Club Bongo – a beacon for inclusivity, diversity and multiculturalism by Lisa Lovebucket, with contributions from local historian Jay Tee, artist Bobby Benjamin, playwright Ishy Din and music producer Donny Jevs
“Abdillahi Warsama had been catalysed into opening his own club as a result of a racist incident in London, where he was turned away from a nightclub due to the colour of his skin”
When I moved into the area 13 years ago, the only thing I knew about Middlesbrough was the existence of Club Bongo. I hadn’t even heard of its other blue icon, the Tees Transporter Bridge, or the local delicacy known as a Parmo.
Growing up in the 70s, I was always a fan of two-tone, ska, reggae and, later, rocksteady, dub and dub techno. When I moved to London in the early 90s, as well as immersing myself in the annual spectacle of Notting Hill Carnival, I was a regular visitor to The Dub Club at Holloway Rocket and The Dome in Tufnell Park, where the whole building would throb under the force of mighty sound systems such as Aba Shanti-I, Jah Tubby, Boomshakalak, and the brilliantly bouncy Iration Steppas.
I’d had the honour of hanging out with Lee Perry and U-Roy at the Reggae Alldayer held in Brighton’s Stanmer Park in 1995, having wandered backstage in search of a desperately-needed loo. None other than Lee “Scratch” Perry walked up as I pleaded with security to let me nip in the Portaloo. “She with me,” he said, giggling as he put his arm around me, perhaps just a little too tightly. The line-up that day also featured such legends as Mad Professor, Jah Shaka and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Standing at the back of the stage watching LKJ, flanked by Scratch and U-Roy, is something I’ll never forget.
Sadly, being a mother of young kids with scant babysitting options, and no chance of an overnight sitter, I never got to experience Club Bongo for myself. However, knowing that Abdillahi Warsama had been catalysed into opening his own club as a result of a racist incident in London, where he was turned away from a nightclub due to the colour of his skin, I suggested that The Tees should feature an article on Club Bongo for Black History Month. As it was my suggestion, I was asked to put something together. Feeling completely unqualified for the task, I spoke to local historian Jay Tee about the history of the building itself, and put a call out on social media for tales of Club Bongo.
A potted history of Club Bongo by Jay Tee
The building on Bridge Street West, known to many as Club Bongo, was originally built as a temperance hotel called Mays Hotel. In 1938, the proprietor was Mrs A McCall.
Temperance hotels formed a highly visible and important part of the wider temperance movement. They aimed to provide people with the various amenities of a standard hotel, with the exception of alcohol. As such, in addition to providing meals and accommodation, they were also frequently used as a venue for weddings, meetings, club activities, and other events. The first temperance hotel in Britain was opened in 1833 by Joseph Livesey, a key figure in the temperance movement. In Scotland, the first to be opened was on Princes Street, Edinburgh, by Robert Cranston, a prominent Chartist, in 1848. The Waverley Hotel, as it was called, was carefully sited close to the newly opened railway line, and it survives as a now-licensed hotel to this day. The best-known member of the Cranston family was Kate Cranston, whose fame springs from her Glasgow tearooms: yet another scheme designed to wean people away from the temptations of alcohol.
Drakes, which manufactured brass fittings for beer barrels, was next door to Mays Hotel, and the Theatre Royal on same street, which offered a very mixed scene, all near to the railway station of course.
In the 1950s, Mays Hotel became The Unity Hotel and then The Kenya Cafe. Owned by Iris and Ismail Dube, it was a boarding house and cafe which served curry and rice for 5 shillings. Many Arabic and Somali sailors stayed there, arriving on the ships visiting Middlesbrough Dock just up the road. The Kenya Cafe features in Khadim Hussain’s book, Going For A Curry. My grandad, Archie Woodier, liked to sit in there and chat with the Arabs when he returned from war in the desert in the 1950s. He had great respect for them. He fought in the 8th Army at the Battle of El-Alamein. He was a really tough guy but perhaps the war opened his eyes to new cultures and countries. Born in 1912, in Somalia, Abdillahi Warsama served in the merchant navy during the Second World War before opening a cafe in London. He bought The Kenya Cafe in the 60s, and in 1963 it was renamed Club Bongo International – billed as a place where everyone would be welcome.
