Untitled Basement

Building community and providing unforgettable cultural experiences

Bradley Williams, owner of Untitled Basement, said he chose Braamfontein as the location for his venue as he had experienced some of his most exciting cultural moments there. “It just made sense to choose Braamfontein — I’m a fan of the open city layout, which I far prefer over suburban streets. Braam has a buzz, it has people moving through it in high numbers, all days of the week, people from all over the world. It’s also a student hub, with Wits and colleges, and we wanted to be part of that energy.

“It’s a leader in youth fashion, art and politics, and those are the cultural pillars that we speak to with our space. We want to contribute to that, but also to feed off it. It’s a thriving scene to pull inspiration from … there is no other place like it in the country.”

The Untitled Basement is part of the Artivist building, which offers multiple spaces. It caters to daytime coffee experiences, where people can walk in to have a coffee and a soup and work. Then there is an art space, which curates exhibitions and installations. This slow, lean-back minimalist experience builds up towards the night with cocktails, tapas, champagne and dinners, before people go down to the basement to enjoy the music there. This ranges from solo jazz piano performances, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, soul to an eclectic DJ mix — and people can flow between the spaces. It’s all about making the most of the building’s architecture.

“Sometimes in summer we have a cocktail bar, a jazz performance, vinyl market or outdoor cinema in the alleyway next to the entrance,” says Williams. “We also partner with event management companies like The Dig, Obrigado and Mamakashaka. In addition, we’ve had brunch daytime parties, where people listen to the music and then go outdoors onto the terrace … we try to keep things dynamic and fluid, depending on the time of year.”

The menu of the Artivist Restaurant is pan-African diaspora inspired, which has been modernised for a modern palate. “For instance, we serve African tripe (called mogodu), where we have taken influences from the Brazilian feijoada dish, which is a stew of beans, with elements of chorizo. We try to do this with a lot of traditional SA dishes. We also serve the best fire-grilled chicken in the country! We use North African chermoula marinade, which is very different from chicken tikka — we have probably the only indoor wood-fired grill in the whole CBD. Our SA chesa nyama plate is a mash-up with Eastern African influences, called nyama chonga, containing lamb and free-range beef boerewors, with pap and gravy. Any South African can relate to that; we like to make people feel at home.”

The music in Untitled Basement is a real blend: world, bossa nova, house, mapiano … it’s a mix of what’s on offer in the country. The stage is based on the idea of “no stage” — the artist/s are in the middle of the room, not on a pedestal, which creates much more intimacy with the audience, and both can feed off each other. “It also inspires innovation and experimentation: many performers, such as Msaki as Nduduzu Makhathini, say it’s their go-to venue. We have been able to support the live music scene and we’ve seen careers go in different directions after performing in our venue,” says Williams.

Artivist opened in 2018, so it’s been open for four years in total, although lockdown closed its doors for a whole year. “We were lucky in that our landlord gave us some breathing room and only charged us rates and operating costs. We had to find other ways to bring in revenue; my business partner DJ Kenzhero and I went back to managing artists and running independent record labels. Post-vaccine, our focus has been on rebuilding and recovering; we’ve been open since April. During lockdown we also filmed some ‘live’ performances in the basement under the label of ‘the art of’ where the artists had to imagine there was an audience watching and listening to them.”

Williams says: “Our vision is to carry on building community and providing incredible cultural experiences; if we can make a profit while doing that, we would be very happy. We want to expand into editorial content; we want to tell artists’ stories through podcasts on YouTube or Vimeo, to amplify what we do in this space, and give our customers something to take home with them.”

Asked how Braamfontein can improve, Williams replied: “We would like to see a space being created that integrates the more rural, less affluent students, who can’t afford to buy drinks in formal venues, and who then sit and drink in their cars. They need to feel they are part of the neighbourhood. The area must be kept clean and safe. Everyone must be accountable to the community — including the beggars and car guards. I’m not sure how that will happen, but somebody needs to provide the leadership. Braamfontein can be a meeting point for all Africans to come together and create.”

Untitled Basement is not running on its full schedule yet. It is open from Thursday to Saturday night, with some live music on Wednesdays and Sundays.

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