OTO: the new sound of Dalston

Keiko Yamamoto and Hamish Dunbar outside their cafe, Oto

Keiko Yamamoto and Hamish Dunbar outside their cafe, Oto

Hamish Dunbar, co-owner of the new arts café with his Japanese partner Keiko Yamamoto, looks out of the window with only a passing interest; this plainly isn’t the weirdest thing he’s seen this month.

As they explain, Café Oto (oto meaning noise/sound/music in Japanese) opened its doors in April 2008 to “present the most innovative artists working today with a particular focus on new music.

“Our aim is to support and foster a vibrant creative community rooted in our local surroundings, whilst embracing the best new music and art from the UK and abroad.” This embracing happens nearly every night of the week.

On today’s overcast, late-June morning, there is a steady stream of customers in the café, which serves organic and Fairtrade hot drinks, cake and beer by day in a cool, airy warehouse. Adorned with old Jazz LP covers around the bar, the café has avant garde woven into its seams.

“In a funny way, Dalston has a lot of energy to it”, says Hamish with an embarrassed laugh. “I think, in a way, we can create something that has a particular identity, rooted to the area, but at the same time present something global.
“For instance, we’re doing these international residencies at the moment, where we bring people in from abroad to play a series of dates.

“By doing things like that, we want to create something that feels genuinely unique to here, that isn’t happening in other places. We want to be quite international in scope, and develop that aspect of music planning for the bar, hunting down these musicians who are really interesting and passionate about their art.”

The huge range of performers in July include Japanese singer Atsuko Kamura, who began her career by juggling roles as a karaoke bar hostess and punk chanteuse in Tokyo, performing with the agit-fem Polkadot Fire Brigade, and The Honeymoons.

She has also worked with saxophonist John Butcher, who leads an almost scientific survey of the sonic possibilities of the saxophone, and the entertaining London Improvisers Orchestra, an ensemble that includes up to forty classical musicians. In effect, they make up music on the hoof, based on what their colleagues are, well, making up on the hoof.

Clearly, the music agenda here is designed for a heavenly, if head scratching, marriage of mental gymnastics and heartfelt emotion.

“We have a lot of artists who, as well as being musicians, bring with them their arts exhibition, or films that they are in which we screen. We’re trying to build some kind of coherence to our programme, be it through music, art, spoken word performance, public meetings, talks and lectures.”

But the point of this unique venue, above everything, is accessible exposure to the new, creative and interesting.

“We want to create an independent scene here, and a committed crowd that regularly come to see the artists that they won’t necessarily have heard of, because we have a reputation for putting on interesting and unusual stuff that people will take a chance on.”
So, as the man says, take a chance. Keep a beady eye on the website for listings, and maybe take a chance on, say, Trembling Bells, the ‘delirious folk’ troupe that blends the ‘skyscraping fancy of Alex Neilson’s frantic free drumming’ and Lavinia Blackwall’s ‘Patty Waters-inspired classical caterwauling, heels firmly dug into the British folk tradition’.


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