Simone Richardson meets owner Sophia Yates and staff members at the Hootananny as it reopens for live music
The Hootananny on Effra Road, providing entertainment for generations of Brixtonians, has been through many changes.
It was the George Canning into the early years of this millennium, named after a Conservative politician who was prime minster for just 118 days before he died in 1827.
Then, for a short time from 2003, it was known as the Hobgoblin, before becoming the Hootananny in September 2007, rapidly transitioning from a “ceilidh bar” to one of London’s top live music venues.
Today it contends with the challenges of lockdown and tier 2 restrictions. We can only hope that the recent announcement of relief funds for the venue means Hootananny’s 13th year will be a lucky one.
Like all venues, the Hootannany faces constant challenges, and Sophia Yates, the owner and woman in charge, is at the sharp end of meeting them. In 2017, it was soaring business rates and other costs. She warned of the threat to the jobs of the 120 people a week – and bands – that the Hootannany was then paying.
Sophia sings the praises of her staff, saying: “All my team are amazing”.
And she explains who and why:
“Steve Light made it all beautiful to look at, with lights and tents outside.
“Quentin Bromley is the content producer and co-promoter at weekends and Max Golfar is music and events manager and co-promoter for the night.
“My daughter Eva Yates has transformed the vibe as it is no longer a late-night venue. It is a day-time venue – open four days for music from 3pm till 10pm,’’
All these people are as concerned as Sophia is to know about what is going to happen as Covid-19 continues to dominate all our lives.
The Hootananny recently opened with free live music for the first weekend – with listeners sitting down and dancing on their seats only!
Despite the no-dancing rule, which is a frustration when the live music is so good, it was a wonderful start back towards the ability to hear soulful or reggae music live – depending on the evening.
Sophia is worried about the whole situation, saying: “It has been a nightmare economy-wise, causing huge stress, but my team raised their game, despite us losing £6,000 per week.’’
The financial situation remains a major worry – especially with the threat to restaurants and bars posed by the latest round of regulations.
Ben Bascombe, who we interviewed a year ago, is still there, working hard in his job as bar manager which involves “a bit of everything” – working behind the bar, liaising with bands and promoters, and dealing with stock and suppliers.
Ben is still hanging in there with other staff members like Adderly Gonzalez.
“During lockdown, I stayed here in the hostel rooms upstairs,” Adderly says. “Otherwise I was going to have to move from one house to another.
“Upstairs at the Hootanany with 14/15 people there was quite nice actually.
“We were all like a family and lived in peace.
“Some of us used to go to the park once in a while respecting the social distancing, it was amazing in the May weather and it was hard to stay indoors.’’
After lockdown ended, Adderly came back from Spain where he had gone to see his family after his time upstairs at Hootanany.
He was contacted for a return to work when the venue reopened in July and he was happy to come back on 14 August.
Quentin Bromley has also enjoyed working at the Hootananny, and is keen to tell why.
Having worked in Bristol on bookings and content for grass-roots events, he has now been a content producer and co-promoter at Hootananny for a year.
“I enjoy the best people and music,” he says.
“The variation in music which Hootanany is so good at and the people come together mean that I want to move to Brixton!’’
Security staff, too, are happy to be back, despite the need for masks.
Imeh Asuqwo is the supervisor – in charge for 11 years. It’s a “very challenging” job – “making sure all are safe in a drug-free venue.”
He works with security manager Cecil who has been there so many years he can’t remember exactly how many, but says: “I love just being here for the live music.’’
The pool table has never been locked down as social distance is not a problem with the game.
That’s a relief for Hancle Graham who missed pool during lockdown. “I’m not as much of a regular pool player as I was, but wearing a mask doesn’t affect me having a good game!’’
Hootananny is now open daily from 3pm to 10pm, with music at weekends, check its website for details
Current (18 October) official guidance on pubs and the “high” tier 2 alert level in London