Township Cafe Brum was a project by Friction Arts, in association with Afrovibes Festival and macbirmingham. Every couple of years, Afrovibes tour Europe, with a roster of fantastic South African musicians, performers, actors and dancers, and last October came to Birmingham to bring the festival to lucky Brummies. Each festival features a ‘hub’, this time hosted at macbirmingham, called the ‘Township Cafe’, inspired by the shebeens and underground cafes of Apartheid-era South Africa. They asked us to help to design and develop the environment, which we gladly agreed to do, in our own, inimitable way. We recognised that, whilst Birmingham does not have a huge South African community (apologies, we know there’s a few of you out there!), we do have many, (often relatively recently arrived), Brummie Africans, Brummies that may have been born in Africa, or have strong African roots. Because you’re a Brummie, of course, no matter how long you’ve been here. So we visited all the ‘little Africas’ in Birmingham we could find, the cafes, restaurants, clubs, churches and other meeting places for Africans in Birmingham, we found Africans at the Sunday bootsale. We asked people to help us create the Township Cafe environment at mac -and also to help populate the Cafe, as it was open as a showcase for performances, storytelling, sing-a-longs, poetry and more, during the two weeks of the festival.
We’d soon gathered a group of willing volunteers and began researching together every week. A host of ideas arose, one of the major recurring themes were the ubiquity of tin cans and they started to become the centre piece of the installation. We got together and painted hundreds of them in vibrant, Africa-inspired colours and added portraits (careful to avoid stereotypes) and symbols. These workshops were great, with volunteers stopping to recite poetry or sing to each other, we had loads of fun in the making.
We brought over, in the lead-in to the festival, our old friend Ant Moys who we’d worked with on our 1 Square Mile project in Johannesburg. One of the first things she said was about using tin cans as toy telephones as a child. We thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we could make a choir using tin cans?’ – and the World’ first Tin Can Choir was born. We made a series of interventions in the city, getting people to sing songs to strangers through the tin can phones, it was grerat, literally and metaphorically connecting people together.
For Afrovibes, we installed our Township Cafe in the bar at macbirmingham. It really transformed what even regular visitors and staff admitted can be a rather souless space,adding much needed colour and intrigue to the decor. Five hundred brightly painted tins cans strung around the space, colourful oil drums replacing the usual tables, benches and cushions and plastic chairs,all adding to the atmosphere. During the Festival the Tin Can Cafe, as we came to call it, was to be a fringe venue, hosting pop-up performances from visiting festival and local artists – we also provided a large amount of the programming. Our volunteers Albert and Natalie both provided content, Albert both bread-making and standup comedy performances, Natalie playing South African music and hosting ethnomusicologist Peter Cooke with his giant amadinda xylophone. Tasfir from Addis Cafe, came along and gave everyone an authentic Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The climax for us came with two beautiful performances of the Tin Can Choir, over a thirty metre span of the River Rea, between two bridges.