Every Saturday night, Zoumountchi, the 10-piece house band for Africa Night at the Sahara Lounge, weaves hypnotic polyrhythms with cascading guitar lines, exuberant bass licks and punchy blasts of brass to create a rich tapestry of sound. As the drummers entice patrons’ hips to move, singer and bandleader Ibrahim Aminou beckons to their spirits.
On a recent Saturday, he taught the enthusiastic group of dancers who crowded the front of the stage a simple but aspirational hook: "I want to be free, like a bird in a tree." When the crowd caught the melody, Aminou riffed, inhabiting the essence of the song’s soaring motif and improvising vocal flourishes that made the song take flight.
If you want to take a transcontinental journey without leaving Texas: "This place, this Austin, this Texas, is so far away from Africa," Aminou said in early November. "There are some people who would never go to Africa."
With Africa Night, his Saturday night residency at the Sahara Lounge, Aminou brings the rich flavors of his West African homeland of Niger to life in East Austin. He hopes to correct misconceptions about the continent with buoyant Afrobeat grooves and a home-cooked buffet, featuring spicy chicken or meatballs and vegetarian beans and rice. Aminou, who studied culinary arts in France, cooks the buffet with using a custom spice mix he created. "I’m trying to bring some culture, meaning, and then they will maybe say, ‘Oh, I got the wrong view about Africa. This guy is telling me the truth,’" he said.
"We knew, from the time we wanted to open the club, that we wanted to have Africa Night," club co-owner Eileen Bristol said.
Bristol and Aminou were playing music together in Michigan when the idea for the venue came to Aminou. Shortly after a visit from Bristol’s son, Topaz McGarrigle (who is Sahara Lounge’s other co-owner and leader of Golden Dawn Arkestra), "Ibrahim told me that he had a dream that we were going to move down here and open up a club," Bristol said.
Modeled on an event hosted by Malian artist Salif Keita in Paris, they wanted to offer a package of food, music and community. The club opened in July 2011; Africa Night began the following month. The early days were tough. Unsure what to expect, audiences failed to turn up.
"It was so hard, because it would be an empty room," Bristol said. Friends and patrons suggested booking rock bands to pack the house on a Saturday night, but Bristol remained committed to the vision.
Eight years later, she’s glad she did. "It’s still not our busiest night, but it is, really, to me, the essence of the club," she said. "It’s such a magical time."
The sound: Aminou, who trained and performed extensively as a professional musician in Africa and Europe before relocating to the United States, usually begins each evening with an Afro-jazz set that incorporates music and philosophical musings set to the sound of the kora, a 21-string lute harp that is native to West Africa.
A guest act normally plays the 10 p.m. time slot, followed by the Afrobeat sounds of Zoumountchi, which features Aminou on vocals, guitar and kora and Bristol on bass.
Bristol said the goal with the guest artists is to book bands that are danceable and play either Latin, reggae, Brazilian or African music, with ties to the African diaspora.
"Ibrahim can tell you where cumbia comes from in Africa," Bristol said. "All these different kinds of music you can trace back to Africa."
The vibe: "Most of the people coming here are people interested (in the) reality of music," Aminou said. "They dance. They don’t go back and look and take pictures and leave. It’s not about that, this music."
But when you do need a break from dancing, the club’s spacious back patio is "a wonderful gathering place," Bristol said.
The stage is located right by the back door, so you can hear the band while socializing. When it’s cold enough, a crackling fire pit is a focal point.
"Even if you’re not sitting by the fire pit, you feel it and you smell it," Bristol said. It becomes an icebreaker. "People who are shy can sit around a fire pit and somebody else will be talking and then they start talking. Because everybody is looking at the fire."
The venue: The historic building in far East Austin has been home to music venues since 1962. Most notably, juke joint TC’s Lounge occupied the space for 33 years. It’s a funky old dive, haphazardly strung with colorful Christmas lights. An assortment of old concert posters and maps of Africa hang on the walls. "Somebody might say it’s run down, but somebody else might say it has a lot of character," Bristol said with a laugh.
There are seating areas around small round tables at the back of the dance floor and around the bar. There also are a pair of pool tables near the front door.
Ibrahim Aminou says: "If you come here, let your body go, let yourself go." The man who counts one-time Austinite Robert Plant among his fans asks you contribute your energy. "You are the music," he said. "So when you come, add into it. It blossoms like a flower."
Eileen Bristol says: "We do have, compared to most of Austin, a very diverse crowd." The club’s mission was always "to be a place where everyone felt welcome," she said. These days, Sahara Lounge is a space where people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds mingle. Patrons recount stories of lifelong friends or spouses they met around the fire pit. Several bands have formed from musicians talking on the back patio.
If you go: Your $10 cover includes the buffet dinner, which is served at 8 p.m. Aminou’s Afro-jazz set usually begins at 8:30. The parking lot is a bit rugged, but parking is free. On busy nights, overflow parking is available at the church next door. Calm pets on leashes are welcome at the club.
Pro-tip: Aminou makes his own akpeteshie, an African spirit, for the club. He infuses a mixture of rum and peppermint schnapps with a blend of roots and herbs he brings back from Africa. You can order akpeteshie as a shot or as the main ingredient in the club’s signature cocktail, the Sahara Slant. The drink mixes akpeteshie with Maine Root Ginger Brew, lime and spiced rum.