Son of Che: Underground Express at Dass, Nairobi

(Peripatetic Wallflower Dave Rinck extends the Che Underground to East Africa.)

Detail: Dass restaurant, Nairobi, Kenya (collection Dave Rinck)Somebody called me on the phone … They said, “Hey! Is David home?” It was Gilbert Barthe, lead guitarist of my current band the Beathogs. “We’re all down at Dass. You wanna come down and play a show in about 45 minutes?” Well, sure, I thought. Why not? I was always under the impression that Dass was just this sort of funky Ethiopian restaurant located on the second floor of a grim concrete building on this crazy street of bars in Westlands (a part of Nairobi near where I live). But anyway, I was at this lame party, kinda bored, so I though well what the hell … it’d be more fun than staying here. So I grabbed my guitar and headed on down.

Next thing you know, I found myself climbing this narrow cement staircase up to the second floor of this dusty old building. I knew the place on the first floor was Havanas, a nightclub and restaurant that a friend of mine named Zelalem deejays at, attracting huge unruly mobs some nights that spill off the sidewalk out front and into the street until all hours. I myself had frequently held court over plates of fish almondine on linen tablecloths and huge carafes of wine in the backrooms of that place well after midnight. But I’d never made the haul up to the second floor. Well, that was all about to change …

As I reached the second-floor landing, I confronted a dangerous-looking doorman who was charging people 100 Kenyan Schillings for admission (about $1.40). Luckily he took one look at my guitar and waved me inside. I strode into Dass and — immediately it hit me! The long low ceiling, the seedy bar in the back staffed by a dubious barman in white shirt and black slacks, the garish red carpeting, the screeching PA system, the dimmer switches on the lights … Never mind that it was on the second floor, fate had spoken to me, and it said — this shall be Nairobi’s underground night club, a Kenyan CBGBs, the East African answer to Max’s Kansas City, the one and only Underground Express at Dass!

Detail: Underground Express flyer; Dass, Nairobi, Kenya; Jan. 28, 2009Detail: Underground Express flyer; Dass, Nairobi, Kenya; Feb. 5, 2009Detail: Underground Express flyer; Dass, Nairobi, Kenya; Feb. 12, 2009Detail: Underground Express flyer; Dass, Nairobi, Kenya; Feb. 19, 2009

It didn’t take long to get in touch with the owner, a very cool local guy named Ashok Patel, who immediately assured me that he “liked rock and roll” when we met at another place he owned, the Crooked Cue, a pool hall just down the street. When I explained the unlikely concept of an underground music scene, centered on a weekly underground rock and roll club (his), well lo and behold he was all for it, “Cool, let’s do it! Just send me the flyers every week, and we’ll make it happen.”

I assured him that it’d be a unique addition to the usual fare in Nairobi –- possibly the only club in the world where you can eat doro wat while you hear a live band pound out New York Dolls covers. Our very own bassist Josie Achola came up with the name Underground Express, and a week later we are off and running. Underground Express is a weekly event now. We take over Dass every Thursday night. You get three bands for Ksh 200 — a great deal (of course, as I always remind people, $2.80 doesn’t get you the Rolling Stones) …

Detail: Murfy’s Flaw; Dass, Nairobi, Kenya (collection Dave Rinck)Some of the key Underground Express bands include Murfy’s Flaw, a tight six-piece outfit that plays modern stuff like Lenny Kravitz and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

They have a crazy guitarist called Number Nine, who on a good night sounds a bit like Hendrix. They just released a CD called “Makosa,” which features a great original tune that I love, called “Been Okay.” It sounds sort of like the kind of rock music that came out of San Francisco in the ’60s.

Murfy’s Flaw plays “Been Okay”: Listen now!

Detail: M2O; Dass, Nairobi, Kenya (collection Dave Rinck)And then there’s M2O (Music to Overdrive), a three-piece band. The guitarist/singer has a quirky style with lots of augmented chords, a bit like Robert Quine of the Voidoids. These guys have been in the studio for the last couple of months recording a couple of songs. I can’t wait to see what it sounds like!

Detail: The Beathogs; Dass, Nairobi, Kenya (collection Dave Rinck)Finally, my own band is the Beathogs. One of the tunes we play is called “Tigershark Rock.” It’s based on “Tigershark Blues” by Dave Ellison. Check it out. We bill ourselves as “Nairobi’s wildest psychoblues band,” and so far no one has dared to argue with that!

I always thought that music happens mainly in “scenes.” I think we have an original and interesting underground music scene here, but we’ll have to wait and see what it grows into. Of course we are hoping for something like the punk rock scenes of the 1970s and ’80s. So far though, we’re having a blast!

We’re playing one-off shows at various venues around town, and we hope to put together a live compilation CD soon. Sound familiar? We also have already seen an emerging flyer culture, just like we had in San Diego in the ’80s (BTW we’re gonna have a flyer competition soon, so send me any artwork you have. You might win 10 free Tusker beers!). And obviously, if anyone here is planning on passing through Nairobi anytime soon, plan on checking out the Underground Express … Taste the fury (babyface)!

Check out related bands, people, venues and gigs!
Che Underground Trivia Question
The Penetrators

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16 Responses to “Son of Che: Underground Express at Dass, Nairobi”

  1. P Gargoyle Says:

    Beautiful !

