Seeing elegant dancers silhouetted through a dimly lit gauze screen perform to the unmistakable plinky-plonk beats of Jacques Brel’s 1966 hit “Madeleine,” you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a Parisian cabaret. But listen carefully (is she really singing in … Afrikaans?) and look around you (are those Black people drinking enormous bottles of German-looking beer?) and you’ll start to question your assumptions.
The mustard-yellow Warehouse Theatre, housed in a historic brewery building in central Windhoek, Namibia, has been wowing local audiences for the past 29 years. Open five nights a week and boasting four venues — ranging from the formal theater to a spacious rooftop terrace that juxtaposes magnificent desert sunsets against a grimy foreground of mechanics’ workshops and filling stations — “it’s the only place in Namibia where there’s something on every single night,” says co-owner Conny Pimenta.
The Brel tribute show I caught on the last night of a recent trip was an unexpected highlight. The singers (Lize Ehlers — Namibia’s undisputed prima voce — and Esther Fellner, a Swiss-born chanson specialist) were top-drawer, and the lager and pizza from the Loft (the rooftop terrace) were crisp in all the right places.
For nearly three decades, the theater’s fortunes have been tied to those of Namibia’s rising stars.
But if I’d visited on another night, Pimenta says, I would have been just as entertained. The Warehouse’s eclectic lineup features drama (normally on Wednesdays and Thursdays, catering to the older crowd who leave the city on weekends), poetry recitals, stand-up comedy, DJs and — almost every night — some form of live music. Believe it or not, this pint-size theater in one of Africa’s sleepiest capitals has welcomed the percussive Nigerian “blufunk” of Keziah Jones, the throaty soul of Joss Stone and the foot-stamping Zulu anthems of Johnny Clegg, among many others.
Not that these big names make the Warehouse what it is. For nearly three decades, the theater’s fortunes have been tied to those of Namibia’s rising stars. “Everyone starts in the Boiler Room,” says Pimenta, referring to the complex’s always gloomy (and very sweaty in summer) downstairs bar named after its original brewing purpose — you can still see the pipes and levers behind the stage. Elemotho, the fiercely political Kalahari folk philosopher, launched his career here and returns regularly to sellout crowds in the main theater. Big Ben, the Otjiherero pop star, also started there.
Every Tuesday for as long as anyone can remember, the Boiler Room has hosted Karaoke Night, while the first Thursday of every month is reserved for stand-up comedy in the main theater. Mashura, the house band, plays to a packed Boiler Room crowd every second Friday and Saturday, and there are weekly dance and yoga classes in the Cellar of Rock (named after the material it’s made from, not necessarily the music). Not to mention the monthly quiz night that takes place in the Loft to raise funds for a local charity that provides young girls with free sanitary pads.
What’s most striking, perhaps, about the Warehouse experience is the diversity (I heard at least five different languages) of the crowd (a stark contrast to my native South Africa.) “We are very, very proud of our broad audience,” says Pimenta. “Straight, gay, Black, white, old, young … We love them all.”
GO THERE: WAREHOUSE THEATRE
- Where: The theater is located in the center of town, a couple of blocks from the Hilton Hotel and a 10-minute taxi drive if you’re staying in the burbs. Map.
- When: Open from 5 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.
- How much? A quart of Windhoek Lager will set you back 28 Namibian dollars ($2), and pizzas go for around 110 Namibian dollars ($9). Entrance to the Boiler Room is free, while covers for the Warehouse Theatre start at around 100 Namibian dollars ($8).
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