Friday, December 8, 2023

Kafe Raves, Bubblicious & Giant Bears: A Trip To Amsterdam

Must read

Ben Tibbits takes a trip to Amsterdam to discover Kafe Raves. A night full of zany characters and beautifully odd occurrences, here’s what went down…

All photography by @joao_mb_costa

All photography by @joao_mb_costa

I’ve always found nights out to be something of a novelty. With increasingly expensive clubs, derivative DJs, and superficial attendees who are more interested in a selfie than a shimmy, it’s getting harder and harder to have an actual good time. So when Animal Language’s Kafe Rave in Amsterdam appeared in my inbox, my attention sharpened.

Pitched as a ‘somewhat messy guerrilla-esque pub-crawl-annex-odd-rave-annex-release event,’ Kafe Raves is the creation of genre-bending label Animal Language, its founder Iason Chornis (Dutch DJ and producer Mason to most), and Chornis’ friends and fellow DJs. The event occurs a few times a year, with this being its 24th edition, and an extra special occasion at that, with its occurrence in part a celebration of Mason releasing his fourth studio album, Chroma Panorama.

I’ve been invited to attend the evening – the first press outside of The Netherlands to be welcomed to cover it. With the promise of a pure, uncompromising experience, a zany group of fellow guests and the stunning sights of Amsterdam, I gladly accept the benevolent invitation.

After a swift flight across the North Sea, I’m welcomed into Amsterdam by a brisk wintery gust and light, icy showers. A grandiose fur tree with cascading Christmas lights warms the airport’s outer core. I breathe smoke out into the Dutch air, rub my hands together for warmth, and order a taxi to my nearby hotel.

A few hours later, I meet Mason at a restaurant for dinner and drinks. He’s accompanied by some of Kafe Rave’s alumni, DJs (half of) 2CV, Tron and Lecktrick. I find the guys at a corner table, drinking Heinekens and deep in conversation, plotting for the evening ahead. We shake hands and I take a seat opposite Mason, also opting for a Heineken to maintain the national sentiment.

Mason is an understated, precise and friendly fellow. He’s had a decorated career that spans over three decades, seeing global chart success with tracks like “Perfect (Exceeder)” with American rapper Princess Superstar (which peaked at #3 in the UK charts), “Runaway,” “Boadicea” with Ròisín Murphy, and “Fashion Killa” with Stefflon Don. He’s released via Island Records and Fool’s Gold Records, as well as founding his own in Animal Language, and has remixed artists like Moby, Metronomy and Robyn.

The idea for Kafe Raves first appeared towards the start of the 2010s. Rooted in the music, the central philosophy was to put a unique spin on partying, creating a rave crawl similar to what we British might do at pubs, picking four venues for each edition that would be the least likely to host such an event. Dilapidated boozers, Laundromats, and dodgy basements being the ideal aesthetic. Each edition has its own theme, with one of the resounding favourites from times prior being an aluminium foil-tinged extravaganza. Shiny.

Kafe Raves soon gathered a cult following, with rave enthusiasts across the city discovering the event, attending and — more often than not — returning for further editions. Many of the people that I spoke to later on in the evening had been attending for years.

I’m ushered into proceedings by a juicy medium rare burger and talk of the night ahead, which will take place across four locations on the outskirts of the city’s Western vicinity. The establishments in question have been carefully curated by Mason and the others; three motley cafes and a pizzeria. In keeping with the mystery and excitement of the event, the attendees have no idea where they will be going, with the only information provided to them being an initial meeting point — a giant bear statue in a small park amidst a housing estate.

The night’s meeting point

The night’s meeting point

We finish dinner and head out into the moody autumnal dusk, and after a brisk 15 minute stroll find ourselves in the presence of the bear. Below the almighty beast, which stands perhaps 20 feet tall, are the silhouettes of 20 or so people, huddled beneath the bear’s legs in an attempt to avoid the rain. As we move closer towards the shadowed figures, they make exclamations of excitement to my companions. I join the gaggle of partygoers, striking up conversation when the language barrier allows it. Before long, the numbers double. The age range surprises me; some look in their early 20s, some 40s or 50s.

Suddenly, excited reverberations float out of an archaic megaphone (a device that I drop later in the night), courtesy of the evening’s host, Micha Schneijderberg, known by many for his well-known drag alter ego, Snorella WC. He has been a staple of Kafe Raves since its inception. He begins chanting in Dutch and the crowd responds enthusiastically. Then, to my confusion, everyone begins circling the bear whilst continuing the call and response. Eager to fit in, I clumsily partake.

Following this peculiar happening, we head out into the night in force, marching towards the first secret location. Eager to put my journalistic nuance to the test, I begin querying members of the walking party as to who they are and why they are here. I exchange pleasantries with a New York-native who works in marketing and has lived in Dam for over a decade, frequenting the Kafe Raves for the majority of his time here. He’s brought a few of his friends who happen to be in the city, one of them being a recruiter from Clapham by way of the US. She looks as nervous as she is excited.

From outside, the night’s first pitstop, Cafe De Rooseboom, looks like the sort of place that, in my native Birmingham, I’d have tried to get served whilst underage. The troops all line up outside the ambiguous establishment, patiently awaiting a call to arms in tonight’s battle for euphoria. Once again making use of his trusted megaphone, Micha counts down from three, and suddenly everyone charges towards the neon lights of the venue.

