Barbès is perhaps the quintessential Brooklyn music bar. To walk into the small, low space of the front room, then the impossibly smaller back music room, is to enter a space of inevitable social interaction. Cheek by jowl is how most of the shows run, with around 50 people crammed into a space meant for half. On a Tuesday night, that meant Slavic Soul Party bumping transmogrified Eastern European party music, the tuba thumping out the bass line. Mondays were devoted to Western Swing, with Brain Cloud riffing freely off of Bob Wills. Wednesdays were the brilliant Mandingo Ambassadors, originally from Guinea and holding down a hypnotic interplay that has rolled on through several decades. On Sundays, Stephane Wrembel channeled and redirected Django Reinhardt through any number of prisms. One of the many nights I saw him there, his thoughts took a Buddhist turn: “This moment is here,” he said, “it will exist, and it will be gone. Breathe it in.” I did, along with the aroma of spilled beer and close contact. And with the music pushing out the contours of the tiny space, my world expanded.
I’ve sometimes puzzled over what people mean when they say, “be fully present.” But my nights at Barbès often provided a natural version of that phrase. It was like a literal expression of that beautiful Rumi line, “I have fallen into the place where everything is music.” The atmosphere there is immersive, the level of musicianship insanely high. The club has been overseen since its 2002 founding by Olivier Conan, cuatro-playing Frenchman for Chicha Libre turned curator and paternal presence at this beloved site.
“The whole model of Barbès is confined to social proximity—exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do,” he says by phone, after returning from a recent trip to France and quarantining away for his kids. “That’s what people love about it, musicians and audiences. You’re so close to the performers, there’s really a sense of togetherness, and of intimate discovery. That’s what made the place special—and I don’t see it happening any time again soon.”
He shifts between present and past in describing Barbès; its prospects for survival are unsure at best. “Would I like it to go on?” he asks. “In a perfect world, yes, of course—it’s my baby. I’ve been working on it for 18 years, and we’ve built something that resonates with a lot of people. That sense of continuity makes me very happy, and it’s so important to the whole enterprise. It’s a true community, a place where things happen, where people meet, where a lot of new projects are born. Performers would come and try things for a sophisticated audience, which included a lot of musicians. You could try pretty much anything, from avant- to arrière-garde.”
One of the central ideas of Barbès has been to let musicians stretch out, with longer sets and open-ended runs. “I love the idea of developing talent, and that’s something you don’t often get in New York,” he says. “I used to play a lot of clubs myself, and you’re given a 45 minute slot. You wind up playing the same set for six months because you don’t have time to develop anything new. I wanted longer sets, either 90 minutes or two hours, which almost nobody was doing. And I supported musicians who continued changing and growing. I wanted people to add on to what they were doing, to try things and fail sometimes. Being allowed to fail is the most important thing.” Conan cites Slavic Soul Party as a band that evolved in unexpected ways over the years: “I was a fan of theirs before we opened Barbès. They went from Balkan-inspired music to incorporating techno to doing a completely rearranged version of the Far East Suite by Duke Ellington. It all comes from giving people time to develop.”
Barbès has always seemed to reflect a singular artistic vision, though Conan shies away from defining it. “It’s mostly some irreverent reworking of a tradition from a very strong personal point of view,” he says. “I don’t have a sense of genres, of highbrow/lowbrow or anything. I’m a big fan of the gray area. I’m very suspicious of golden ages and of purity in general—I’ve always liked impure music.” That’s part of what drew him to chicha, a Peruvian form of cumbia that first came to life in the 1960s. “Chicha was a completely hybridized music,” he says. “You’d have these untrained, often poor musicians with amazing guitar chops doing cumbia that might not even be recognized as such in Colombia. That type of creative freedom often gets hampered over here by all kinds of hang-ups.”
Conan carried this adventurous approach back to his native France for several years, serving part-time as the artistic director of an initiative at the Lyon Opera House designed to foster new audiences and approaches: “I was doing shows in the main hall and in my own 200-person capacity space.” But despite the different scale of the setting, the approach was one he had developed at Barbès: “I was always trying to recreate the idea of intimacy. I had concerts where people would lie down in the dark and close their eyes. And every time, it works. Your emotions multiply exponentially when there are strangers around you. That’s the thing we don’t have anymore, it’s dead—for how long, we don’t know … ”
His voice trails off, and he chokes up briefly. The last few months have put him a different kind of pressure on him: “It’s all a matter of money, and Barbès was never a big money-maker. In fact, it was almost always on the verge of closing. But it’s very hard to know what comes next, and that uncertainty is part of what’s killing us. I’ve done GoFundMe twice, and it has saved us, but you can’t keep doing that forever because people are hurting, people have no money. They have other things to think about besides saving a music club.”
He’s tried live streaming shows from the club, and, “It’s something. It feels kind of real, but at the same time, it’s not totally real. Even though it looks and sounds pretty good, it’s not yet a real art form. There are people doing a great job filming concerts, but not very many. You have to somehow make it special. I’ve loved great concert footage over the years, mostly when it was made with 16mm movie cameras. It’s going to take people like the director Vincent Moon—people who really have an eye, and who help create an extra dimension. I would love to transition to having an actual soundstage, and producing concerts that way. If we can start to develop that more, we may begin to find a new model for presenting music.”
Conan describes himself as “a very pessimistic person, which means I’m often very nicely surprised. Things are rarely as bad as I think they’re going to be. I’ve had lots of pleasant surprises and epiphanies along the way, so hopefully there’ll be another one coming pretty soon.”