A spark after dark Ever-diversifying city reflected in its night-life options for fun, food and fellowship
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It’s 11:30 p.m. Saturday night and most people are tucked up in bed. But in corners of the city, a number of souls brave the frigid weather to seek out spaces hidden below icy pavement and behind closed doors, to gather with night owls like themselves.
In St. Vital, with 90 minutes to go until closing time, the line to get down to the basement area of Limelight Karaoke Bar on St. Mary’s Road continues to grow.
On stage, at one end of the room, a man sings Blink-182’s All the Small Things, his eyes trained on the screen where the lyrics unfurl. The crowd below screams out the chorus — Say it ain’t so, I will not go; Turn the lights off, Carry me home — necks craned and eyes trained on him.
For nearly three minutes he channels lead singer Tom DeLonge and has the crowd eating out of his hand before he leaps off the stage, slipping back into obscurity as his turn on the mic comes to an end.
The crowd is young and full of electric energy, supportive of every singer, be they good or bad. Loud cheers erupt when the opening bars of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ come on the speakers even though most here would have barely been a spark in their parents’ eyes when the power ballad was released 41 years ago.
Friends Emily and Kayla grab the mics and sing their hearts out, and the power of the song brings the whole room together for one glorious pink-tinged moment.
You could almost be at a live gig.
In a city where winter can sometimes last five months, going out at night becomes symbolic of something bigger. For those unused to — or who choose not to — take part in traditional outdoor pursuits, the cold months can prove isolating. Going out at night is a chance to gather with like-minded souls, carving spaces for themselves where they can feel at home.
A mixed crowd of revellers, who on the surface seem to have disparate interests — whether that’s dancing to bhangra music, belting out pop-rock tunes on a pink-lit stage or even just playing cards with friends in a brightly lit cafe in the pre-dawn hours — each one is in search of the same thing: to be part of something bigger than themselves, to belong to a community.
It’s a rich tapestry, more often than not influenced by the city’s growing diversity, and is shaping the way Winnipeg, and its nightlife, evolve.
Head eight minutes down the road to Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain on Provencher Boulevard and an entirely different scene awaits.
Jamaican comedian White Yardie, on the first stop of his Canadian tour, has just finished his set and now it’s time for the after-party with dancehall DJs Black Reaction Sound.
The air is tinged with spice; at the back of the room trays of rice, curry chicken and oxtail sit steaming beside plates of Jamaican patties. The former has come from Miss Christine’s Kitchen, a Jamaican street-food restaurant; the latter has been supplied by Pretty Baked 431, a local company specializing in Caribbean baked goods.
On this occasion the food carries equal weight to the entertainment.
Shawn Thomas and Emerson Brewster of RnR Events have been organizing outings like this for 10 years. The duo, who have known each other since youth, say they want to highlight West Indian culture in the city.
“There’s not much stuff going on for the Caribbean community here,” Thomas says. “We try to do different types of events for people. We have live musical performances, patio parties and even brunches, which we used to do before the pandemic threw a wrench in it.
“One of the things we have been talking about bringing back is the daytime Rhythm n Brunch series. It’s on our list for this year.”
RnR’s parties have a strong following, Brewster says. Case in point, that night’s event attracted about 250 people.
“A lot of people have never missed an event, and we always see new faces as well. Our stuff is aimed at a crowd that’s a little bit more mature, and the average age of attendees is 30-plus. People feel like there’s not much going on for them, so they want to come out.”
On stage, DJ Super K and Mista Blackz, the duo who make up Black Reaction Sound, are hard at it, the latter fizzing with energy as he encourages the audience to get to their feet.
Kerry Ann Thompson heeds the call and pulls a chair towards her to dance, eyes closed and in a world of her own. Her braids swinging gently as she lowers herself fully to the floor in a split, a triumphant grin on her face before she moves fluidly back up again.
On the other side of the city, in the parking lot of Obsidian Ultra Lounge on Pembina Highway, a group of young people tumbles out of their vehicles as the snow continues to fall heavily.
Bundled up in thick coats, neck warmers pulled all the way to their eyes, the heavy clothes cause them to waddle gracelessly towards the double doors that lead down into the basement club.
Inside, and shed of their layers, partygoers dance to a frenetic beat, the sticky nightclub floor a heaving human wave that unfurls as each new tune brings about a fresh new dance.
Strobe lights slice the darkness, illuminating clusters of revellers twirling around in circles, arms aloft, feet off the floor as they leap in a folk dance originating in Punjab, India.
Welcome to Winnipeg Desi Entertainment’s (WDE) Bhangra Night, the brainchild of brothers Amit and Mohit Saini, who spotted a lack of nighttime activities for “people like ourselves,” Amit says.
Taking matters into their own hands, they launched WDE in October 2021 with a Halloween event, capping it at 150 people due to pandemic restrictions at the time.
Word of mouth coupled with social media posts have seen their parties snowball, causing them to sometimes hold bi-monthly nights in order to satisfy the social needs of their fans.
“I enjoy these nights but it’s very stressful for me,” Amit says, laughing. “We have a responsibility now to the community as people are looking forward to the next one and messaging me to find out the dates.”
The majority of attendees are new immigrants from India, ranging in ages from 18 to 30, although there have been some more mature partygoers, Amit says.
