Clubs in the Portuguese capital are bursting with African influences, attracting a diverse crowd to unusual, mainly outdoor venues. Local DJs and musicians give us the lowdown
See this square? A few years ago this was like The Wire.” It’s Friday evening and I’m walking through Intendente, an area north of Lisbon’s city centre that’s the latest part of town to experience a transformation from red-light district to nightlife hub.
“There are still lots of empty buildings,” says Pedro Coquenão – better known as the DJ and producer behind Batida – gesturing to a derelict, albeit grand, terrace. “Space for someone to build the next big club.”
Beautiful decay seems to characterise the aesthetic of most of Lisbon’s nightlife quarters. But despite the faded facades and vacant lots that scatter the Portuguese capital, the music emerging from between the cracks is sharp and modern, fusing contemporary African and European influences with a playful fluency unique to the city. To get an insider’s lowdown on the city’s nightlife, I spent a weekend with some of Lisbon’s most creative and influential electronic artists, checking out the hottest bars and clubs.
For Coquenão, Intendente, with its combination of “trashy places and new designer spots” is “one of the most mixed areas in Lisbon”. We meet for drinks at Casa Independente, a bar and venue that opened two years ago in an old mansion overlooking the area’s recently renovated square. Standing in its leafy courtyard, surrounded by cracked walls, I sip a beer out of a plastic cup as Coquenão – who is of mixed Angolan/Portuguese descent – unravels the tangled history of the city’s music scene.
Over the past decade the sounds coming from the city have shifted from kuduro to Afro-house, which, I’m told, is about to explode. “Lisbon’s relationship with Africa is like London’s with Jamaica,” he says. “It’s where music from those places gets translated for a European audience.”
The frontier spirit of the music being produced in Lisbon is reflected in the city’s attitude towards making music venues from unlikely spaces. Its newest club and arts space, for example, is Village Underground Lisboa (a spin-off from the Shoreditch version). In a tram depot in the west of the city, it’s a dystopian, Tetris-like construction built out of abandoned shipping containers.
Before long we’re joined by Branko and Kalaf, two members of one of the city’s best-known groups, the genre-bending Buraka Som Sistema. Originally an underground dance act, Buraka are now known for their inclusive, upbeat interpretation of kuduro (high-speed Angolan dance music), hip-hop and techno. Basically, they bring the noise. As we leave Casa Independente, I ask Branko to sum up the vibe of a Lisbon night out. “Everyone just wants to hang out outside,” he says. “For me, exploring Lisbon is just about walking from place to place and going with the flow.”
The pair suggest we drop by Cais do Sodré, an area also once dominated by strip bars before getting something of an official makeover three years ago. This included painting Rua Nova do Carvalho bright pink. “Pink Street” as it’s now known, is also home to one of Lisbon’s most important clubs for underground music, Music Box, a “rough and intense” venue that hosts loud, sweaty parties.
We hit Cais do Sodré’s main strip around 2am and elbow through the crowd (it’s already jammed) to a taverna-inspired music and arts venue called Povo, “one of the coolest bars on the street,” according to my guides. “Afro-house,” says Coquenão, smiling, pointing at the speakers.
In characteristic Lisbon style, we take our beers and saunter off to another, contrasting, venue that has helped bolster Cais do Sodré’s revival: B.Leza. The legendary, long-running African club relocated to a warehouse by the riverside here in 2012 after years of closure. “It’s a classic Lisbon joint,” says Kalaf as we wander down to the dark industrial strip, behind the railway lines to check it out. “Like Ronnie Scott’s but with more dancing.”
Inside, around 30 young couples are swaying cheek to cheek to the sentimental rhythms of kizomba, romantic Angolan pop music that’s also seeing a renaissance in Lisbon. Even our taxi driver is a massive fan, eagerly suggesting we check out ladies’ night at another club on the river.
But instead, we head to another Lisbon institution, Lux. Branko checks the time: “Yes, 4am – about the time people from Lisbon get to a club.” The three-storey superclub manages to retain the outdoor vibe Lisbonites crave, boasting a huge roof terrace with views over the Tagus. The interior – which is regularly changed – is decked out with big-screen visuals, giant hanging globes and huge armchairs for clubbers to slump (or sleep) in. In the basement room, techno throbs from the sound system and strip lighting, hanging chaotically from the ceiling, flashes in synchronised patterns.
Also situated in a former warehouse, the club (part-owned by actor John Malkovich) has an exclusive side to it – expect to queue. Inside, it’s still busy at 7am when I head home, completely outdone by white-haired 65-year-old film director João Botelho – a regular Lisbon nightlife character – who we spot frantically grooving in the fray.
On my final (fuzzy-headed) evening in the city, I catch up with another important character behind Lisbon’s electronic music scene; Pedro Gomes of Príncipe Records. The label, as Gomes puts it: “transports music from the ghettoes into worldwide channels, without distorting it”, and has a monthly residency at Music Box, where its flagship artists, such as DJ Marfox and DJ Nigga Fox, spin their addictively unpolished African influenced electronic music. Despite the cutting-edge scene he is involved with, Gomes, dressed in loose-fitting vintage clothing and shades, wants to show me round some of his favourite “old Lisbon” spots; his resistance to the city’s more gentrified addresses draws on the same radical spirit fuelling the music he helps produce and promote.
We meet at long-running local restaurant O Fernando on the edge of Alfama before walking across town to Baliza, a tiny “archetypal Lisbon” bar just below Barrio Alto, for one of “the best whisky sours in the city”. Opposite is another good place to drink, Bicaense, which has helped turn Rua da Bica de Duarte into a busy but sophisticated late-night drinking strip. “Barrio Alto is losing its bohemian edge,” says Gomes, telling me how it’s not unheard-of for residents to tip buckets of water out of their windows onto the stag parties below. But one of the core cultural hubs of the area is still going strong: Galeria Zé dos Bois is a non-profit cultural centre which hosts regular concerts and events, and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. “Few European cities have a place like it,” says Gomes.
Finishing our cocktails we wander up to an even more discreet – almost invisible – bar and restaurant: Snob. Hidden behind a closed door – you have to buzz for entry – the bar is run by two elderly Lisbonites in pressed shirts and braces. The interior is wood-panelled, lined with glass cabinets stocked with bottles of spirits and books written by some of the historic bar’s regulars. A map of Africa hangs on the wall behind the door. “It’s a gorgeous 1970s hangout,” says Gomes, ordering a whisky, “mostly inhabited by old-school journalists and politicians. The manager has seen 40 years of intellectual activity, adultery and classy alcoholism.”
Out in the warm air, I walk back through streets still churning with different types of people on different types of nights out. The outdoor drinking culture reinforces the idea that this is a city where people can mix freely. It’s something you rarely experience in a capital, but fits neatly with the collaborative, outward-looking nature of Lisbon’s music scene. As Coquenão puts it on my first night: “The street is this democratic space for everyone. And this is something I find very cool.”