In a just world, the Arts Club Theatre in full CHIBUKU swing – DJ and audience bouncing in beautiful unison – will take its place alongside the Cavern in Liverpool’s musical lore. Our city might be globally synonymous with jangly guitar music, but its lesser-known status as a hub for dance music has been, and remains, firm. Chibuku, along with Cream and Circus, are examples of Liverpool clubs done good, and which have set the stage for the emergence of newer clubs like Abandon Silence, Waxxx, mUmU, Motion and Freeze.
Fifteen years since its inception, CHIBUKU is ready to embrace this well-earned status in the only way it knows how: with a massive 14-hour party. What’s more, in a fast-moving, often fickle industry, the club night has achieved – if not the impossible – then at least the very difficult: not only is it still going strong, but it is also still cool. Says veteran DJ Annie Mac, who will be headlining the 15th anniversary celebrations on 14th March: “I’ve had some of my best nights out ever in the Theatre at Chibuku, both on the dance floor and on the stage. I’ve been attending the club night for over ten years and it’s still as exciting and atmospheric as ever.” Similarly, DnB don Andy C told us that he can’t wait to get stuck in to the anniversary show. “Chibuku throw some of the best parties around, and the energy from the crowd is guaranteed to be on fire. I always look forward to playing there.”
From its humble beginnings right up to the present day, the line-ups have remained on-trend without being trend-led, and have covered an incredibly wide remit within the dance genre, limited only by the criterion of being good. This is the kind of uncompromising passion for music that you can’t fake, and the kind that earns true affection and loyalty. Affection and loyalty from some pretty high places. Head Promoter Sean Stephenson has been working on Chibuku for longer than he cares to remember, and believes part of its longevity has been down to its forward-moving ethos. “Being able to anticipate what is going to be musically successful has been key to Chibuku over the years. Sometimes an artist takes off and sometimes they don’t, but we’ve broken many a DJ over the years and we’ve always been able to be ahead of the musical curve.”
It probably has something to do with the fact that, although the club has spread its wings, it has still stayed close to its roots – as Sean says, Liverpool will always be the club’s “spiritual home”. But it’s also that the club has stayed true to the reasons the founding friends of Chibuku got together fifteen years ago: to hold the kind of party they would want to go to, free of the “Lycra and kebabs” of mainstream clubbing at the time. As Sean says: “If you want to go to an event which has lasers, ice cannons and enormous production, then you’ll inevitably be drawn to that type of event. If you want to go to an event which focuses a little bit more on the music and is less about the bells and whistles, then you’ll go to that event instead.”
The organic growth of the club is well known: graduating from a too-full room above a pub, to the intimate Lemon Lounge on Berry Street, through to its most famous home – what is now the Arts Club, formerly known as the Masque and the Barfly. It’s at this venue that none other than the much-missed John Peel played a now-legendary show for Chibuku’s 4th birthday celebrations, which he went on to describe as “just one of the best nights ever”.
The magical combination of Chibuku and the Arts Club is one that clubbers and DJs alike have waxed lyrical about, but what is it that makes it so special? “Probably because the Theatre has to be one of the most intimidating main rooms in the UK,” explains Sean. “Looking out to a one thousand-strong swell of people going mad at 2am in that room with that special Liverpool vibe has got to be pretty scary. Only a handful of DJs can successfully handle that room, but those that do reap the rewards!”
Fifteen years in and the club is gearing up to celebrate the milestone in style, but in no way is it winding down. In fact, Chibuku is looking towards the future with the injection of new blood, with Sean recently instated as partner and head promoter. Although Sean is relatively new to the role, he is in no way new to the Chibuku family, having started out by flyering and postering for the club, before gradually working his way up through the ranks. “My first ever Chibuku was in late 2003 when I moved to Liverpool for university,” he remembers, the memories seared in to his consciousness. “I walked into the Theatre at the old Barfly and was greeted by UNKLE playing In A State and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Under Sean’s direction the club will continue to do what it does best – show people a good time while confounding their expectations. The club has already featured on such renowned stages as Global Gathering, Parklife, Hideout Festival and Fabric, as well as more unusual locations on boats, trains and in barns in remote woodland. Sean says, “We want to spread our approach to parties as far and wide as possible over the coming years”. Chibuku will be hosting a stage at Parklife Festival in Manchester for the third time this year, and Sean says to look out for similar collaborations in the future.
Chibuku will also continue their legacy of throwing a hell of a birthday party, with the three-part fifteen-year celebration scheduled to be their biggest yet. It will start with the main event at Camp and Furnace featuring three stages of typically Chibuku-eclectic programming headlined by Annie Mac (Furnace stage), Four Tet (Camp stage, with Abandon Silence) and Benji B (Blade Factory stage). At 10pm the festivities will move over to the Arts Club (where else), for a famous Chibuku after party. Those who are still standing can head to the after-after party at the Magnet from 4am. Though he won’t divulge the Arts Club line-up – “too big to be announced” – Sean promises big things. “You know we mean business when it’s got a nine-hour warehouse rave warm up.”
When asked to sum up the club in a sentence, Sean pauses to consider his response. When he finally comes back with “expect a minor riot”, you know you’ve got no choice but to believe him.