“It’s a mix of people, some of them are students at the (University of Manitoba) and some are on work permits. We have had older people come — once there was mother who came with a whole group of girls, and we do see dads and uncles come in with their younger male relatives.”
Tonight, the nearly 300-strong crowd whoop and cheer as dholi Rana hits his dhol — a double-headed drum. His beat thumps in rhythm to the latest Punjabi hits and bhangra tunes being played by DJ William.
Two girls dressed in traditional salwar kameez twirl each other round and round in ever-decreasing circles, coming to a stumbling stop as the song shifts gear. Anticipating the change, the soles of their feet stamp out a swifter rhythm before they swing off again in one fluid movement.
For Amit, who moved to Canada in September 2015 to study at the U of M, these nights are as much for him as they are for his guests.
“If you aren’t into outdoor pursuits then sometimes in Winnipeg there is nothing to do in the winter and it can be a bit boring. I started these events because I love dancing and it gives me, and other people who love dancing, the opportunity to meet and interact with others in their community,” Amit says.
All around is a flurry of activity — a band of friends gyrate as one, egging each other on to dance faster. Across the way, another group of all men, their arms across each other’s shoulders, hold on for dear life kicking and leaping as the dance threatens to topple them.
It’s an exuberant release of emotion, each face plastered with a similar grin, the shackles of the day shaken off, troubles forgotten for a while as they surrender to the hypnotic beat of the dhol.
There is a release here, a transcendental moment that unites these strangers who come together to remember and reconnect.
“I miss home. I miss India. I miss the food. I miss my family there — my mum, dad, grandma, friends. But I’ve been here seven years now and when I go there, after a while I start missing Winnipeg more.
“Sometimes I think I am too western for India and too Indian for the West,” Amit says, grinning.
It’s past midnight and Gohe restaurant’s kitchen has closed but owner Mekete Zewde keeps the premises open for fellow Ethiopians in search of fellowship.
The small eatery on Notre Dame seems an unlikely venue for a nightclub but that is exactly what it transforms into once the kitchen staff turn off the stoves and wipe down the counters.
A corner of the bar becomes a DJ nook, where DJ Esu drags on a hookah as he smokes shisha, which is a mixture of tobacco and flavourings, pressing the buttons on his console. He’s here every Saturday, playing a rotation of popular Ethiopian songs from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.
“It’s usually busier,” Zewde says, “but tonight is very cold.”
As he talks the doorbell jangles and two ladies clatter in, coats wrapped tight around their bodies. They’ve come in search of food but as the kitchen is shut, Zewde offers them an after-hours snack menu. They settle themselves in a corner, taking selfies and chatting loudly.
Regulars Delina and Sam stroll in at 12:50 a.m., and Zewde greets them like old friends. They find a quiet table and chat together, they come often to eat and to smoke hookah, and sometimes to dance, they giggle.
There’s not much dancing happening tonight, it seems. The cold weather may have kept people away, but Zewde will continue to keep his doors open just in case anyone in search of familiarity decides to stroll in.
The former public prosecutor moved to Canada from Ethiopia more than 10 years ago and has always considered the restaurant a home away from home, even before he took over the business from his friend.
Now his staff treat the place like their home too, choosing to stay behind after they’ve clocked off.
“My staff work hard and after that they want to eat and have a beer here, watch sports and socialize. It’s a tiresome job, running a restaurant, but my customers and community members bring the benefits of it,” Zewde says.
As the clock approaches 2 a.m., the fluorescent bright lights of Zaytoon on Osborne Street draws in diners in search of post-midnight sustenance.
Kitchens may be closed elsewhere in the city but in this Middle Eastern restaurant the stove remains fired for orders of lamb ribs, beef skewers and grilled chicken, among other things.
In the kitchen, Mohammed Watan, who shares ownership of the place with Bassma Zahran and Huthaifa Alomari, is busy marinating pieces of chicken for tomorrow’s shawarma, before he painstakingly layers them on top of the giant metal skewer that will go into the vertical rotisserie grill.
Zahran, Alomari and Watan are all first-generation immigrants from the Middle East who came together to start their restaurant in August 2021.
It’s important to Zahran that her guests feel at home in the restaurant, she says.
The establishment attracts a mixed crowd. Often the tables are filled with people playing card games as they sip from tall glasses of a vivid green juice, heady with mint and tart with lemon.
The chatter, while raucous, is noticeably sober; Zaytoon is an alcohol-free establishment.
As platters of grilled meats come piping hot from the kitchen, tables are cleared of cards, everyone’s minds no longer on playing as they tuck in.
A group of four who wander in with 45 minutes to closing time are quickly served rice, shawarma wraps and chips; the students are regulars here and often come for late-night snacking as there aren’t many halal places open at this time of night.
While diners polish up the last of their meals, Watan is still in the kitchen, making sure everything is prepped for when they open at noon the next day.
It’s closing time and the snow has finally stopped outside. Across the road, inebriated revellers from a nearby club wait impatiently for their taxis, whooping and cheering loudly every time a car approaches.
Another group stumbles its way towards Zaytoon, but the doors are locked, and the shutters are already down.
It’s time to go home.
AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.
Updated on Friday, January 13, 2023 8:58 PM CST: Corrects location of Limelight