

Back in Cape Town where I live there are two bars in particular which match the likes of the African Freedom Station, Tagores, a tall skinny double storey just big enough for Roald Dahl’s giraffe, and Café Ganesh, which Bianca Lee Coleman described as ‘like a reverse clown car: people keep coming in but where do they go?’

Celebrating its 20th anniversary in November, Ganesh is proof that utopia can thrive on this forsaken earth. A hub for anarchists and accountants, poets and activists, it’s a place where the South African story is rewritten every night. Run by Anthony Mlungisi Baker – whose middle name means ‘to make right’ – Ganesh is the bar the hipsters and the laanies choose to slum in. Neither artisanal nor chillingly cool, Ganesh’s draw card is that it’s the place Steve Bantu Biko dreamt about; a place in Africa which would give the world ‘a human face’.

Famous for its umngqusho – meat, samp, beans – ‘spinach ka beauty’, and its crayfish samosas, Ganesh understands that food makes sense when it stops being a fetish. The kitchen has always been open, the cooking, cleaning, waitering staff indistinguishable. Unlike Cape Town’s sterile CBD, or the ‘gentrinaaied’ neighbouring Woodstock, Observatory, and its pioneering bars such as Tagores and Ganesh, was and remains a safe house. Like Tagores, a music mecca once run by Ntone Edjabe, the Cameroonian brain behind Chimurenga and Chronic, Ganesh, says Baker, is a place ‘for incendiary people’.

Even though ‘Obs is not the bohemian capital it used to be, it’s quietened down, had its wings clipped, it still retains its accepting nature,’ says Baker. It is this principle which bars that matter keep alive. For the gifted young painter Catherine Acholla it’s Mixas, the setting for her powerful acrylic portraits of bar flies.

Ask yourself which bar gives back this freedom and refuses to clip your wings. After all, you’re only human when you are uncensored and the micro-fascist in you has been nuked. Which of course is not an easy thing when, at every turn, you find your liberty in chains, your actions policed, desires aborted, and your need for others soullessly networked. If we desperately need the likes of the African Freedom Station, Mixas, Tagores, or Ganesh, it’s because we must taste life, even when mixed with the acrid aftertaste of tear gas.

******

Drinking is not a bad thing per se; it simply defines