Places that Matter

Barbès

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The Crooked Road Trio plays every Friday, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
The Crooked Road Trio plays every Friday, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
Barbès facade, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
Barbès interior, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
Sunset outside of Barbés, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
Bust of José Gregorio keeps watch over the venue, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
Posters announcing music programs at kindred sites, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
Barbès, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
View into the back listening room, photo by Molly Garfinkel, 2018
Slavic Soul Party plays a regular Tuesday night set, photo by Razmig Bedirian
Neighborhood bar and performance space
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Razmig Bedirian for Place Matters and the Fall 2017 Local and Community History course of NYU's Archives and Public History Program

Barbès takes its name from an area in northern Paris known for its large North African population and the record stores that popularized Raï —a form of Algerian folk music—in the early 1980s.

In Brooklyn, the name has come to signify a music community, one that is not
attentive to billboards or popular tastes. Having celebrated its fifteenth birthday in May 2017, the
venue has become a platform catering international music from Ghanaian jazz to Slavic
soul, from Tropicalia to oud nights and Afrobeat.
 
Barbès’ founders Vincent Douglas and Olivier Conan, both musicians from France, have lived in the Park Slope area for more than thirty years. When it came to deciding on a location, Douglas said Park Slope was an obvious choice. They started on a shoestring budget and found place in a former barber shop in the South Slope. Today, the venue hosts more than 700 music performances a year, featuring bands
from all over the world.
 
“There were virtually no bars or venues playing live music in this area when we opened in 2002,” Douglas said, “Even in New York, there was nothing catering to the international music scene.”
 
Barbès prides itself on being a community hub and a laboratory for projects. It has hosted screenings and residencies, all with the motive of creating a comfortable space where musicians can experiment on various musical influences. It has a calendar active throughout the week, with performers ranging from the Erik Satie Quartet; Guinean jazz group, The Mandingo Ambassadors; to a nine-piece band throwing a Slavic-soul party, and French violinist and singer Eleonore Biezunski, who explores the Yiddish traditions in her music.
 
In 2004, Olivier Conan founded the Barbès recording agency as an outlet to release music by artists associated with the Brooklyn club. Among its first releases were by Barbès regulars Las Rubias del Norte, One Ring Zero and Slavic Soul Party.
 
In 2007, Barbès released a compilation of vintage Peruvian tracks, The Roots of Chicha, which became an instant cult classic. According to its official website, the company has since then specialized in “all sorts of impure music – idiosyncratic hybrids borne out of tradition but twisted into new shapes by adventurous musicians from Peru, Poland, Chile, France or the US.”
 
Speaking to the LA Weekly about releasing The Roots of Chicha, Conan said he was vacationing in Peru in 2005 when a street vendor introduced him to chicha. “He said, 'Do you know the early cumbia stuff? The cumbia antigua, from Peru?'" Conan told the LA Weekly. "And he started playing some Amazonica music. I think the first song I heard was [by] Los Mirlos. It changed my life.”
 
After he returned to New York with a collection of records, Conan spent a year and a half getting in touch with people and “finding the original masters.” In 2007, Barbés released the compilation album, which was popular in Lima and had a tremendous impact on the genre itself. It shined a spotlight on Chicha musicians who despite being popular in local circles had never gotten their due. Some bands, like Los Mirlos, even re-formed, playing songs from The Roots of Chicha to younger audiences.
 
Barbés also has a mascot. A two-foot bust of José Gregorio—a Venezuelan physician, who was known to provide free health care to the poor, and who went on to reach legendary status after his death in 1919. The original bust, which Conan acquired in his travels, was stolen in January, 2011. An article was released in the city room section of the New York Times, demanding the bust’s return.
 
Although Barbès’ reputation as a community hotspot was not generated overnight, its following has been vital for its continuing existence. "It took some time, hard work, good friends, and good press,” Vincent Douglas said of the Brooklyn club, “People seemed to like what Barbès stood for and there was a
lot of support. But it’s proving harder and harder to stay open.”
 
As most small businesses trying to survive in a rapidly-changing Brooklyn, Barbès is faced with increasing rent, cost of goods, permits, and insurance. In early 2017, the venue risked closure in the face of accumulated debts. More than 800 people responded to Barbès’ call for help, donating around $65,000 of the $70,000 necessary to remain open for another five years.
 
“Thanks to the support of our community, we managed to extend our lease until 2022,” Douglas said, “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do business in the city. Buildings are looking to rent out to corporations like Starbucks, and it is getting more and more difficult to operate. Sadly, we can’t expand, as there’s no where to expand to.”
 
Sources:
 
 
Pardon Our Interruption. Accessed December 14, 2017. https:// www.indiegogo.com/projects/barbes-needs-help--3#/. B A R B È S -- c a l e n d a r. Accessed December 11, 2017. http://
barbesbrooklyn.com/calendar.html.
 
Marieveamy64. "Barbès, Brooklyn." YouTube. September 28, 2011. Accessed December 11, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvxRIqkQpiI.
 
Kissel, Chris. "How Underground Peruvian Music Changed the Sound of L.A.'s Latin Alternative Scene." L.A. Weekly. November 29, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.laweekly.com/music/anobscure-compilation-called-the-roots-of-chichas-far-reaching-influencein-los-angeles-8900124.
 
"Struggling venue Barbes launches crowdfunding campaign benefit
show." BrooklynVegan. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://
www.brooklynvegan.com/struggling-venue-barbes-launchescrowdfunding-
campaign-benefit-show/.

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