For a certain demographic, live music in Nairobi opened and crescendo-d with one man, Abdi Rashid Djibril and Thursday Night Live. The crowds followed him to Baricho Road where they would fill Club Choices to the rafters, little space left to put a foot wrong.
When he left Nairobi’s industrialised section for J’s in upmarket Westlands, they all followed suit – sadly with the loss of some of his disciples. He was their Piper and they danced to his tune.
It was gospel truth that he organised the very best of Nairobi’s urban live sets and had a professional relationship with musicians who he treated right and that energy funneled back to the audience.
Then came Covid-19 and in its wake, clubs and night spots were shut down. The live music crowd was then like orphaned children who Rashid couldn’t feed anymore. The Czar left the business - he says only for a little while. But as they say, the show must go on.
Enter Geco Café.
Situated on Mbaazi Road, in Lavington, Nairobi, it has become the new Mecca for many a live music lover. Where the crowd was previously used to a weekly episode on Thursday night, with Geco, the music connoisseur can now binge to their heart’s desire with a live show every day of the week except for Monday when they can catch their breath before diving back the next day.
On a particularly chilly Thursday night, the melodic sounds of an acoustic set call in anyone looking to wind down after a long day. A disemboweled red Volkswagen (VW) Beetle just outside the gate gives a glimpse of the décor inside.
Classic scooters having lost their handlebars to a workman serve as seats in the garden outside. Bicycles adorn the walls, a sizzling plate of beef passes quickly by, its aroma not far behind. A couple sits inside a redesigned Tuk Tuk for dinner. On the wall is a magnified metal-worked gecko – of course.
This night, Ciano Maimba is keeping the cold at bay, crooning to a soulful version of his song Brighter Days, the audience captivated though not dancing yet.
Yonder, coffee is brewed. If you wish for a cocktail, there’s a second chopped-up VW outside to serve as your bar. Still, the beer crowd has a few counters to themselves. The hustle and bustle is akin to that of a market.
Geco Café is an artsy and expansive restaurant set up by Mateus Finato in late 2017 before having its first live show in February of the following year featuring Tim Riungu who still plays there to date. Finato hails from Brazil and wears many hats in addition to the hunting one he wears this night.
He is a sommelier, a chef and evidently an astute business owner. Of his decision to start Geco, he says, “Music runs through my blood. My family loves music so this was not a hard decision.”
He easily combines the two from a lifelong experience. “I have worked in the food industry since I was 17!” Finato has been around the world, ending up in Kenya in 2009 after stints in Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and later India.
Concept and soul
He adds that the concept and soul of Geco Café hasn’t changed. He needs to do some convincing as in his own words, “If you don’t come here for two months, you’ll find something different every time.” He is always trying to improve the space where he spends most of his days.
Their doors open at 8am and do not shut until 11pm. He’ll often be seen pointing out something that should be improved to his staff. He should know having been in the business for decades.
Back on stage, Ciano Maimba is wrapping up his set much to the collective groan of his loyal fans. Management insists that sets have to start and finish on time. Every show starts at 7pm sharp and cannot go for more than two and a half hours.
Finato boasts of a great relationship with his neighbours and actually has them as a majority of his clientele. Says he, “We are in a residential area but have never received a noise complaint.” He laughs when asked about decibel levels and adds, “Live music doesn’t need to be loud. It needs to be good!”
When he started out, even musicians (who only voiced this after collecting their pay) were skeptical about the lasting power of such a venture and raised it with Finato.
Five years down the line, however, he doesn’t seem to be complaining and even goes as far as saying, “What was an underground thing has now come to light and anyone coming here for music knows they will always get a great performance.”
Booked months ahead
Now he has Mackinley Musembi of Nairobi Horns Projects on Urbane Tuesdays, Wednesdays are reserved for Open Mics and special performances, Thursday shows are booked for months in advance and Friday has remained his friend Tim Riungu’s, Unplugged Sax Appeal sessions since the doors here opened.
Finato would like to see more places like his crop up as he puts it, “to provide more opportunities for musicians.” As it stands. however, Geco is arguably head and shoulders above any other establishment when it comes to the live scene.
Musicians have relayed that the vibe they get here is unique. Maureen Shelmith, a writer at Jazzsymphonic and a die-hard fan and enthusiast of the live scene agrees, “Geco has captured the essence and has been able to capitalise on live music. It's booming!”
The team at Geco has largely been able to stick together and Finato is grateful that they share his passion which makes his job that much easier.
Some have been with him for over a decade, not as old as some of the guitars he has on display behind the stage and around the establishment – a 1923 mandolin and a 1948 Hofner which hopefully stay on the walls after this revelation.
Asked about the only setback to the whole set up, limited dancing space and visibility of the stage, a set up he likes and refers to as “intimate”, Finato points to some work that is going on in different parts of the restaurant.
He hopes to change the location of the stage to allow more space for the band. For the fans, some more space to dance. A smile and a familiar statement follow, “If you come here in two months, it will be different!”