#MyJoburg with Phil Thurston, Mara Lounge founder

14 May 2024
In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people who add something unique to Joburg's creative mix and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city.

Phil Thurston
’s journey in music began in London at the tender age of 17, taking him on a whirlwind tour across the globe producing and composing and eventually landing him on South African shores. After living in Cape Town, Thurston packed his bags and headed north to Johannesburg where today he's known as the general manager of the esteemed Rand Club. There he brings his wealth of experience to curate unforgettable experiences for the historic Johannesburg venue. His latest venture combines everything he loves about the city: music, history, culture, and people, and comes in the form of the hottest new live music venue in Joburg, Mara Lounge.
GM of the Rand Club and car enthusiast, Phil Thurston. Photo: Supplied.

What brought you to Joburg, and what makes you stay here? 
I came to run Rand Club. I love the inner city and its vibe. It reminds me of London, Paris, and New York but with a more gritty vibe.

The Rand Club. Why is it a must-visit Joburg attraction?
It offers a unique destination for visitors. We have a restaurant, accommodation, various bars, a gallery, and of course, the jazz lounge.

"I once visited the Johannesburg City Centre around 10 years ago and thought, 'Wow, this place has so much potential!' So, I ended up moving here to do just that!"

What prompted you to start a jazz club?
I started my musical career in London when I was just 17, working for a recording studio. I soon became the studio manager and managed the studio for 11 years, composing music for TV, film, and theatre. I then owned a studio in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg. I have always wanted to open a live performance space for established artists and those wanting to break into the industry. Devastated after The Orbit closed its doors, this live performance venue is set to become the coolest place in town to hang out and hear our local and international musicians and performers.

Mara. Tell us about the name. 
My team always says "mara" to me when we are working, “Mara Phil…” [But why Phil...] So that's where the name originated from. It's a simple story, I know, but you'll hear "mara" everywhere you go! 
The hottest new jazz joint, Mara Lounge in Marshalltown. Photo: Mara Lounge via Instagram.

Music has always been a part of your life. Tell us about that. 
As a self-taught keyboardist and pianist, I have always been involved in the music industry. Having won three awards in the television and advertising sphere in the UK, I am now following my dream of supporting live music in South Africa.

What aspect of Joburg is your favourite to show off? 
It has to be the people. No matter where you go, the people are so friendly, welcoming, and above all, passionate about what they do. Walk the streets and meet and greet!

The most underrated experience in Joburg? 
Cycling with the Braamfontein cycle groups on Thursday and Sunday nights.

"No matter where you go, Joburg's people are so friendly, welcoming, and above all, passionate about what they do."

When you are not at the Rand Club or Mara, where are you most likely to be found? 
I love the outdoors, so walking and cycling around Johannesburg, or visiting other bars and restaurants around town. Also, camping, and then at my two hideaway spots in Cape Town and Durban.

Most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
Kolonaki in Parkhurst.
The Mediterranean cuisine at Kolonaki is some of Thurston's favourite food in Joburg. Photo: Kolonaki via Instagram.

You can invite three people, living or passed on (they will come back to life at your invitation), to join you at a dinner party. Who are they? 
It has to be Sting, George Michael, and Black Coffee. I think we would then have a jam! My three heroes.

What's your earliest memory of Joburg? 
I once visited the Johannesburg City Centre around 10 years ago and thought, “Wow, this place has so much potential!” So, I ended up moving here to do just that!

Home is...
My original home is London, UK, then Cape Town for 11 years, but I have lived in Johannesburg for almost six years now, in Marshalltown above Mara Lounge.

If you could buy one Joburg building, which would it be, and why?
Oh gosh... all the empty buildings in the City Centre! Rand Club or the famous Hanging Building [former Standard Bank head offices] at 78 Fox Street. I would turn it into amazing apartments, gyms, restaurants, offices, and a whole hub of creative spaces for Joburgers.
The famous 'Hanging Building'. Photo: Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
A night out in Maboneng. A visit to Constitution Hill. A night at Mara Lounge.

If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure) what would you change?
Simple: replace all the roads, pavements, and street lights.

What makes someone a Joburger?
Someone who lives in central Joburg... not just the posh surrounds of the real city!

Favourite Joburg label, and why?
Rural Love Classics.
Thurston's favourite local label, Rural Love Classics, takes on athleisure. Photo: Rural Loves Classics via Instagram.

Your favourite Joburg author or favourite Joburg book?
I don't have one... as I don't read.

What do you love most about Joburg?
I love the people!

What do you least like about Joburg?
The potholes and load-shedding!

A song that reminds you of Joburg? 
Water by Tyla.

Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Take the hop-on, hop-off bus [Johannesburg City Sightseeing Bus] and get a grip of your surroundings, then eat, drink, and listen to music.

One Joburg personality whom you would honour with the freedom of the city if you could, and why? 
Aaron Moloisi [a South African actor and television presenter] embodies the city and is a huge fan of promoting local brands, musicians, and artists.

Three words that describe this city.
Evolving, vibrant, inspirational.

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg with Hugh Fraser, architect and tour guide
#MyJoburg with Nick Hamman, radio DJ
#MyJoburg with Lesley Kellerman, founder of Heart & Heritage

Subscribe to our free weekly Johannesburg In Your Pocket newsletter for all the latest news and reviews about what's new in Joburg!

For all the latest news of what to do around Joburg, keep up to date with our weekly events and exhibitions guides.


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