I remember personally going to The Bongo from 1980s until it closed. The DJs at Bongo played reggae, and it was probably the only place in town that did so regularly. In the 80s there were lots of international sailors in there from the docks, which attracted sex workers who are always popular with sailors away from home. But all kinds of other people went to the Bongo. It was a real melting pot. The owner always sat at the door, welcoming people in: the regulars, the curious, those in search of a late-night drinking spot.
In the early 90s, Andy Busa took over as resident DJ, replacing Maurice who played hardcore Jamaican reggae. Andy mixed it up a bit more with modern day stuff. He brought in a younger crowd and turned the club around. He had about 1,000 vinyl albums and singles neatly filed in the wall at the back of the DJ booth.
Abdillahi handed over the management to his relative, Abdi Ahmed, in 2012. Certainly Club Bongo was not without its controversies, and had its licence suspended a few times over the years. Its door closed permanently in 2017 following a serious incident, a year after Abdillahi had died from an infection which led to kidney failure, aged 104. He was truly a local legend who had a huge impact on Middlesbrough’s history. The name Club Bongo will always live on, and is sealed into local history in the Middlesbrough version of the Monopoly board, where it takes the place of Mayfair.
I had a great response to my call-out for tales of Club Bongo but not everyone wanted to go on record. It seems that for a lot of people, what went on in Club Bongo stays in Club Bongo. However, Bobby Benjamin, Ishy Din, and Donny Jevs were happy to share their memories and reflections:
Tales from Club Bongo
“Whether or not Bongo was your thing, it is an important part of Middlesbrough’s heritage. It stood as a beacon for inclusivity, diversity and multiculturalism. For over 50 years it has been part of the Middlesbrough landscape and is known worldwide. On a personal level, Abdi and the staff there were always supportive of my ideas, however leftfield, from allowing me use of the space above the club to start my gallery, Felix, to letting me stage the launch of the Sorry Escalator EP in the middle of their dancefloor. They supported me and countless other artists in the area.”
Bobby Benjamin, artist and curator, Pineapple Black
“Club Bongo was an integral part of coming of age in Middlesbrough. The music and atmosphere was unique and you always felt you were in a Boro institution.”
Ishy Din, playwright
“The first time I ever went to Bongo, me and my friends had been to Gala Bingo and won big. It was a Monday night. We decided to head to Club Bongo, as it was one of the only places doing something on a week night. It had quite a reputation for being seedy but I think it was just the location, as it’s over the border. When we actually got in there it was totally a good vibe. The music was banging. The people were cool. We all had a great night.”
Donny Jevs, music producer
Although I never got to go to Club Bongo, I did get to experience some of the vibe at The Willowman Festival, where Bongo resident DJ Patrick Anselm of Instrument of Jah sound system ran the reggae tent for the first five years. Even though we bought ear protectors for our kids, his bass was still too mighty, so we didn’t get to hang out in the reggae tent as much as we would have liked, though over the weekend my husband and I would take it turns to immerse ourselves in his sounds. We got to know Patrick pretty well. It was always a joy to talk to him and have a dance to his finest tunes. Patrick tragically died in 2015, at just 37 years of age. Rastafarians from all over the country came to Middlesbrough to beat drums and celebrate his life well lived.
As a side note, with ongoing babysitting issues, we were unable to get a babysitter when Linton Kwesi Johnson came to Teesside University for Black History Month in 2016. Not wanting to miss out, we decided to take the brave step of taking our two young boys along to a two-hour poetry reading. They were rapt throughout, sitting in non-fidgeting silence. We were very proud parents indeed. Having watched LKJ play from the back of the stage all those years ago, it was great to finally meet him in person. I couldn’t resist having a photo taken, with my arm wrapped around him, perhaps just a little too tightly.
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