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Bonobo: An ape-solute haven for 15 years

On the 15th anniversary, TLM chats with the co-founder of Bonobo to take a trip down memory lane of this legacy bar.

“Bonobo tonight?” I message every Wednesday morning on my group chat as if it’s an unmissable ritual. I know most of my friends will be there because we discussed it last Wednesday when we stood on the footpath of an empty Linking Road. The night doesn’t end until we hear a “good night” followed by a familiar smile from Deepak bhaiya, the security guard, who knows we will be back next week. For me, coming to Bonobo is like coming home and that sentiment has been the same for countless people for 15 years!

The start of a legacy

Coincidentally, it was a Wednesday when I entered the tiny alley on Linking Road, but this time I took the elevator up to Bonobo not for a night of fun with my friends. After regularly going there for two-odd years, few staff members had started to recognise me. I got knowing smiles as I sat down with Nevil Timbadia, one of the co-founders of this popular al-fresco Bandra bar for a chat on the occasion of their 15th anniversary. Timbadia started Bonobo along with his childhood best friend Anup Gandhi and cousin Sahil Timbadia. As a bunch of 24 and 25-year-olds, he admits that they didn’t know anything because they came from different backgrounds. Gandhi was working in Pune at an automobile company, Sahil and his other cousins, who were partners at the time for a brief period were in land development, and Nevil was working as an events and music programmer at Seijo & the Soul Dish, a popular bar in Bandra back in the day. He also ran the programming for the Kala Ghoda Art Festival for a few years. While he had some experience in programming, he admits, “It is extremely difficult to run a hospitality place. We made mistakes, learnt from them, and never made them again, and then went on to make some more mistakes.”

(From left to right) Sahil Timbadia, Anup Gandhi and Nevil Timbadia (Photo: Bonobo)

Bonobo was not something that only started on a bunch of 25-year-olds’ whim. “The idea,” says Timbadia, while sipping on his beer, “came from the fact that 15 years ago, Mumbai had a very formal dress code for men. You had to wear shoes, pants, a collared shirt and that made us want to start something of our own that was as casual as possible.” Just like most businesses with multiple partners, Timbadia shares that over time, the partners amicably split ways and now it is just the three of them. “We have a very close connection and we are clear about our roles in the company so we don’t log heads. Since we have been doing this for such a long time, we trust each other completely.” The roles are clear – Gandhi looks after accounts and admin, Sahil handles everything food, Timbadia is behind programming and the bar, and Gandhi and Timbadia together look after sponsorships.

Music on the mind

The trio was determined that they wanted their bar to be music-forward, which they have successfully managed to build over the years. For the uninitiated, Bonobo hosts #LiveIsEverything every Wednesday where they host a live band performance. The Wednesday line-up is usually under the genres of jazz, blues, funk, world, indie, experimental jazz, among others. Whereas every Friday, there’s an electronic set. However, they didn’t achieve their brand name as easily as it may seem. Despite wanting to have a music-forward approach, “the first few years, we didn’t do live music because it wasn’t feasible. But slowly, we started with DJs because, as a bar, we still had to maintain that vibe. Slowly, as fans of music ourselves, we made sure to integrate live music regularly,” he shares. Out of the 800 artists in the last 15 years, few of them stood out for Timbadia. “A few years before the lockdown,” says Timbadia, “we had Monoswezi [a trans-national band playing African music] play here, and it just opened a lot of avenues because we never had such a band here before.”

As an avid gig-attendee, the best one I’ve witnessed was Sri Lankan band, The Soul, when they performed at Bonobo and Timbadia agrees. “The past 18 months have been the best in terms of programming over the 15 years,” admits Timbadia.

Every Wednesday, Bonobo has #LiveIsEverything where a live artiste performs whereas every Friday they have an electronic act. (Photo: Bonobo)

What makes Bonobo stand apart from most venues in the city is the fact that they have free entry. Every Thursday morning, my inbox is flooded with people asking me where I go each Wednesday, and they are pleasantly surprised when they find out that the entry is free. “Our main motive was to keep live music accessible and easy to attend where people don’t need to make a plan. If they don’t like it, they can leave in 10 minutes without feeling bad because we don’t have a ticket.” He aims to inculcate the idea of going out and checking something new. The idea is to probe the audience to discover a new band, and boy, has this worked. From international to Indian artists, there are so many new ones I wouldn’t have discovered if it wasn’t for spending every Wednesday at Bonobo.

