On a summer’s morning in 2016, the cleaning staff set off to work at an east London music venue only to find out the locks had been changed. Two bailiffs occupied the building. Hours later, hundreds of supporters broke in through the second-floor window and business carried on as usual. This was the start of an ongoing battle between Dalston’s beloved Passing Clouds and a property developer, who took over the space in what was named a “secret deal” by management at the time. By August that year, Passing Clouds was officially closed and little hope remained for its reopening, despite a thousands-strong protest. Activists had desperately kept the building open for weeks after the break-in. About 50 bailiffs forcibly removed them.
But now, Kwame Otiende, Salma Repa and Aaron Edwards, who have varied music business backgrounds including venue management, event production and people operations, have taken over the site. Under their watch, it opened to the public on 1 March. And no, unlike many feared, they didn’t transform Passing Clouds into a new block of flats. Instead, it’s been renamed The Jago, based on Arhur Morrison’s 1986 novel A Child of the Jago, about a slum in east London. If all goes to plan, the space will host live music, workshops, panel discussions and community lead events. The Jago will also showcase music not always easily available around London such as soul, funk, afro house, reggae and swing.
The three directors hope they’ll be able to maintain the communal energy and warmth that Passing Clouds nurtured during its decade-long tenure. On a Monday afternoon, I’m being shown around by Salma. “We’re happy to change it, reinvent it a bit,” she says, pointing to the stairs. Each step is painted a different colour, with gold and blue swirls that whip across the wood. Paint chips in parts. And though the place needs a refresh, as she says, “we love the spirit of what it represented.”
What happened to Passing Clouds isn’t new, though. Across the UK, venues change hands and continue to support thrashing, thumping live shows. But The Jago feels special because it doesn’t dissociate itself from its site’s history. And, as many of the UK’s nightlife and smaller venue spaces have to square up to the forces of gentrification, it’ll be interesting to see where two strands meet: one, shuttered venues reopening and; two, how those venues will sustain their businesses, using new brands or not.
Take, The Rainbow Venues, a collection of 11 spaces in Birmingham, which ranged from a pub to warehouses. Two people died of drug-related causes over the course of two years in its Rainbow Warehouse. As a result, the council decided it best to close it down. Almost a year later, The Rainbow Venues became The Mill, a multi-purpose music venue. They instated tighter health and safety and security procedures, creating a fresh new space contrasting to the former industrial vibe.
Benjamin Newby, The Mill’s operations director, believes that if Rainbow Warehouse had closed for reasons other than having its license revoked, it could’ve been salvaged. “Nobody wants to see something they love change. So you’re always going to have someone you didn’t make happy because it isn’t the venue that it used to be,” he says. “But ultimately, maybe it’s better for a space to keep being a venue.”
In terms of longevity, some smaller venues, such as The Exchange in Bristol, have taken precautions to prevent a potential closure. “There wasn’t an immediate threat, but it was more looking at things and thinking, if we continue doing what we’re doing at the moment, then it’s just not going to be sustainable for the future,” says director Matthew Otridge. “If it wasn’t for the directors giving up certain amounts of their time for free every year, it wouldn’t continue to exist because if you have to pay people to take up those roles then it just wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.” He thinks this is the case for many venues across the UK. As a result, The Exchange sold shares in the venue to the community. Around 400 people invested, many hoping to support local culture. Matthew believes this a testament to how important these spots are. “I don’t think any music venue should be just defined by who owns it at the time, because it belongs to the community in that it means a lot to people.”
Despite being part-owner, Kwame was busy sweeping when I arrived at the Jago on a Friday afternoon while Aaron was installing a new shelf behind the bar. “At some point we’ll definitely have a team doing all these things because right now it’s like a two-man army,” Kwame says. As it’s still early days, The Jago isn’t yet stable enough to hire on a large team of full-time staff especially because taking up the venue didn’t come cheap. “You wouldn’t know if you came after 7PM that I was running around at 4PM,” Kwame says, acting out how he rushes about on a regular afternoon when nobody’s around. “‘This is not ready,’ ‘this not ready’,” he laughs.
Aaron interrupts to find out if much staff is needed for this evening, however, Kwame anticipates it to be a quiet one. Instead, by midnight the venue is packed. Standing at the back, Kwame seems relieved. He wasn’t sure how Das Brass, a ten-piece brass folk band, would fare. But as the night moves into the early hours of the morning, two musicians rap over the brass and soon, almost half the band are off the stage performing shirtless on the floor while a mixed crowd dances around them. One of the rappers hands out flyers for a local charity explaining that it’s a project dear to his heart. It becomes clear how much The Jago will soon become integral to the community much like Passing Clouds was.
Aaron agrees. “There’s so much going on in Hackney that you can work in partnership with great causes,” he explains. As Passing Clouds was made an Asset of Community Value in October 2016, councillors agreed to only grant permission to a company that had community projects as a part of its regime. “I hope it serves as a boost to the campaigners and sends out a message to the owners of the building that this venue and the community that developed around it is important and should be considered in any future plans,” said The Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville at the time.
Despite the hubbub, not everyone is excited. To a local paper, 40-year-old Charlie Elliott says he doesn’t feel the community was an integral part of the proposal The Jago initially made to the council. “People aren’t going to trust them,” he added. However, Kwame seems to believe those who are reluctant will eventually come around. “It wasn't like I went out at the beginning saying, ‘hey this is Kwame’ so people didn’t know who I am,” he explains. “I had people saying this is gentrification, but, that’s not how it works. I’m from Dalston.” It’s clear the three Jago owners wanted to take over Passing Clouds to serve this community. On Mondays, the ground floor is used by My Yard, a charity that collects surplus food from companies, offering it in a ‘pay what you feel’ to families in need. The director Rachel Dimond hopes to add in some live music once the project grows.
So sure, Kwame is a local, but while at uni, both he and Salma spent many nights at Passing Clouds. And that informs their decisions now. “The one thing I always noticed was that there was a long queue for the toilets, especially for the ladies,” Kwame explains. So, The Jago has fitted more. They’ve also added a cloakroom and more beer taps (with around 50 percent from local suppliers). “We’re just humble local people – we’ve never run a massive venue before,” says Salma. Even with their new ideas for the space, they don’t imagine The Jago as a venue considerably different to what Passing Clouds once was nor would they want to be. “More than anything, rather than the look, it’s the spirit of the place we’ll try to keep.”
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