From Attic to Stage – The Roller Coaster World of Cabarave

When I went round to chat with twins Nina and Esme Sarfas, two thirds of the core Cabarave team, it was like reentering the club night they had put on at the Volks the previous Friday to celebrate the fifth birthday of their booming carnivalesque enterprise. Their flat acts as the Cabarave headquarters, with the props and scenery from their events spilling their joyful kaleidoscopic aesthetic throughout. I sat in their turret-like attic room with its panoramic views over Brighton, a vintage rocking horse beside me, and it felt like a temporary dimension, conjured up by them, to be kept in stasis until the next event. 

The last time I saw Nina and Esme, their party was in full swing. They were both dressed exquisitely as ambassadors of the night’s theme, Fool’s Gold, falling as it did on April 1st. I had managed to catch a quick chat with them before they were whisked off in the flow of the crowd to attend to the constant tasks running such an event demands. It was a glimpse into the whirlwind of responsibility it must be to put on a night like this. 

“Usually, one of us is stressing and the other two are propping them up. And then we swap that role. We swap who’s the stressed out one,” Nina later tells me. They must be ready at any moment between 11pm and 7am to liaise with performers or fix part of the set. A bum bag filled with a staple gun, cable ties and sellotape is a necessary accessory.

Ordinarily a stark, no-nonsense drum and bass bunker, they managed to transform the Volks into an opulent warren of festivity, decorated with gold tinsel fringes, satin drapes, bunting and happy birthday banners, all illuminated in a riot of coloured light. Like all great parties, everywhere you went there was something happening. 

The newly beefed-up downstairs soundsystem was helmed by the Skallywag Party crew, turning an area which can feel slightly sparse into an exuberant sweatbox. The outside area featured a van selling the shiny new Cabarave merchandise and refreshments like crumpets and tea for those in need of some mid-party fuel. Whilst, in the corner, Nina and Esme’s mother, Ruya, could be found giving tarot readings. She’s a regular at her daughters’ events with her readings often sparking revelations and return visits.

Alongside the managing and booking roles they share with Jerome Prud’homme – the other leg of the Cabarave “tripod” – Esme plays host, announcing the DJs and performers; while Nina takes photos throughout the night and DJs as DJ Can’t Say No. The team extends to a host of walkabout performers who help create an immersive atmosphere by handing out party hats, painting faces and interacting with the early revellers, as well as setting examples for the night’s theme with their high-concept costumes, burlesque and drag routines. This collection of friends, performers and family all combine to create the feel of an off-season festival or circus troupe, bringing contagious new life to an unexpecting environment.

I learn it had been a marathon 24-hour shift for the team, starting at midday with them taking all the props and equipment down to the Volks. Then, they were setting up the decor, doing sound techs and rehearsals, and getting themselves ready until 11pm when the doors opened. “We’re there all day and then the night starts and we’re already exhausted,” Esme says, “We’re already in this hyper-focused mode, and then all of our people start coming and you just go through waves of emotion.” 

I’ve often wondered how club promoters do it – having to be there until the sun comes back up, dealing with people who are in various states of exuberance and disarray, and any of the fallout that results from such an unpredictable environment. Chatting to Esme and Nina, it’s clear they have the energy, drive and creativity to power them through those shifts. When I went round to visit, they talked non-stop for about an hour, with the unity of twin sisters with a very clearly shared vision, finishing each other’s sentences and keen to share the Cabarave story. 

They grew up in Brighton as “festival kids”, going to as many as they could as teenagers, and they wanted to recreate the community and escapism, as well as the eclectic range of music of the festival experience. Esme says this is something they felt was needed: “I think so many people in this country long for the summer and they’re waiting for festivals when they can feel that kind of freedom and sense of empowerment to express the side of themselves that they feel is trapped throughout winter… The ethos of it was very much that it was just going to be a silly festival night where people could get dressed up, and I really thought that Brighton was missing that.”

As well as the themes that ignite people’s creative sides with the costumes and fancy dress, the Cabarave team aim to create eclectic line-ups, always including a live element – whether it’s an MC or the full-on brass power of a group like Dutty Moonshine Big Band – whilst catering for the ravers and the long haul drum and bass crowd with a selection of DJs.

Cabarave was conceived in 2017. Jerome, who grew up in Belgium, lived in Egypt, India and Australia before settling in Brighton, where he found himself in an events management role at the Volks. He needed to fill a monthly Wednesday slot and Esme suggested the idea of her and her friends doing some immersive walkabout and calling themselves “cabaravers”, which led to the night’s eventual name and its wider synthesis of cabaret and rave culture. 

Nina got involved doing photography and helping out with the decor. She had been working in events management for some time at that point and was resistant at first, and though neither of them originally intended to run events, they soon developed a sense of ownership over it.

As Cabarave developed and grew in popularity, they looked to expand to new venues, aiming to create unique experiences in places where you wouldn’t normally find a club night. For New Years’ Eve 2019 they filled Stanmer House, the Grade I listed mansion in Stanmer Park, with jugglers, mimes, pole dancers and a crowd of decadently dressed revellers to welcome in the new decade.

