Last Saturday, a video of construction workers demolishing the first floor of a building on Banda Street, reducing the closed club Mojo’s to rubble, went viral. When Mojo’s was shut last year, like almost all night clubs in the country, thanks to a curfew brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the hope among ‘town’ CBD revellers, the last of a dying breed, was that it was being renovated. But following the disappearance of its next-door neighbour Tribeka (once Rezorus), and now the demolition of Mojo’s, the last of the cool CBD clubs is gone. And Nairobi can be said to have almost nothing left of its night life.
Nocturnal leisure places have been going down like dominoes these last few years in the CBD of the capital city. Maybe it is a wider reflection of an economy sliding into chaos. Most notorious of these was Simmers’ Club right at the heart of Kenyatta Avenue. For decades it had played host to city revellers and live Congolese bands, locals and foreigners, charlatans, deal makers and decadent twilight lasses (plying their ancient trade across City Hall and nearby K-street), car dealers, condom sellers and meat and mutura traders.
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Until that dark day that, in-between a flurry of law suits and bulldozers, it was brought down in a cloud of dust and loud dust-ups, and in its place lies a parking lot. But let us take you on a tour of town on this flashback Saturday, as if you are on a magic carpet.
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Let us go back 15 years, back to that last January weekend of 2006 – and check out what the club scene looked like, back then. Modern Green is still going on, 14,000 nights after it first opened on its legendary Latema Road location. But now it is truly modern, and a far cry from what it looked like at the end of that January in the middle of the oh-ohs, or nightlife in the ‘naughties’.
Back then, Modern Green had its barman literally caged behind the counter, with wire mesh stretching up to the roof to protect both cash and TV set from its patrons. It also had a contraption called a juke box where, for 20 bob coin, you could listen to songs like What Is Love? Or Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler or Veronica Conchita aka Madonna’s La Isla Bonita, even on a dreary and hot afternoon in the middle of week.
Across town, one could also begin an evening by having rounds of drinks with friends at The Fiesta, a feistily painted club and restaurant on the fourth floor of Chester House. Then just take the lift down, cross the road to then Kobil petrol station, and climb, after a bouncer check and reception pay, up frayed red staircase to the hub of the iconic Florida 1000 night club. Also called the ‘Madhouse,’ or ‘Maddie,’ in short, and full of mad madamoiselles in short skirts.
Viewed from the outside, back then, F1 was shaped like a space shuttle pod from the movies. Like a disco enterprise that, pried loose of the petrol station, would blast right out of Earth: taking with it its crew of bouncers, deejays, tarts, harlots, waiters and disco-revellers into the depths of space; party-goers to be studied by the ultimate party poopers – green men with glittering eyes in silvery shimmering space suits, as if they too had come from some disco.
On a Wednesday, if one liked rock music in the mid-oh-ohs, there was always Mwenda’s, Utalii House. This ground floor joint, next to the road, had the feeling of an office turned night club. Across the road, on Loita Street, at Uniafric House was a pavement pub and club aptly named ‘Fridays’. On Fridays, Fridays was always full, a la Saape in its heydays, with people on tables on the pedestrian walks, a la the club called ‘Hooters’ on Kaunda Street.
The patrons at Hooters were a group of guys in their 20s and 30s, dozens of them, who called themselves ‘mafans’. On Saturdays, and some Sundays, depending on the EPL schedule, they would come by noon, park cars along the pavement and park themselves in a wolf pack into ‘Hooters’. One of their now-prominent members was Mwingi West MP Charles Nguna Ngusya (CNN), who by becoming chairman of the rowdy ‘mafans’ for a few years, says he realised if he can "handle mafans, then surely I can take care of the needs of my constituents".
Or Tuesdays, one could go to ‘Club Soundd’ just a few metres away on ground and six floors above street level by elevator, and drink Smirnoff vodka and listen to some Smirf-soaked SOBs recite poetry. Indeed, it was here that the entire ‘Spoken Word’ scene was born, in this club owned by a short Lebanese called Lualua who also employed hot waitresses. Still strolling down the street, right till Corner House on Kimathi Street, one now found Betty’s. Betty’s was this big and cavernous club, two floors up and down, with a dance floor. And it was also across on the other side of Kimathi Street that the partying really happened, back in the CBD of the mid years of the 2000s.
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Giggles was a small self-contained club that catered mostly to journalist types that converged there in gossipy geniality from both the Nation and the I&M Towers, separated by just Banda Street. If you lived in Buruburu, Umoja, Tena, Donholm or Komayole, and wanted to 'live only once', you could do so at Hornbill Bar on Tom Mboya, or go to a proper nightclub New York.
Kenya Cinema Plaza was home to Winkers, which we nicknamed wankers, for its rowdy youthful crowd that liked its music loud, on its ground floor. On the top floor was Zanze Bar, with a more mature crowd that mostly liked Lingala, rhumba and other afro-centric music.
Ibiza was where the party folks – who had graduated from partying at Visions in the 90s – went to spend their considerable money, in those Kibaki ‘boom’ years of loose cash; while the ‘Younglings’ of the mid-2000s crowded into Lazinos, lower down the road, got drunk, got plastered, danced and fought, got tossed out by bouncers, until dawn came and lit up Kimathi Street.
Thursdays, and for dedicated fans of the genre of music known as hard rock, there was the club at Norwich Union called Zeeps where DJ Collo would play hardcore music like Toxicity. It was at Zeeps that artist Herbert Nakitari, aka Nonini, shot his club banger Keroro. For true toxicity in the city, you went down to club at Spiders or Pipes near the Afya Centre bus station. The latter club was toxic only because the fumes from those coloured urinal balls threatened to gas us like Auschwitz. Then there was the widest Wallet club at a corner of Ronald Ngala Street, that also housed a hotel where men could take night dates for ‘party’ activity.
Now only Sabina Joy and the Sky Lounge hold fort as the only places in the CBD for very different types of revellers, with the Wine Bar at the 20th Century Plaza straddling the centre and Club & Restaurant Blues at the basement of Barclays Plaza like a bunker in a city that has gone thermo-nuclear on the night clubs that lay above the surface.
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A mojo is an influential talisman, or magic charm; and with all these clubs gone, Nairobi’s CBD has lost its mojo – as the night life of weekends devolves to estate clubs and liquor stalls – a trend that has greatly accelerated these last nine months of curfew, as gin becomes the drink. And back from the end January of 2006, the city centre at night in 2021 really has no-one.
For this writer, Mojo’s will always be a Tuesday evening with a view of Nairobi evening life, pedestrians on pavements hurrying home or elsewhere, and then as the sun set on the city, the music from the interior of that red-and-white leather plush sofa club drifting out to us all.
Tony Mochama is the author of the nocturnal essays book – ‘Nairobi: A Night Runner’s Guide.’