The Alchemist Effect

The Alchemist

In January, a new bar and event venue, The Alchemist, came on the scene and dropped a bomb in the middle of Westlands at a fresh undiscovered plot behind Kwik Fit; it since has exploded into a local arts and entertainment juggernaut and given a new sense of identity to the nairobi cultural community.

A couple of months after the opening of The Alchemist, The Bus, a renovated London doubledecker which houses temporary workspaces for creatives, relocated to the same plot from its original position at 80 Muthithi road—a precursor cultural hotspot that has undoubtedly help seed the growing crowds at The Alchemist. Vincenzo Cavallo, proprietor of The Bus, which produces culturally relevant videoes, organizes events and rents out equipment and assets to people who want to hold events at the Bus’s permanent stage, explained how and why the the big move happened:

“Peng came to the Bus on Muthithi Road and said,  ‘I know you are looking for a new place, do you want to see it?’ I said yes, then I spoke with him and I understood that he is a son of this time, which means he understood the idea and we were exactly on the same page: embracing the culture of collaborative places- liminal spaces. After a few days the bus was moving from Muthithi to the new venue thanks to an epic night operation headed by a group of crazy people with trucks and so on. We moved the bus at night passing close to electric avenue: people believed we were drunk while we were passing by, a sort of religious procession. Finally we arrived, at that time there was nothing, slowly, slowly the place became alive.”

Just recently the location has rebranded itself  as ‘The Yard’—a collaboration among creatives and businesses of the collective space that, combined, provide an unmatched cultural and nightlife experience in Nairobi under one ‘roof’.

Now it is one of the hottest party locations in town, attracting hundreds of revellers who stream in from Sunday to Sunday. But why is it such a hot ticket? Why has it become so popular in such a short period of time? And can it last?

To understand the Alchemist (and the attraction of the space as a whole), you need to understand its DNA. It’s the same DNA that illuminates the habits of the community that enjoy the venue. For the past few months this little section of the city has been the epicentre of an evolution of Nairobi’s cultural scene, so we set out to discover what this genetic make up entailed, and why it’s “effect” is highly contagious and bang on-trend.

“I think collaboration is the biggest movement right now, and it’s being championed by the youth. (The) Alchemist (Yard) is just a venue that is ahead of the curve and has realised this. That is why very many events happen there, friendly management equals more risk, in terms of the line-up of events they offer, but that has cemented it as the home for Kenya’s alternative scene,” says Jacob Solomon, a.k.a Jinku, the cofounder of EA Wave, explaining just why his art and the venue blend so harmoniously.

“Friendly management” translates to Peng Chen, an American entrepreneur that founded the Alchemist in January 2016, with the help of friends and a few business partners that shared the same vision for a space where art could shine.

“One of the reasons for the success of The Alchemist is really the community of like minded individuals and partners that we have on board. I’ve been blessed with two amazing partners to assist in the creation of The Alchemist: my fiancee, Michelle, and my friend, Nishad.” says Chen, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, originally from San Diego. “Also, I’ve learned very early on that you can’t do everything by yourself and that you need to learn to trust and rely on others. That’s why we looked for like-minded partners such as The Bus, Mama Rocks, Upendo Pizza, Taste Of Jamaica, Ada Studios and 100 Years to help us with curating content, food, and fashion.”

Collaboration is clearly a central pillar when it comes to all things Alchemist. A walk around “The Yard” reveals a bricolage of people, things and businesses. To feed the venue, Upendo Pizza, Mama Rocks and more recently Taste of Jamaica are on site in the form of secluded stone alcove, food truck and island shack, respectively. The Bus, which doubles as office space and the back wall of the outdoor stage, sits near the outer wall of the compound. The cavernous space is warm and inviting, with its exposed brick, dark woods and a slight industrial feel—if only it could put as much emphasis on the bathrooms as it does decor, it might be close to perfect, in that sort of dive-bar-chic sort of way. The bar uniquely casts the feeling of being by the beach without even having to leave the CBD.

“The biggest difference (between the Alchemist and other venues) I would say is the atmosphere. It’s spacious yet homely; the fact that it is divided into many sections means you can actually explore and you never know the people you meet at every corner. Each space has its own vibe,” says Jinku. “Alchemist honestly feels like home, I remember the first ever Mchuzi Mix there and soon after it became the Wave’s official unofficial home. There is a lot of love in the area. Many familiar faces. Lot’s of family… I’ve never sat still at the Alchemist…but I really love the swinging chairs by the house; those are dope.”

The current musical trend lead in part by producer/musician Jamir Adiong seems to be directed towards the reggae/dub-step/jungle crowd featuring mix-masters Dread Steppa, L.A. Dave, Sirloin and DJ Lasta to name a few. Notable Yard nights featuring these sounds, such as Wadada Wednesday , have been labeled the “new Thursday night” by some attendees.

Alchemist has the uncanny ability of transforming itself every single day. On four separate occasions, this writer has been drenched in different energies: 2:00 AM talking about mysticism and free love listening to Noise on Demand; moshing near the stage to the sound of an upbeat EA Wave set; jamming along to Njambi Koikai on 4/20 (the unmistakable scent of ganja probably seeping from the pores of the rastas that didn’t haffi dread)  singing along to the Sound of Music with fraulein when the sun went to bed and bobbing my head to Kaligraph Jones with stilt walkers blowing fire in the air at the Jameson Live Party…The Alchemist answers to its name: transmutation, transformation.

