Transcendence at Tagore’s by Mia Arderne

Mia Arderne blogs through a “veil of cigarette smoke” on one night at Tagore’s where “You may die in obscurity here but never in silence.”

Late on sultry nights in the lesser posh folds of Cape Town, Bohemia sounds her siren through the maze of Obs. From the pores of the city, jazz addicts crawl out and filter into a warm sound-saturated room.

A blues note drops into your ashtray before you’ve lit your smoke. A curtain of suits, hoodies and leather jackets give way to the stage. Dark skinned silver-haired daddies reminisce while hippie lips stay curled around glass and wispy-haired creatures stand in the doorway exuding periodic whiffs of the sweet and herbal…

All are sitting cross-legged on the floor staring up at the band like a congregation to a preacher. Collectively, they search for their groove. Whether they come faithfully in support of the band or just find themselves there on any given Saturday night, they’ve all heard the jazz from the dirty pavements of Trill Road and come inside looking for something like transcendence. Surrounding conversations have a strange honesty:

How are you?
Would it change your life to know?

The stage is a hole in the wall lit by old lamps. An oversized Persian carpet hangs like a tongue out the stage’s mouth. Sepia photographs of Jazz legends adorn the red walls. Standing near the back door, I can see the vacuum cleaner, duster, pan, brushes and brooms in a foundry cider bucket behind the cloth intended to conceal them. Heavy duty tape covers the window cracks. Thick black burglar bars are fixed to the walls, reminding me I’m in Observatory and that this opulence is but an oasis in a desert of desperation.

“I’m looking for a little girl, have you seen her?” – asks a foreign woman, she sounds Norwegian. The coloured girl standing opposite her shakes her head, “No, sorry”. As the distressed woman walks away to continue her search, the girl turns to her friend and bursts out laughing, “They sold her, my bru! – this is Obs, where’s she then from?”

In Tagore’s there are two small toilet cubicles. In the first cubicle, someone has written in black permanent marker on the face of the mirror: “You’re fucking beautiful’’. Assuming you’d use the toilet more than once given the abundance of house wine and Black Label, you’d experience the pleasure of the second cubicle mirror which reads, in the exact same handwriting, “No really, you’re fucking beautiful!”

Up one of the steepest stairways I’ve ever climbed is the legendary “sex room” full of plump couches. Now operational as a restaurant, its past remains a lingering question in the smoke clouds between Tagore’s red walls. Between the people walks a British immigrant who has left his continental first world to wear ragged clothing and bartend in this jazz joint in Obs. He takes your ashtray to clean it. Here, if you can’t smile at irony, you can’t smile at all.

The band would carry on playing all the same if the entire audience should get up, drinks and smokes in hand, and leave the building. In the polyrhythmic grip of what appears an epileptic spasm, the drummer jerks back and forth like a schizophrenic metronome. The double-bass booms like a voluptuous brown woman moaning between the bearded bassist’s arms and his legs. The sax-man’s afro is like a globe. It frames a face reeling in the final throws of orgasm. With his genitals to the base of his sax, he screams – literally, he moves his lips from his instrument and shouts in climax accompanied by yells from the audience.

For a moment, the crowd is excluded from the orgy on stage when suddenly the sax-man turns to his crowd and starts speaking. A visceral address to his congregation. The collective is focused and the scattered group becomes a unit. But this doesn’t stop them from talking:

Don’t you think he looks like he’s having sex with the piano?
Ooooh yeah…

The drummer’s a realist and the sax-man’s dabbling in Hare Krishna-ism while the bassist appears in a state of permanent existential crisis. Call them new age jazz pseudo-spiritualist, self-indulgent bringers of oblivion. Perceive them as you will. But when they play it cannot be denied: These men transcend reality.

Everything looks more bearable through a veil of cigarette smoke. Where they drink red wine drier than the life you live. Where the crimson walls are deeper than the thoughts you think. You may die in obscurity here but never in silence.


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