East Side Venue Unique In Its Vision
Words by James Krogh Photo by Tamir Kalifa
For the uninitiated, Sahara Lounge–its ambiance a cross between a psychedelic estate sale and a hostel operated by Sun Ra–embodies Austin eclecticism in decor as well as musical programming.
Entranced at the entrance, you may mistakenly think you’ve stumbled decades backward in time within this charmingly shanty venue tucked off Webberville, previous home to T.C.’s Blues Lounge, a bustling juke joint from 1978 to 2011.
A nominal door charge allows visitors unlimited access to the crockpot of tastily seasoned bean stew, situated on the table against the back wall.
To wash down the buffet offerings – a practice held over from the T.C.’s era, most nights worth the price of admission alone – the bar boasts an array of beverages, including Akpateshi, tantalizing rum infused by African spices and herbs.
The walls inside contain a smörgåsbord of cultural treasure and detritus: a glass case of teeth, African maps, a broken trophy, an all-Black rendition of The Last Supper, a bejeweled owl lamp, a lengthy swath of bamboo fence, beaucoups of disco balls…
On Mondays, the place is literally jumping with “lindy hoppers.” Exquisite, old-timey swing, courtesy The Jonathan Doyle Swingtet’s weekly residency, draws oodles of dancers who deftly execute the Charleston and Balboa shuffle as the elastic dance floor cambers beneath them.
Richard Martinez routinely cuts the rug here. Sipping a Mexican Coke, he credits Sahara’s “rawness” and capacity “to nurture a variety of local scenes, from Jazz to Blues to African music.”
A staple of Sahara’s sonic showcase is Africa Night, every Saturday, featuring stirring house band, Zoumountchi, of which lounge co-owner Eileen Bristol is a founding member.
Bristol’s son is fellow co-owner, Topaz McGarrigle of Golden Dawn Arkestra fame. He says their venue, principally staffed by residents of the neighborhood, aims to appeal to a broad base. “We take pride in bringing a diversity of quality music. Sahara is a place of culture; it’s a place for the community.” McGarrigle, an ATX native who grew up a disciple of jazz, helms a pluricultural vision that would fly in the face of countless Austinites during the Jazz Age.
In fact, jazz has been a thriving part of this music capitol’s scene for over a century. In August 1917, The Austin Statesman explained the advent of jazz to their readership: “Born of the jungle, it has reached American cafes and roof gardens as a result of … sailor-merchants who in the days of our grandfathers exchanged trinkets made in New England for the captives of African warriors.”
By 1924, a huge Ku Klux Klan benefit concert in Austin featured the Rodger & Harris Cowboy Band performing “Original Jazz.”
The next year, the Klan threatened to tar and feather Alphonso Trent‘s orchestra, a popular jazz outfit comprised of Black musicians that repeatedly played at UT.
Then, in 1928, the City Plan explicitly resolved to relocate and segregate Black Austinites in the undesirable east side, dubbed “the Negro District.”
Today, Sahara Lounge, a dusty jewel of east Austin, represents a unique coming together of distinct cultures, unified by music, against a striking historical backdrop of racial separateness and exclusion.
Native Knowledge: Free parking—ample if haphazard—in the adjacent lot
Stellar back patio with fire pit and monstrous vintage motel sign
1413 Webberville Rd.