What is a BarbÈs?

THE SHORT STORY: A Frenchman moves to NY. In 2003, he opens a bar with a friend in South Brooklyn. He calls it Barbès, named after a hardscrabble North African neighborhood in Paris where he used to hang out as a teenager. They start booking bands there — including his own — and it quickly becomes Brooklyn’s favorite hang for omnivorous, authentic, non-commercial and international music.
I first walked into Barbès in 2005. By then, it already felt like an institution; a landmark in Park Slope that seemed so self-assured, eclectic and wonderful that I would never have guessed it was yet in its infancy. Since then, its been called "a cultural phenomenon” by the Christian Science Monitor; and "…the vanguard of the new Brooklyn jazz scene” by the New York Times. As one Brooklynite describes it: “It’s like a live iTunes library curated by the gods.”

Barbès is my happy place in New York. I never lived in the city but always dreamed of living a few blocks from the bar, where one could get off work and tune into Peruvian Chicha on Mondays, Slavic Soul Party on Tuesdays, Guinean griot-guitarists on Wednesdays… the monthly program, printed in small type to fit everything, reads like an encyclopedia of musical diasporas. Years-long residencies give bands free rein to rehearse, experiment and develop their sound. And like an Ellis Island for musicians, Barbès has welcomed countless performers from abroad for their first US performance.

More broadly: Barbès is a symbol in my mind for the musical creativity of a metropolis like NYC. It’s like the answer to some complicated equation: what is the creative musical output of 8.5 million people in a Western meritocracy in a landmark US city with over 800 languages and countless ethnicities? The answer: Barbès.

The one thing about the bar is that it’s very small. And OK, that’s definitely part of what makes it special: there’s nothing quite like a trumpet pointing straight into your face while you’re dancing. But it made us wonder: what it would be like for Barbès to have a lot of space for once … say, twelve acres. And multiple stages.

It might be a bit like that metaphor of ten blind men in a dark room touching different parts of an elephant — each person, without communicating with his neighbor, would never guess they were, in fact, touching a massive, tusky land mammal. And wouldn’t it be nice to put that elephant on a big grassy field in Western Massachusetts and feed it peanuts all day?

So that’s how we got here. This year, Barbès in the Woods is back to feed the elephant. Set on the beautiful Bartlett Farm, the land snuggles a bend in the Saw Mill River abutting the Sawmills Conservation Area. It’s a five-minute walk from the Book Mill. For children it’s like the Hundred Acre Woods. And there’s a pipsqueak of a dog called Gunner ambling around trying to chew off people’s ankles. If Barbès was an outdoor music festival rather than an intimate bar in Brooklyn, this is exactly what it would look like.

Photos by the inimitable
Julian Parker-Burns
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