A few months back, after dropping off my younger daughter at her early-evening music lesson in Park Slope, I wandered down Ninth Street in search of—something. What that something was, I didn’t really know. I had an hour to kill and a magazine in my back pocket, and I needed a decent perch where I could sit and read it. A block later I was standing in front of Barbès, the outwardly unassuming neighborhood hangout that has, remarkably and happily, remained unchanged since opening in the early aughts. Unlike the rest of Brooklyn, which (as you may have heard) has exploded to become a global brand over the past two decades, Barbès is still defiantly itself, and if you’ve ever been there, you know what a good thing that is.
To begin with, consider the storefront. Lowercase font. One wide window. The only dressing a tired air conditioner and a Dead Sea Scroll of an events calendar. This makes good aesthetic sense, as Barbès is high on live music, low on pretension.
I entered the place, pale winter light streaming in, and shuffled across the sandy stone floor to the bar. A laconic young guy standing behind it was playing instrumental tunes on the sound system that seemed plucked from a soundtrack for a noir film that doesn’t exist (this was, I learned, Big Lazy, a local trio that consistently performs in Barbès’s back room). He pulled a pilsner from one of the 12 excellent taps. I took a position on a worn, wood chair near the front window. I hadn’t known how much I wanted to be right there until I sat down. A couple other customers drifted in, seeking solace in the soft glow of a single paper lantern and red holiday lights above the bottles, and took to stools at the bar. We all quietly drank our pints, the chaos and bustle and shape-shifting of the city forgotten outside.
If you don’t watch out, you might get flattened by an upright bass.
More often when I’ve visited Barbès, the interior feeling reads less as calm in the storm than it does exciting and slightly dangerous weather pattern ahead. By that I mean, the nightly, eclectic musicians who take over the back room bring not only Balkan funk and Guinean jazz and South American electronic beats, but also so many instruments rolled through the narrow front space, past and around and through the contemporary boho clientele, who are shouting over the music about whatever creative project has them fired up at the moment. If you don’t watch out, you might get flattened by an upright bass.
The fact that Barbès has endured as a frisky neighborhood meeting spot and host to some of the city’s best international music may seem surprising given Brooklyn’s transformation. But it’s not a massive shock when you consider that it was launched by Olivier Conan, a French-born musician and Park Slope resident since the 1980s, with his business partner, Vincent Douglas. (The bar is named for a Paris neighborhood bustling with record shops and an historically large North African community.) The two men were (and are) determined to create a space for the music-loving community they live in—and for all their musician friends to have a place to play.
Survival has not always been guaranteed. Two years ago, facing that familiar gentrification animal known as rising rents, Conan and Douglas were able to Indiegogo themselves out of financial peril.
On a recent Saturday night, it was hard to imagine the city without a place like Barbès. I met two friends for drinks (besides the beer, the bar has an impressive collection of single malt scotches, Italian digestives, and other delights), and we found a sliver of floor to call our own. The room was crowded—not in the oppressive way of a subway train, but in the vibrating, toasty way of a house party. Soon Banda De Los Muertos fired up in the rear of the house and the manic squawk of Mexican brass band music took over. In order to talk, patrons had to get very close to their friends’ faces, and the listeners had to bend their heads, the better to receive the signal.
From outside the bar, looking in, a citizen of the city would see a roomful of lowered domes, true believers bopping to a global beat that can’t be stopped.