Then, for New Years’ Eve 2021, they took over several of the function rooms in Brighton’s Hilton Hotel, including the spacious chandelier-lit Clarence Suite, originally the first casino in Brighton. This event was a test for the team in many ways. They had to rent fencing and outdoor toilets, and at one point it seemed a possibility that someone’s car was going to be parked in the middle of the smoking area because it had been hired out as a private parking spot. “I’ve never broken down about fencing before,” Nina jokes.

The run-up to the event was a particularly stressful time, because, with the omicron Covid variant on the rise, the threat of cancellation cast an ominous shadow over the preparation. Nina recalls, “We got so many messages in the run-up to New Year’s Eve, not knowing whether it would happen, so many people saying, ‘I’m going to be heartbroken if I can’t come out, if I can’t go to your event.’ The pressure was unreal.”

This underlines the reciprocal relationship between the people going to events like this and the people putting them on. The community is key. “We’re very much part of a very strongly creative group of people,” says Nina, “And we have a very large extended network of friends and colleagues. We all just help each other out.” Esme agrees: “I think there’s just a lot of people in Brighton who carry the same ethos as us so it’s nice to create a place where people can kind of express that, but it definitely feels like a big mycelium network where lots of things come together.”

They often enlist their friends to help with the decor. For the Hilton party, a giant glitter disco ball was meticulously created out of cardboard and foil stuck onto a giant beach ball over the course of two days – only to be ripped down in a matter of hours. The decor, which is so central to their shows, is often recycled and repurposed. Even the remains of the glitter ball are somewhere in their attic, whilst any material used for the wall hangings is reused as bunting when it gets tatty.

There are crossovers between Cabarave and other nights in Brighton, such as Farmaggedon at the Komedia, Party in Your Pants, and queer-friendly nights like Gal Pals, which put women, trans and non-binary folks at the forefront. As well as getting people dancing, there’s the common goal to create an inclusive environment. “We don’t do it for women, we make it for everyone,” says Esme, “But I think if you can see that women are in power in a certain space, you feel more empowered.”

At a club like the Volks, which they still see as their spiritual home, it can be a tricky task to monitor who’s coming in, but they hope the fact that they, as women, are clearly at front and centre of the night will empower anyone who is feeling uncomfortable to go and talk to them. Putting effort into providing facilities like the café, which offer comfort and a break from the sensory overload of the throbbing music is important to making it a space where everyone is welcome, whatever their gender, sexuality or age.

“We love the fact that we have quite a diverse range of people who go there,” Nina says, “There are young’uns and there are older people who go there and obviously it’s never going to be tons of people in there who are middle aged going out partying, but it’s nice to think if someone who was sober and was in their mid-50s wanted to go out, they would feel comfortable to go to our event.”

The creativity of the Cabarave enterprise continues its upward trajectory this summer as they embark (literally) on a new venture on July 9th. The Pirates of the Cabaravean, a party on a 350+ capacity boat, will set sail along the Thames on a 4-hour sunset round trip. Along with DJs including the (wonderfully apt) Spongebob Squarewave, Slamboree Soundsystem and Ms Pink, there will be a live band, the shanty singing The Captain’s Beard; and a treasure hunt with performers playing characters like Captain Hook, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, offering clues that lead to the hidden prizes of Davy Jones’ Locker. It promises to be their most immersive experience yet. 

They’re also to be found at festivals across the summer in various guises, including Shindig Festival in the West Country where they’ll be running a tent called Shinder, a matchmaking service which aims to reinsert the human element back into dating. People will come and create a profile, fill in a questionnaire, take a polaroid, and let the Cabarave angels set them up with the person of their dreams.

Beyond that, they are happy to keep the disco ball rolling for as long as they can, notwithstanding the risks and volatility of the industry, or as Nina jokes, if they all suddenly have children. But even if they do suddenly “become adults”, they think they would still find a way to do it. There’s a strong sense of freedom and expression that goes beyond the desire to go out dancing into the early hours of the morning. It’s being able to captain a ship on the Thames dressed as a pirate, it’s providing the opportunity for people to see some cabaret or drag that they might never have come across before, it’s giving people genuinely transformative experiences. Esme says, “We want people to walk in whichever event or club it is and to think, this doesn’t feel like a club, this doesn’t feel like the foyer of the Hilton, this feels like something a bit special and mad, where I fit in…by not fitting in. That’s the ideal.”

They haven’t really had the conversation about where they intend to take things in the future, but having a regular stage or even their own festival could be something to work towards. It will inevitably keep going, because they’re addicted to it, to “the pleasure, the pain, the beauty, the stress”, as Nina puts it. Esme agrees: “It’s a roller coaster. It’s anxiety then pure elation, then having to think on your feet as well. There aren’t that many opportunities in life to have that…The main thing is that people are having fun. I’m always there, thinking, oh, I’ve got to put on this event, and you’re focusing so much on other things, and then it’s a really amazing moment when you just see people having fun and you think, this is why I’m doing this thing. Wow.” 

“I love hearing stories about something that happened at a Cabarave event,” Nina continues, “Like ‘I met my boyfriend at your event’. It makes me think, wow, real life stuff happens and we’re working it. But actually, this is why events are so important because often these are the places where big moments do happen. ”

The Pirates of the Cabaravean Boat Party sets sail from Tower Millenium Pier, London, at 7pm on July 9th. 

Jerome’s van is available for events as a pop-up smoothie and cocktail bar, One for the Road

All photos by Nina Sarfas

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