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Welcome to Africa Night at Sahara Lounge

The Webberville Road bar invites visitors to enjoy free food and dance to music from superstar African-born musicians

Every Saturday night in Austin, Texas, a groove settles into place on Webberville Road. A master musician takes the stage, hailing from Niger, Guinea, Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire — and one by one, the modest dance floor fills. A sea of arms, hips and smiles starts to swell, as guests drop their inhibitions, gyrate to funk-filled music, and give way to the kind of sonic pleasure we’ve been desperately craving, lo these many Covid years.

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome to Africa Night at Sahara Lounge.

“Africa Night isn’t our invention, but we wanted to have one at Sahara Lounge right from the start,” says Eileen Bristol, owner of Sahara Lounge since 2011. She and then-husband, Ibrahim Aminou, and Eileen’s son Topaz McGarrigle (front man for Golden Dawn Arkestra) created Sahara in the immediate wake of TC’s, a decades-old blues institution on 1413 Webberville Road. When TC’s owner Thomas Perkins was ready to move on, Eileen and her family offered to buy the property — a low-ceiling, billiards-abundant affair, complete with twinkle lights and dirt parking lot.

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“It was a little bit crazy,” says Eileen, who plays electric bass for Ibrahim’s band, Zoumountchi — one of the many afrobeat bands you can see every Saturday. Born in Houston, she moved to Austin in 1969, and helped found Austin Waldorf School in 1980. But it wasn’t until a journey north to Ann Arbor, Michigan, that she met Ibrahim — who had a dream, the sleeping kind, that they were going to move to Austin and open a restaurant club.

When they heard TC’s was for sale, that dream became a reality.

Now before we go any further, reader, there are two things you should know about Africa Night: global superstars play there, superstars whose names you may or may not know, given Austin’s overwhelmingly rock/country ecosystem. But the second thing you should know is this: there’s always food, and it’s always free.

“Ibrahim grew up in Africa, but worked in France and Switzerland, so he was used to Africa Nights there, and they always had food. So did TC’s, so there was that connection,” says Eileen. “One time, Ibrahim and I went to visit Topaz while he was in New York City, and all went down to an Africa Night on St. Nicholas. And it was so wonderful; different people would come and sit in, and there was the free food … so when we talked about opening Sahara Lounge, we knew we’d have an Africa Night, and we grabbed Saturday night for it. The best slot.”

Let’s talk then about who you can expect to see at Sahara, any given Saturday.

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Zoumountchi is Ibrahim’s outfit, full of ’70s-style funk and a prominent horn section. (That’s another thing you can expect every Saturday — horn sections.) There’s Aboubacar (“Abou”) Sylla, who grew up in Guinea, West Africa, where he learned balafon, djembe, krin, doundoun and bote — all the percussion tools he’d use for master musicianship, and just a sample of the instruments he hauls out on-stage. If you want a field test for vision, look no further than Abou, whose hands fly across his accouterments faster than your eyes can reasonably register. A Master Folk Artist for Texas Folklife’s Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, he travels the world performing — but you can see him for $10 each weekend.

Next, we’ve got Gidi Agbeko, who learned to play the music of his Ghanaian village before he was old enough for school. By 14, he was playing in Ghana’s capital city (Accra); by early adulthood, he was touring Africa and Europe. He’s now at Sahara several Saturdays, singing, playing flute and high-energy percussion, pausing intermittently to leap into the audience. Jean-Claude Lessou fronts System Positif, an afro-rock reggae band with chillaxed vibes and soulful energy, emanating from his Cote d’Ivoire roots. When she’s in town, Guinea’s Aicha Wambaya — “an absolutely incredible singer and performer,” says Eileen — plays Sahara, as does her husband Alseny Sylla, co-founder of Lannaya: a nonprofit that preserves African Diaspora Arts through performances and hands-on workshops.

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It all adds up to the kind of musical atmosphere that, in theory, Austin is famous for: vivacious talent packed into an unassuming bar, Sharpie messages scrawled on bathroom doors, cheap beer in people’s hands. It’s just that Austin isn’t famous for African music, and for all our town’s best-kept “secrets,” Africa Night really does feel like one. The building of Sahara Lounge has housed different venues for over 50 years, and being inside, you feel it — the floorboards creaking under your feet, the rugs on the stage, the backyard that feels like a house party. But the secret’s getting out: last year, Sahara Lounge was voted Best Dive Bar by Austin Chronicle readers. It survived Covid, buoyed by government grants and passionate lounge-goers, desperate to keep it alive. Desperate to keep Africa Night alive.

“And we’re still here,” says Eileen. “As long as we’re standing, so will Africa Night.”