Despite not entering the bar before its transformation, it’s easy to grasp that it’s had quite the makeover. Booming speakers emit waves of disco-tinged techno, people either dance joyously or shout into each other’s ears in attempts to be heard over the music. The three staff behind the bar work at an admirable pace, mass pouring foamy beers and passing a singular card machine between their clammy palms.

I mince around, swigging beer and finding my groove. I chat with a weary-looking forty-ish year old man who is sitting on a high chair at the bar. Assuming he’s here for the party, I talk avidly on my observations from the night so far, but receive a look of bewilderment — borderline discontentment — in response. It turns out he was here for a quiet pint, completely unaware of the madness that was about to descend on his local. Scurrying off in embracement, I glance in the man’s direction 10 or so minutes later to find his seat vacant. Whether he’s given up on his peaceful lager and gone home, or lost himself within the dance floor, who knows. I’m counting on the latter.

The antics of Cafe De Rooseboom

The antics of Cafe De Rooseboom

I find myself outside having a cigarette with the evening’s host, Micha. He tells me of his dedication to the Kafe Raves family, missing a mere three editions through the years, and only absent then due to injury. We erupt into a stimulating conversation that covers philosophy, identity and his magnificent moustache. He speaks fondly of Mason and the other DJs. As I witness him greeting fresh arrivals with a warm embrace, it’s clear that Micha is as pinnacle to the spirit and ethos of Kafe Raves as anyone.

The legend of Micha

The legend of Micha

After around an hour, everyone is hurried out of the bar. The size of the crowd seems to have doubled again. Micha again puts the onlookers to the test, this time having them walk around a large circular stone. Once everyone is ever-so-slightly dizzy, we embark on our journey towards the second location.

Cafe Vrjj is dimly lit. It’s full to the brim and the large circular bar in its centre has queues branching off in every direction. After waiting somewhat patiently, I double up on my beverages and enter the make-believe DIY dance floor. Mason himself is behind the decks.

I don’t move or speak much for the next hour; fixated on the decorated DJ’s performance. There’s so much cinema in his work; every rise is grand and encompassing, every low is agonising and atmospheric. His drum-breaks are monumental, his instrumental decisions profound and purposeful. It’s a striking, assured and highly entertaining set that flaunts the mastery of Mason’s craft to me firsthand.

Mason’s set at Cafe Vrjj

Mason’s set at Cafe Vrjj

The music stops sooner than I desire and the crowds once again disperse towards the exit. I’m shaken out of my daze by the increasingly crisp night, and follow the staggered crowd towards the third venue.

Perhaps the most peculiar venue of the evening, our third party takes place in an Italian restaurant, Pizzeria Perla Di Roma. The tables presumably hidden in the back somewhere, the cramped dance floor is rampant with ravers who are gloriously infatuated by the trance-tinged sonics. Queuing at the bar to refresh my palette, I’m shocked to find myself standing next to the staff from the first venue, who seem to have felt the party was too good to resist and joined the group following the end of their shift.

I’m outside the front of the restaurant, conversing with an Irish bloke who’s in Amsterdam for a few days on route back to Dublin after a summer in Cyprus. We are approached by two younger guys, both sporting caps and t-shirts that say ‘Bubblicious’. I’m still, at this time of writing, unsure who they are, and whether they are official representatives of the brand.

The two lads are holding a ruler, a marble, and two rather large pieces of bubblegum. They propose to us a challenge; we have 60 seconds to chew the gum as avidly as possible, before having three rounds of attempts to blow the biggest bubble. The winner receives the esteemed marble.

I chew so ravenously that my jaw aches the next day. Yet when those 60 seconds are done, I barely amass a centimetre bubble across my three attempts. My opponent fares far better, managing to blow out a circle of eminence over seven centimetres long. My one regret of the whole excursion was not winning that marble. Can’t win them all I guess.

The Bubblicious Boys

The Bubblicious Boys

I lose myself in the excitement of the competition, and before long we are shepherded towards the fourth and final establishment. Cafe Amore is the most familiar to be having a late night dance and drink out of the four we frequent, and thus feels suitable as the climatic moment.

For the next 90 minutes or so, me and my fellow ravers are blessed with a masterclass in DJing. All the guys I met at dinner go back-to-back, sonically sparring to a crowd of excited onlookers. Their approaches are unique to their production identity, but the set as a whole feels cohesive and assured; their chemistry and bond is clear to hear and to see.

I barely move from in front of the decks for the entire time. Then, all too soon, the lights come on, the music fades, and the crowd heads towards the exit.

A triumphant finale // me grooving

A triumphant finale // me grooving

I find as many of my new friends as I can, bidding my farewell and thank yous for them accommodating me and welcoming me into the Kafe Rave family. My hotel is a short 30 minute walk away, and with my beer jacket on tightly, I opt to mosey back through the Amsterdam night, reflecting on the evening’s proceedings.

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting, off-kilter and unique nights of my life, it’s been a topsy turvy evening full of intriguing characters, great music and sublimely odd occurrences.

What truly sets Kafe Raves apart is its sense of community. People from all walks of life; whatever age, ethnicity, gender or career path, these ravers respect each other and the philosophy that Mason and co have adopted. Beneath its hedonistic surface lies profound depth.

Maybe clubbing isn’t so novel after all.

Latest article