  2. dave ellison Says:

    Dave, that’s great, man! I love it. Bring the guitar guy over to jam with us in May so we can do an extended version.

  3. Paul Kaufman Says:

    Brilliant! Rock ‘n’ roll diplomacy at its finest.

  4. Mmrothenberg Says:

    Here’s a Facebook photo set of the BeatHogs in action. Joz, thanks for the flyer redos!

    And here’s the Murfy’s Flaw Facebook page. And M2O’s page, too.

    Does anybody have insights into whether punk touched any African countries back in the ’70s and early ’80s? I’d have to think that little bits of the Commonwealth were exposed to at least a few hints of audio anarchy from the UK. But I know bupkes about this subject, and Google is not rendering instant gratification.

  5. Mmrothenberg Says:

    OK, here’s a nascent documentary on punk in Africa: “Three Chords, Four Countries, One Revolution”

    I’m hella intrigued. “so far it seems that in South Africa, it was limited largley but NOT exclusively to the caucasian population… however we are discovering in Kenya and Moz that it is a way different story.”

  6. Mmrothenberg Says:

    This band Suck sounds like a HOOT!

  7. Tobylifehater Says:

    I just got a chance to read this and have to say I love it. I’m imagining a Johnny Thunders meets Casablanca thing and it’s working quite well for me.

    You’re my new hero. Fiction doesn’t get this good. Your real life must be quite a trip.

    Aloha- Toby

  8. David Rinck Says:

    Well Toby, I hate to say it, but actually the underground scene here looks much more like CBGBs than Casablanca. On a big night with a bunch of people standing around outside drinking beer on the sidewalk, that street where Dass is located could easily be any place on the Bowery in the 70s. The only exotic touch is that old Ethiopian lady that runs the place, who sets up her little Amharic tent in back and sells those little cups of cardamom-scented coffee at the end of the evening. It’s funny to see the crowd standing around drinking from those little thimbles at 3am. Dass actually apparently means “tent” in Amharic, a reference to the mobile, tented royal capital of the Ethiopian dynasty that preceded Haile Sallasie (which used to rove around the countryside there causing huge famines whenever they stopped and set up shop).

    Now Motthew, that’s a great question about punk rock in Africa, one that’s been on my mind every step of the way. The closest thing I’ve seen to “official” punk rock in Africa as we know it is Johnny Rotten’s “Rotten TV” features on diving with the great white sharks off the West Cape in South Africa. Now, in my opinion, as with most places where genres are imported rather than sown, “punk” here is much more recognizable as a “musical style” than a “movement”, like we experienced. For example in Kenya to be punk generally just means “to sound like punk”. And so, most of the specific trappings that surrounded punk rock as a movement in NY, London, SoCal in the late 70s-early 80s -- i.e. the clothes, the graphic look, and most of all, the “mission” i.e. rejecting the previous and DIY etc, are largely missing.

    That said, by its very nature, underground rock and roll here is largely a DIY experience, really the “unheard music – locked out of the public eye”, so a unique musical “movement” could easily emerge. And look when it comes to counterculture, well Brenda Fosse (of SA) was about as punk as you can get without putting a safetypin through your earlobe, and I’d put Algerian Rai music up there near the top of any shortlist of vital countercultural movements. They certainly paid the price in lives for upsetting the (Islamic fundamentalist) establishment. And -- did anyone here ever notice that Cheb Khalid’s anthemic “Aicha” actually shares both the producer and the chord progression with Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”? A coincidence?

    BTW Maputo (in Mozambique) has a great music scene centered on a club called Cafe Joao Vicente. A lot of the musicians there busted their chops in Johannesburg, but they come back home and rock the house down there. There’s a lot of talk about a compilation out of that place in the near future.

  9. dylan rogers Says:

    Very cool!

  10. Mmrothenberg Says:

    >>And -- did anyone here ever notice that Cheb Khalid’s anthemic “Aicha” actually shares both the producer and the chord progression with Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”?

    Dave: I … Uhhhh … Can’t say I did. I think I need to look up this artist and song.

    We have a strong African presence in our slice of northern NJ, and some very fine Ethiopian restaurants. The one in South Orange — Harrar — plays a soundtrack of Ethiopian pop music that I find quite arresting, although the slicky production isn’t my bag. (Doro wat is da bomb!)

  11. ava Says:

    i have dreams of living like you do, dave. someday i hope to bring henry and come see you. that would make us both happy and we’d even bring you some vestiges of home if you want.

  12. David Rinck Says:

    Ava, bring Tangy Taffy! I love that stuff

  13. ava Says:

    done.

  14. ava Says:

    ok, now i have done some research and see that if i get hooked up with a govermental agency i can choose where in africa based on the fact that i have a kid. what do you think about nairobi? i hear botswana is lovely, too. but really, this is about doing the work and showing my son what the real world looks like, not just the u.s. version.

  15. Aaron Says:

    Having jumped on board the Underground Express early on its meteoric ride, I am thrilled to see the bands getting better week by week. It is even cooler to see young Kenyan’s more into the music than their paler counterparts. Keep rockin’ Nairobi!

  16. Mmrothenberg Says:

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