Obit for The Orbit: Farewell to Jozi’s musical multiverse
The beloved jazz venue is closing, but there may be hope for the financially embattled hot spot
Thandi Ntuli remembers her first full gig at The Orbit. The nervousness and excitement intermingling, the young jazz muso had – for the first time – assembled her band and was finally playing the music she had written. The feedback, she said, was tremendous, and it was due to her continued performances at the Johannesburg jazz hot spot that she decided to record her first album in 2014.
The owners opened their doors on numerous occasions that year, allowing her to raise the money she needed to record, not taking their usual cut of the evening’s proceeds. The award-winning young artist was performing at the venue in December 2018 as part of a tribute act for the local musicians who had died, including Hugh Masakela, HHP and ProKid.
But there was no indication that the club/bistro would soon announce it was shutting its doors, she said. There were already rumours that the Braamfontein venue was no longer financially sustainable, even as early as September, but based on the mood from staff and management on the night of that final performance, Ntuli said “it didn’t feel like the end”.
Just last week, the venue announced its forthcoming closure, with director Kevin Naidoo saying his team had been unable to overcome the financial constraints, thanking the dozens of musicians who had graced The Orbit’s stage.
The abrupt announcement shocked the music scene of Gauteng, alongside hundreds of social media users who took to various platforms to mourn. “Before I played (at The Orbit), I had some freelance gigs, but I hadn’t been playing as myself,” Ntuli told Times Select.
She believes the shutdown will deeply affect SA musicians, particularly the jazz scene in Joburg. Finding a captive audience craving jazz music isn’t always easy, and the audience at The Orbit “was always there to listen”, according to Ntuli. “It really was the home of jazz.”
But it wasn’t just the jazz that attracted the crowds, with regulars saying it was the diversity of events that truly made The Orbit shine.
Lungile Zakwe, executive director at Ikamva Youth and self-proclaimed regular, spoke fondly of the book fairs, the science events and her favourite, the poetry evenings. It was because of the venue’s easygoing setting that Zakwe was able to meet prolific poets, writers and even politicians – often in the outside smoking area between music sets.
Before African Flavour Books had its own venue in Braamfontein, they would set up shop inside the club. “There was always this great selection of amazing African authors on display,” said Zakwe.
“Everyone is feeling the loss of The Orbit. I’m hoping something miraculous happens. It was always the kind of setting where you knew you’d be treated well. They even allowed some NGOs, including the TAC [Treatment Action Campaign] to host their events and fundraisers. They did beautiful work outside the music,” she said.
Hatim Eltayeb, the dean at the African Leadership Academy, spoke of how he was introduced to numerous artists at the club, some of whom would not have had the same level of exposure without such an integrated venue. “I admired the diversity of the crowds, I felt it was a ‘multi-political’ space. Anyone was welcome,” he said.
In particular he was impressed by the Science and Cocktails evenings. “They would bring in cutting-edge research from African scientists and you could discuss it in such an accessible way,” said Eltayeb, who later invited one of the speakers to give a lecture at his school.
He said he hoped the closure of The Orbit didn’t meant the end of the diverse events.
“I know it’s not impossible to open up such a space, and I hope some entrepreneur fills in that niche,” he said.
Naidoo was willing to openly discuss the financial difficulties at the club, despite the range of extremely profitable events in the past. “We ... feature new artists that we believe will do well in future but need the platform in order to get there.
“There are a number of musicians who had started off with poor gigs at The Orbit and after some exposure on the stage end up filling the club. There are also many important heritage projects we take on. These don’t always make a profit.
“Furthermore, we feature travelling musicians from all over the world (generally in conjunction with the embassies) and these are not always well attended,” he said.
“We have applied for funding for this side of the club but have not received enough to cover our shortfall (we receive sponsorship from foreign non-profit organisations with alcohol sponsors making up the rest of the sponsorship). A lot of the shows that are not profitable will and do lead to longer-term profitability, we believe. We do have external projects lined up that we’d hoped would lead to financial sustainability in the near future,” he continued.
He said he was always proud of the influx of dignitaries and celebrities who frequented the club. “Three of our former presidents have visited and many ambassadors frequent on a regular basis. Many celebrities (local and international) who enjoy coming to our venue just to listen to the music do so because they can find a dark corner just to enjoy a good meal and listen to great live music,” he said.
In particular he was affected by those who would “save up” to attend the shows. “I will always remember a lady who put up pictures on Facebook of the shack she stays in, her year-long attempt to save money and the day she made it.
“Another memory that just came to mind is the day our two front doors were broken in, smoke streaming into the club and hearing Sibongile Khumalo singing the national anthem from above. It’s one of many memorable moments at The Orbit. The energy has always been electric and, after almost five years, I still get goosebumps when a show starts, in anticipation of the magic that is about to unfold,” he said.
Naidoo said he was deeply appreciative of the reaction from the public online, and hinted it may not necessarily be the end of The Orbit, if they can secure legitimate investors. “We have been talking to many people regarding investing in the venue even prior to our closure, and had hoped that something would have come through,” he said.