“Some of our best events are really just creative partnerships with people in the top of their field, such as our Sunday Mchuzi Mix (Big ups to Sandra Chege, Thimba, Porgie, & the EA Wave crew), Monthly Sessions w/ Zelalem, Art@The Bus w/ Wibo Culture and UP Magazine, Kenya Nights w/ Rizwan, Weekly Farmer’s Markets,” says Chen when we probed about the space’s event savvy.

“Another reason we built the Alchemist was to provide a free-flowing environment where we could show the constant iterations of music, fashion, food, and art that Nairobi has to offer. Nairobi is ever-changing and we wanted a space to reflect that. There’s so much creativity that it seems like such a shame to have to repeat things when there is always new talent to shine a light on. It’s a balance, of course, between curating up-and-coming talent and established acts, but that’s the beauty of the job,” he adds.

Katy Fentress is the brains behind the events production company, Bad Mambo, which most recently produced the Battle Of The DJ’s hosted at The Alchemist.

“The reason why we choose to have events there is because it is a blank canvas for promoters to put their spin on it. It’s our job to do our best to make it unique—how it’s arranged, the decor, even the sound systems are different from time to time. There is the house sound (provided by Vincenzo) and also sound systems tailor made for each event. Your event, in effect, has to stand out from all the rest. It enhances competition, which then makes the quality of nightlife in Nairobi much better.”

Gregg Tendwa and Azza Satti host the “Art@TheBus Wknd”, which has found a home at The Alchemist, mostly because of the identity of the space. Azza describes it as a “creative and lifestyle collective”. The curation of fresh talent, blending diverse forms of art into completely new entities and appreciating art for it’s own sake, is what Art@The Bus stands for and makes for pairing this venue and their cause an easy task.

What about identity?

Jinku revealed that his blood runs “rainbow”, including  Indian, Taita, Seychellois, Kikuyu and Maasai decent, and would suggest a larger sense of global mindedness.

“Our identity is no identity.  When people love the music just as much as me;  it’s a synchronisation of wavelengths. Once we are connected I am us much a passenger on a rollercoaster as the audience. I have no clue where the music will lead us,” says Jinku when asked about the vibe he got from being on stage.

There is a parallel between Jinku’s and Peng’s childhoods. What is central to both their formative years is their multi-cultural upbringing.

“I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship and starting up new businesses. There’s a great deal of satisfaction (and stress) that comes with being fully responsible for the success or failure of your business. I’ve found that my interests in entrepreneurship typically lie on the intersection between different industries and disciplines. I think that comes from growing up in a very multi-cultural city (San Diego) where you’re always exposed to different fusions of food, art, technology, and life in general,” Peng admits.

The snapshot of Nairobi’s cultural scene is evident in the faces that constitute or populate it. People that come to the Alchemist are white, black, biracial, Asian, businessmen and artists, religious and atheist. You come to the Alchemist and it sounds like the Tower of Babel, probably with an equal amount of profanity as a modern day construction site.  When you find a melting pot, and when all these identities find solace in the same confluence of artistic expression, you have found its DNA.

Built to Last

The question of whether or not it will last in the ‘Nairobi venue space’ brings different opinions to the table.

“Yes, I think the Alchemist will last in the Nairobi scene. I mean, why not? When things become monotonous that’s when you lose your charm. It’s about collectivity and transformation: you can go out to the Alchemist  at night, go in the afternoon and hang out all day, there isn’t usually an entrance fee, save for the big events. It’s the spirit of the place that captures Nairobi perfectly,” declares Katy.

Vincenzo was optimistic but felt that the idea of liminal spaces wasn’t confined to one brand or venue.

“The difference is that we are dealing with culture and creativity and the place is collaborative, I don’t want to make comparisons but our place is more similar to a culture center than a bar … so people will keep coming even after it’s hype moment. This is not the same thing of other venues . As long as the owner of the plot does not chase us out we will rock; when he will kick us out we will be moving to another liminal space and rock again!”

Black Friday on Social Media

Recently a social media uproar called for a blacklisting of the Alchemist. Citing incidences where the doormen discriminated against black attendees; incidences of blacks being thrown out, being accused of theft, being turned away for their appearance have been brought up. Peng responded to the claims, saying that there was certainly no institutional bias for any race, class or creed and that the third party company hired for security were to blame.

This brings an interesting idea into focus. Conceptual venues are great, especially ones that embody their initial inspiration everyday. The status quo within the industry, however, may find it’s way within any system. In this case, the blatant racism that occurs within the hospitality industry in Kenya might have seeped into the haven known as The Alchemist, as it did in ArtCaffe last year over ‘Croissant-gate’.

Supporters of the Alchemist online noted that social media opinion whether true or false has a particularly stinging effect in a small community like Nairobi. However, once you get to know the Alchemist and the owners you could never conclude that there is a racist bone in The Yard’s collective body. Still, there those who don’t want a good thing to happen and will stop at nothing to spoil party parades.

For now, we have enjoyed collaboration, eclecticism, the start-up culture and a proud multicultural and international identity. This seems to be the recipie of now, the recipe of a fascinating place to live. And in one place we see the best and at times the worst of Nairobi. From this perspective we wonder at the ever-changing cultural landscape that gives us hope in otherwise harsh times. There we can escape and fall in love.That’s the Alchemist effect.