Thursday 5 September 2019

Ninety One Living Room

It's funny how religion was all around me when I was growing up in (supposedly religion-free) Cuba. My late grandmother was raised a Catholic and never lost the faith. My father was a (closeted) Freemason and my mother was not averse to dropping Christian-themed snippets of wisdom while bringing me up. All this punctuated by regular visits by a babalawo (a priest in the Yoruba religion) to my flat in Havana. Yet, I became an atheist and still consider myself one.

Except when it comes to music. Music (and art by default) is the closest I've come to becoming a worshipper of any kind.

This has been the case with Ninety One Living Room. This is a venue in east London that has converted me. To what it has converted me is not the point, the point is the unorthodox nature of the programme that has converted me.

Ninety One Living Room's Jazz Lates is the brainchild of Cuban musician and promoter, Orestes Noda. In its short incarnation (it only got going in autumn/winter 2018) it has shone a much-needed light onto some of the more exciting talent the UK's up-and-coming jazz scene has to offer.

Based in the heart of hipster east London, Jazz Lates has hosted some of the finest contemporary jazz musicians. Along the way it has also contributed to some unforgettable sessions. This is helped by a format in which musicians play two sets; the first one usually featuring their own material and the second one showcasing a mix of original songs and covers of jazz classics.

The beauty of this set-up is that at the start the audience is exposed to a sound with which they might not be familiar. This builds a sense of trust from the word go, which allows lesser-known acts to grow into their performance on stage. It also ensures that the band or singer's own compositions are the focus, instead of how they tackle yet another version of Dave Brubeck's Take Five.

That was certainly the case with Sahra Gure, a Berlin-born, London-based, vocalist who has taken London by storm. She performed at Ninety One Living Room recently. Still very young but already showing lots of confidence and pizzazz, Sahra has collaborated with the likes of Dele Sosimi (he of Fela Kuti fame) and Kishon Khan (who fronts the ground-breaking, hard-to-box-in, award-winning Lokkhi Terra).

Variety is another key element of Jazz Lates. For instance, Luna Cohen, originally from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and now relocated to London, brought a harmony-rich repertoire. One that eschewed the usual middle-of-the-road, listener-friendly, Joao Gilberto-influenced, samba-lite sound and instead gave us a more challenging proposition. All this accompanied by soulful vocals and a magnetic stage presence.

Although music is the reason for us, jazz-lovers, to flock to Ninety One Living Room, there are also other components to factor in when assessing the venue's success. One is the atmosphere. The energy in the room is electric. Most punters are united by a shared appreciation of live jazz. Especially, the type that is unpretentious and at the same time intimate. The other element that makes Ninety One a win-win option for a Friday or Saturday evening (when most gigs take place) is the food. Although admission to the space is free, if you want to eat, you need to book a table. The grub is reasonable and good. They can certainly rustle up a decent burger and chips (there are both vegetarian and vegan options) and other dishes that are equally delicious.

Having been to Jazz Lates many times now, I have noticed a following that is almost of a cult nature. Ninety One Living Room has certainly racked up something of a football-like loyalty amongst jazz fans. This has helped promote the night as far and wide as possible, mainly through word of mouth.

While it is hard to deny that both Brick Lane and the surrounding area have suffered the effects of gentrification (as illustrated in the recent Akram Khan's documentary, Curry House Kid. Curry houses are closing down at an alarming rate), Jazz Lates, on the other hand, has provided a much-needed bridge between artists and their community. As I mentioned before, entrance is free and some of those performing on stage are locals, born within earshot of the Bow bells.

It is the curatorial savoir-faire of Orestes Noda (the man behind the Sambroso Sambroso Cuban-music-promoting brand) that we need to thank most of all. In conversation with the maestro recently he told me that the driving force behind whatever he did (like his Afro-Cuban-percussion-driven, Middle-Eastern-sound, electronica-powered project, Ariwo, for instance) was his curiosity. I am just a curious person, Mario, he told me, a smile beaming on his face.

That curiosity has given us performances by the likes of award-winning, musical collective, Kefaya (their name is Arabic for "enough"), Israeli-born, multifaceted and talented singer-songwriter Noga Ritter and ex-Bellowhead (remember them?) trombonist Justin Thurgur.

To this day I continue to call myself an atheist. Except when it comes to music. When it comes to music, venues like Ninety One Living Room and its weekly Jazz Lates convert me. To what they convert me is not the point, the point is the heterodox nature of what they offer. The stage is my altar and the audience my fellow worshippers.

All photos by Nadjib Le Fleurier


  1. Music is the international language. We don't need to know the words to feel the power of music and share the feelings with those around us... both friends and strangers.

  2. Music is certainly lacking most of the things which turn me away from organised religion. Yes, it sometimes has a cult-like following but the members of that group don't feel the need to destroy adherents to other faiths.

  3. I have not been inside a church for worship services for a few decades, but every Christmas season I am drawn to holiday concerts -- including those by church choirs -- as a remnant childhood trait. Then, too, there is J.S. Bach. Occasionally someone will write or proclaim: "Bach is God." I doubt that, but his music certainly is spiritual.

    Excellent post, CiL. You need to be writing here more ....