After programming around 800 artists, they are bound to have some interesting anecdotes. Back in 2017, musician and actor Dot, performed at Bonobo. “Since it was a free gig, there were so many people that showed up,” a friend recalls. “The place was so crowded that Dot and the band had to push their way through.” Timbadia smiled in amusement as I mentioned this incident and he chuckled. “There was a long queue and the place got filled by 6 pm,” he recalls. “So many people wanted to meet her that we had to shift her to a neighbouring restaurant and use it as a dressing room.” “Another unbelievable experience,” says Timbadia, “was having Karnivool [Australian prog metal band] do an acoustic set for us. Can you imagine them doing a stripped-down version of their songs live?”

Who left the foodies out?

Besides their music, they are also known for pop-up food events. “Our place is not a restaurant. We like doing unique, different things.” The idea behind this is to create a physical place for delivery and cloud kitchens so that people can experience a sit-down meal. Another reason behind these pop-ups is to allow renowned chefs to experiment with different cuisines; something they don’t offer at their restaurant. Keeping the food and music integration in mind, the trio launched Jamjar Diner in Versova after four years of starting Bonobo.

Photo: Bonobo

So good, you can’t stop going

After 15 years, Bonobo has managed to gather a dedicated customer base. But, their customers keep changing and are spread across age groups and likes. “We started this when we were young so, our regulars at that point of time were also people in their 20s. Now, they are all grown up and have children.” They have different regulars for different days of the week. Besides their music nights on Wednesdays and Fridays, they have their old-school bar nights that attract people who like cheaper alcohol and the weekend pop-ups are for all the foodies out there. “It’s a mixed bag of regulars. You will see all kinds of people and usually people get their other friends whenever they are in Mumbai,” says Timbadia. At this point, I have also lost track of the number of people I have introduced to this place. But this sentiment is echoed by people across age groups.

Photo: Bonobo

For people like Aman Bathla, who moved to the city in 2019, Bonobo has proved to be a lifesaver and a new home. “Bonobo is probably the most casual social bar in the city,” says the 29-year-old. Bathla shared how he visits the bar at least twice a week; mostly on Wednesdays and Fridays and “living five minutes away from the bar has an advantage even when you decide to go there at around 11 pm or midnight.” Bathla shares that he and his friends would host after-parties at their home where they would invite a dozen people they spoke to throughout the night at Bonobo. After Bonobo, the group would head to Bathla’s house where the party would start at around 2.30 am. “I have met so many people at Bonobo, and also known people who have eventually dated. There are different people on different days and if you have an idea, then Bonobo is the best facilitator to connect you with the right people. There is a sense of belonging here.”

An artist, a chimp, and a bar

“Is it because you’re fans of the artist Bonobo?” I asked Timbadia and he laughed and nodded. “Sahil and I were sitting and listening to Bonobo and I suddenly realised that Bonobo is a great name.” Post this Eureka moment, Sahil pointed out to his cousin that Bonobo is a chimpanzee and they are kind-spirited. “That’s the kind of spirit we wanted,” says Timbadia. “I also found out that a Bonobo has 98% human DNA and that is exactly how I feel after three drinks,” he laughs. “I’m not at 100%, I am at 98 and I thought this was perfect.”

Photo: Bonobo

Fifteen going on 16

While Timbadia believes that hosting his favourite artiste would be a dream that might not come true, and admits that he is a huge fan of Talvin Singh. He hopes that Singh will someday play at Bonobo. For the upcoming year, they will work more with European music exchanges so that they can bring down at least one band every month.

Photo: Bonobo

When asked to describe the bar for someone who has never visited, Timbadia admitted that it was quite difficult to do so. “All I tell anyone is to just go. I’m 100% sure, that no matter what is happening over there, you will have a great time.”

I’m not the one to agree to such a guarantee but after my countless visits to this place, I can 100% attest to what Timbadia says. And as I finish writing this piece, I’m texting my friends, “Bonobo tonight?” knowing very well that the response will be a “yes,” again.