Written by Marino Ferri; read by Alina Vimbai Strähler & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan
On May 8th, 1959, NZZ reported that the Scheuble company opened its new, alcohol-free bar at Mühlegasse 17 and described it to be „so afrikanisch wie es die Feuerpolizei gestattet hat“ (“as African as the fire authorities allowed”). The former Zähringerhof was now called Africana. Wooden masks, spears, carpets, and clay figures adorned the interior. Wall paintings reinforced the exotic ambiance. And as per NZZ report, there was a “wie Kaffee ohne Crème getönte Dame, die einem Zigaretten verkauft“ (“lady tinted like coffee without cream who sells cigarettes”), reinforcing a “real Africana" feel.
Many of the art objects on display were contributed by Emil Storrer, a Zurich art dealer, documentary filmmaker, and a sporadic organizer of ethnological expositions. From his travels to West Africa, Storrer brought art objects to Switzerland, resold them or lent them temporarily, for example to the Museum Rietberg.
The idea to create the Africana originated in the Zurich jazz scene. The venue offered a stage for Swiss as well as American and African artists. Blues pianists Joe Turner and "Champion" Jack Dupree were employed under contract. Turner had lived in Switzerland since 1949 and was already well known in Zurich as a bar pianist. Among other places, he played in the "Althus" restaurant at Talacker 11, which was also run by Scheuble.
From 1962 on, Dollar Brand and Sathima Benjamin were the Africana’s biggest attraction: The South African couple had gone into exile following the country’s repressive apartheid policy. Brand, known today as Abdullah Ibrahim, was discovered at the Africana by Duke Ellington.
The Africana was an ambivalent place: on the one hand, the interior decoration confirmed colonial stereotypes. The origin and acquisition of the objects must be critically examined in the context of Emil Storrer's travels to the African continent. On the other hand, the jazz club was a meeting place where an exchange with and between African and African American artists took place. This was generally true of the Zurich jazz scene, which had existed since the early 1950s. International greats played in the Kongresshaus, but also in smaller clubs. The bourgeois-conservative city authorities were hardly pleased. Police closures were the order of the day. When Louis Armstrong performed at the Hallenstadion in 1959, the police showed up with rubber truncheons.
Friendly relations developed between Swiss and white and black South African musicians. But there were also conflicts. The jazz musician Bruno Spoerri, who was a regular at the Africana at the time, reported that Dollar Brand would stand on the tables on heated evenings and shout: "I hate white people!" On the other hand, Maxine McGregor, the wife of the white South African musician Chris McGregor, remembers the uptight and reserved nature of the people of Zurich. She perceived Zurich as a city of repressed emotions, where one could bleed to death in the street without anyone coming to help.
The Africana was not a distinctly political place. Local musicians did not develop an anti-colonial solidarity movement in their contact with South Africans. For the South Africans, too, the focus was mostly on music, not protest or activism. The romantic-stereotyping images of Africa and the socio-political reality of the artists fleeing the apartheid regime coexisted. Several Swiss-African contact zones overlapped at the Africana. For this very reason, this inconspicuous basement bar is an intriguing place to reflect on various forms of Swiss colonial entanglements.