  4. Hi ACIL - wonderful post ... and one where I miss living in London - I can hear the music, feel the vibes, understand the atmosphere and totally appreciate all that's being offered to you ... delightful - and I'd love to visit. Amazing place too ... lots of on offer ... and thanks for the links to the artists and Ninety-One ... cheers Hilary

  5. Hmmm. I´ve visited Cuba only twice, but the people always seemed to be religious.
    I was raised "a bit" with evangelian religion, but like you...
    Only the Gospel is as near as I can get. As it seems to show fun (even though it was pain, but - Happy Birthday to Freddie Mercury today - "pain is so close to pleasure", well, these days, not back then).
    And isn´t it funny how people come from all over the entire world for music, too?

  6. Music brings us together.
    Loved this piece.

  7. i think music is the universal language that binds us all. i may not be a fan of jazz but there certainly is a genre of music for everyone. long ago, i used to frequent a club at the roof of a shopping mall for their rock music.
    as usual, i enjoyed your excellent post. :)

  8. Looks like a good place for you. I am an atheist as well, despite a very religious early life -- the whol forst hal of my life as it turns out, and I'm 72.

    I once came across a series of detective stories, Inspector Ramirez, if memory serves. Set in Cuba, there was sometimes a religious element.

  9. It's understandable why you'd feel more of a connection to music than to religion. Music unifies and speaks a language we can all understand. It can uplift us and make us feel overwhelming emotions. Best of all, as far as I know, no one has ever gone to war in the name of music.

    The place you've described sounds fantastic. I love the energy and emotion of jazz, especially when the musicians are jamming. In New Orleans, a jazz place I wanted to visit was so crowded, many of us stood outside to listen. Those musicians played from their souls rather than from sheet music. With no pre-planning, their unrehearsed notes danced around each other and created an exhilarating sound.

  10. Yeah, I'm not religious in the least, but music is the exception.

  11. En la música no hay fronteras como se dice, ya que toda nos parece maravillosa aunque la mayoría de las veces no entendamos el idioma.
    Un abrazo

  12. Music is indeed the language that unites us stark contrast to religion, that tends to divide us.
    Oh this does sound fantastic! Jazz is such a unique type of music, that has the power to evoke such powerful emotions in everyone who listens to it.
    Thank you so much for this fabulous has made me feel so uplifted!!😊😊

    Greetings from a rather dull Hampshire!

  13. is amazing. It can bring on memories that we are not expecting. It can heal and it can hurt. I love Jazz but that is not my fave. I am a soft rock sort of person and I so love listening to the music of the 70s. I was a teen (oops, sharing my age there) during the 70s and to me, it is the best! Enjoyed your blog.

  14. I'm a Christian, make no bones about it, and offer no apologies. That said, to each their own and I have no animosity or judgement towards those who don't share my beliefs. I do believe music is one of the most wonderful things in this world and can honestly say I enjoy almost any type. I do love jazz and must check out some of the names you've listed here.

  15. I guess I would say that I am an agnostic, but that's not the right word. I don't know what is. I believe that I am god and you and that and this and all of it. And from that there is a collective force (for yet a lack of a better word).
    Thanks for all the Jazz info, I love it.
    I used to work in a Jazz club. A little, intimate night spot in Portland. Mel Brown and David Freisen played there every Monday night. You probably don't know them but there were very big here. The rest of the time, lesser known and some recorded music. I served food and tended bar and got to listen to the most beautiful music for free. Those were some of my most fun days.

  16. glad you found a great new venue!

  17. I know what you mean by how religion is central in a supposedly religion-free country. I was raised in a communist country (for a few years, before the fall of the iron curtain in '89) - Romania and religion was everywhere. Also like you, I'm an atheist enchanted by music.

    Anca @

  18. Hei Cuban!Flott post om musikk og relegion!Jeg elsker jazz men da mer soul orientert..Er også en veldig stor entusiast av klassisk musikk,,-spesiaelt Bach lik Erbarme -dich fra Matteus passionen..Det har sikkert sammenheng med min oppvekst i Baskerland Bilbao..Med en spansk far katolsk og canadisk mor protestant måtte det bli noe spesielt med hensyn til hva en liker og tror..Jeg trådde mine barnesko i kloster skole..Senere amerikansk skole for utenlandske barn..Siden Norge og jeg har alldrig dratt herfra..Jeg tror kultur og hva man har opplevd i tidlig barndom former en forhåpentlig til ett godt menneske..Jeg skal se på dine favoritter og kansje jeg vil like dem..Takk for ett fint innlegg!Håper du vil skrive mer..Fra gjerne din periode i Cuba ..hvordan var det å leve der under Castro?Vel.Jeg er ikke mye på internet og blogger sjelden..Tiden strekker ikke til alt..Men noen få svarer jeg for slike som deg gir impulser til noe flott.Da må du og dine ha en riktig fin helg!Hilsen Anita

  19. Bummer, I missed this post. I do think music can help connect us to that which is spiritual whether it is in our hearts or to that which transcends (ie, God). Sounds like a nice place to relax.


  20. this is powerful piece of writing dear friend!

    band and Sahra sounds profound through your words :)
    you conveyed so beautifully how this music touched your soul and awake spirituality
    i think we all need God to believe and strive to look for him and once this desire stimulated inside us God reveals himself to us with all his grace and love

    i liked the way you shared about your grandma and mom's love for religion ,they had their Lord through verses :)

  21. This is so true of so many people who grew up in religious homes. Music does touch a person.

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