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Barbès in Brooklyn Celebrates 20th Anniversary in May

Small music club in Park Slope has featured eclectic and esoteric mix of music since 2002

Slavic Soul Party performing at Barbes in Brooklyn
Slavic Soul Party performing at Barbes in Brooklyn

Barbès, the little music club that could in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, celebrates its 20th anniversary in May with a series of shows there, as well as a special concert at (le) Poisson Rouge on May 15, featuring Red Baraat, Son Rompe Pera, Ethan Lipton, Mamie Minch, and Tamar Korn.

The club was started in 2002 by two French expats and working musicians, Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas, before Brooklyn was the hotbed of nightlife and hipsterism that it is now. The two were hoping to provide a space for artists and musicians, many of whom were based in Brooklyn and needed an alternative to Manhattan clubs. “We thought there was room in Brooklyn, in Park Slope specifically, for a music room that would be more community-oriented, less commercial,” Conan told JazzTimes. “Brooklyn was still more casual at the time—and a lot less expensive—and the idea of creating a place that was more musician-friendly, more local, was very appealing. I didn’t have a model, I just wanted to create a place that would foster creativity and cross-pollination.”

Ron Miles, Kenny Wolleson and Jason Moran performing with Jenny Scheinman at Barbes (photo c/o Barbes)
Ron Miles, Kenny Wollesen, and Jason Moran performing with Jenny Scheinman at Barbes (photo c/o Barbes)

The club’s setup is the same as it was back in 2002, with the small back room hosting the music and the larger front room serving as the bar, which Conan said serves as a veritable social club. “The bar is an area where people would meet fellow artists—a place where encounters and conversations matter,” Conan explains. “A lot of our audience is made up of musicians who have come to view our place as a safe haven where fellow musicians don’t try to please an audience.” Conan says that “allowing the musicians longer slots of at least 90 minutes gives them more time to stretch, try new things and improvise. We also favor residencies, weekly or monthly, for the same reasons. Basically giving people time to fail before coming with a project that works.”

Although jazz is often featured at the club, the music presented is much broader: “Barbès never focused on one type of music and throughout its two decades has tended to the eclectic and the esoteric—be it Peruvian cumbia, New York bhangra, Ligeti string quartets, Korean shamanic music, Arabic maqam, experimental jazz, Balkan brass bands, Venezuelan joropos, opera, son jarocho, French musette, surf, and all manners of totally unclassifiable music created by musicians with a taste for idiosyncratic hybrids.” The group Las Rubias del Norte performed its first show on opening night at Barbès and returns on May 7 to celebrate its own 20th anniversary. 

The survival of the small venue surprises even its co-founder. “The club was started with no investors and almost no money, using mostly credit cards, building the place ourselves—and with very little knowledge of the business of running a bar,” Conan says. “In retrospect, the fact it worked out and that we are still standing is pretty astounding. Times have changed. The epicenter of New York’s creative energy has long since shifted to Brooklyn and Barbès is proud to have been one of the participants in this transformation. A pride mitigated by the bit part it might have played in the over-gentrification of the borough.”

For a full calendar of upcoming events at Barbès, visit their website.