As I arrive at the venue, a duo are rehearsing in the space, their music dancing around the traditional Kenyan decor. The style is faintly reminiscent of afro-jazz and Congolese rumba, but with a distinctly modern take. The slow, brooding performance of the acoustic guitar compliment the sound of the bicycle wheel ringing out right next to it. I didn’t even know a bicycle wheel could make noise, but its enthusiastic creator seemed determined to make it happen one way or another.
Kwame Otiende, proud proprietor of The Jago, lets the space out for rehearsals free of charge. “Because I’m paying for the venue on a Tuesday whether there’s an event on or not”.
He spent a former life as a political risk analyst, influenced by his upbringing in Kenya. “Everyone is involved in politics in Kenya. It’s not like in the UK, where voter disengagement is really high, because depending on who gets elected it’s either gonna be a really good or really shitty five years”. This is part of what turned him into a man of action, confident in his skills, and always playing to his strengths.
He found his talent for events organising when he was living in Hackney in his late teens, alongside playing the trumpet. “I’d organise warehouse parties, back when you could still find places to do that. It got to the point where I was earning more from the parties than from my day job, so I just started doing that instead”.
In its former life, The Jago was baptised as ‘Passing Clouds’, and was coveted in the local area for its welcoming diversity, and broad range of live music offerings. After it closed in 2016, the building was saved from property developers, but still left derelict for a couple of years. Then, Kwame reached out to the council to take over the space, and miraculously managed to win it back. He says that “I was excited, sure. But I’m not an emotional type”.
For someone who claims not to be an ’emotional type’, he still sees the venue as his ‘love project’. A juxtaposition perhaps, but he’s as enthusiastic as ever to greet the neighbour with her newborn baby, when they happen to walk by. They hadn’t seen each other since before she had given birth, but that fuelled Kwame’s enthusiasm to rekindle with a valued friend.
All that was left at that point was for Kwame to act on his vision for the venue, and bring it back from the dead. His vision, at its heart, was to bring the spirit of Passing Clouds back.
“Passing clouds was definitely ahead of its time. Everyone used to stick to their own community back then, but that was a place you could find people from all different cultures mixing together. Everything from the crowd to the acts on stage”.
And playing to this niche, combined with his entrepreneurial cunning, is what makes the venue so popular today. “Our most popular event is a gay-Jewish night. That sounds kinda weird to a lot of venue owners, they’re like, ‘how can you make money from that?’ But then they realise Stamford Hill is just up the road. And they think, ‘oh, that’s how'”.
But the venue was recently subject to a noise abatement notice, a small slip of paper resulting in a £15,000 invoice to install adequate soundproofing. This has been an issue in Hackney since the pandemic, when many buildings were converted into accommodation.
Kwame says there was just one guy sending all the noise complaints in his case, as he gestures towards the only wall in the whole room with soundproofing on it.
Noise complaints like these are supposed to be the responsibility of property developers thanks to the Agent of Change framework, enacted in 2019. But a ‘loophole’ means it’s still being exploited. “The council can’t actually measure the volume any more, so they have to use their judgement”. And because the legislation only applies to new builds, the converted flats fly right under the radar.
“There’s so many knock on effects if a music venue closes, it’s the night-time economy. Local restaurants have changed their opening hours to match ours, cause they know that at 3:30am there’s gonna be two to three hundred people walking around this street looking for a kebab”.
In the future, Kwame hopes to open more culturally diverse venues like The Jago in other cities. He thinks spaces that offer what The Jago does are lacking across the country. He’s already founded Well Seasoned in Peckham as an expansion to the Jago, and says he thinks “there’s a big market for spaces like the Jago. Any city is a good place for that”.