Cafe OTO, Home of Experimental music
Maintaining strong Japanese connections, East London’s beloved venue hosts an international community of adventurous artists.
Keiji Haino at Cafe OTO. Photo: Dawid Laskowski
Located in Dalston in East London, Cafe OTO’s modest space has a double character. A quiet cafe in the daytime, it electrifies curious visitors in the night with its extraordinary program of experimental sounds and arts.
At the core of the dedicated community running it, its founders Hamish Dunbar and Keiko Yamamoto have welcomed the world’s most revered eccentrics in the fringes of music, regardless to whatever their departing genres and geolocation. Aside from many Japanese underground heroes —Keiji Haino, Otomo Yoshihide or Yoko Ono— Cafe OTO has presented musical legends from the likes of Sun Ra Arkestra or Anthony Braxton, to Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt or Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, hosting a truly international sound.
With The Guardian, former Sonic Youth singer Thurston Moore had asserted, ‘Cafe Oto has become a crown jewel. It’s by far the most critical listening room in London. It’s a clubhouse for many of us.’
Mothership on the Margins
In its humble space accommodating 150 people nightly, Cafe OTO (oto meaning ‘sound’ in Japanese) is known for its open-mindedness and easy-going attitude and as a pocket of inspiration in the heart of East London. Since founded in an abandoned paint factory in 2008, the spontaneous improvisations and experiments taking place have involved instruments both exotic and bizarre.
Here, invited musicians indulge wholeheartedly in more casual performances. Cafe OTO’s in-house label OTOROKU documents the venue’s trajectory, releasing recorded live performances and re-issuing its musicians crucial release. During lockdown in May 2020, the venue also launched the new digital label Takuroku to feature additional exclusive material and help support its community during a difficult period.
Even serving sake and plum wine at the bar, the venue is of course noted for its alliance with Japanese culture, pursuing all avenues of creativity which trickle out of its phenomena. But as if to exemplify the committedness of its Western audience, or even to mirror the radical diversity of influences heard in each niche, Cafe OTO’s limitless quest unites music from any corner of the world with extraordinary flexibility. Whatever sounds contained, an essence of curiosity underpins the space.
Cafe OTO is open as a cafe and shop between 10am–5pm from Wednesday–Sunday each week. Its program of evening performances can be viewed on their official website.
Address: 22, 18-22 Ashwin St, London E8 3DL
Hatsune Kaidan at Cafe OTO. Photo: Dawid Laskowski
Cafe OTO Interior. Photo: Dawid Laskowski
Photo: Dawid Laskowski
Cafe OTO Exterior. Photo: Dawid Laskowski
Staraya Derevnya at Cafe OTO. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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