Barby's Karaoke

Karaoke is a collaborative artwork and live performance devised by Barby Asante who will be working with community elders in south London to explore popular culture, memory and cultural heritage.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Barby's catalogue essay

I’m not sure when the ideas for this project first began. It could have been when I was a child discovering my Dad’s records for the first time and finding amongst them Ghanaian Hi-Life* records, which were usually played in our house when guests came over. I also found some others I really liked and played them on my Dads Blaupunkt console phonograph; Hopeton Lewis, Boom-Shaka-Lacka, Singerman, The Kingstonians, Spanish Harlem, Slim Smith and Birth Control and Lloyd Terell. So began my interest in the music of the Caribbean. This music was later eclipsed as I got into pop music like many other teenagers growing up in the suburbs in the late 70’s and 80’s. I especially got into the music of bands like the Specials, the Beat and the Selector; not realising then that they got their musical influences from the very records I was listening to when I was younger. It was only recently, through working on this project, that I realised the Specials' Too Much Too Young was an interpretation of Lloyd Terell’s Birth Control.

Then there was my brother, who quickly got into reggae music when he came here from Ghana. This could have also been something he’d picked up from my Grandfather, who he lived with up to the age of 14. My Grandfather was a big fan of Bob Marley and always requested that we send him tapes of his music. There were parties and functions, such as weddings and christenings where the music played was Hi-life, with Ska, Rocksteady, Soul, Rock and Roll and R&B. There was also my Dominican aunt married to my young cool uncle, who introduced the sound of calypso to these parties. She took my sister and I to the Notting Hill Carnival when we were very young to see the steelbands, follow the floats and see the music live and active. Though I hadn’t picked up on it at the time my dad also liked calypso, as I discovered when he died and I had to save his record collection, complete with an original album of The Mighty Sparrow, the King Of Carnival, Mr Walker in mint condition.

In 2003 I worked as researcher on the Brixton Studio exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery. For this role I was assigned to find people who had had their photographs taken by Harry Jacobs in his portrait studio on Landor Road in Stockwell. One of the first people we found was Mary Joseph, who saw a picture of herself in a book that we had put together to help find Jacobs' photographic subjects. Mrs Joseph, whose portrait portrayed her standing proudly in a standard issue London Transport uniform, couldn’t believe what she saw and ran off to find her family and tell them the story of the photograph. I found many other people who had had their photographs taken by Harry Jacobs, many of whom shared with me their stories of coming to the UK, their lives here, their memories of home and much more that could not be included in the exhibition. This experience brought up stories of migration and resettlement that reminded me of my own family, the struggles, the triumphs and the redefining of the self in a new country. Unknown to Harry Jacobs his camera was an important witness to this process of change in the lives of his subjects.

I started thinking about making work that connected my love of music with the participatory strategies I had been using in my work. I also wanted to explore how music might be a way to explore memory. I thought about the people I met working on the Brixton Studio exhibition and how I might get some of them involved in a project that told their stories through exploring the music they listened to and brought with them when they came to the UK.

I began to incorporate more singing into my work when in 2006 I collaborated with artist and gospel singer to create the Funk Chorus a non-professional choir that sang popular funk songs. I also started to look at karaoke and consider its possibility as a tool for exploring the memories that music can evoke. The word karaoke comes from the incorporation and abbreviation of the Japanese words ‘karappo’, which means empty and ‘okesutura’, meaning orchestra. Karaoke is essentially an‘empty orchestra’ which someone fills with their voice. Developed in Japan as a way of relaxing and entertaining karaoke is especially popular with business communities and has become a popular pastime for many people across the world who attend karaoke bars, clubs and booths across the world. To me it seems to have parallels with call and response, a traditional African vocal pattern, except that the song has already called (done it’s thing and become a hit) and the participant in the karaoke is responding by recalling the song and singing it, often evoking personal memories associated with the song.

I wanted to create a work that used karaoke as a medium for people to share a part of their life story with others through their performing of songs that had held an emotional resonance for them. I thought about extending on the ideas and the conversations I had had with people while working on Brixton Studio and to invite older people of African Caribbean origin to share their musical memories with me. My initial idea was to make a machine that would store and recall the memories, but on looking into karaoke it seemed that karaoke product was usually either a music CD or DVD and this did seem a more appropriate way to realise my ideas.

At this point I took my ideas to Studio Voltaire, an organisation that I knew would support the project and help me develop it as part of their commitment to a creative engagement with the communities of south London. I had previously worked with Stockwell Good Neighbours to produce a podcast for a project called Digital Dialogues developed at the Hayward Gallery and enjoyed working with them so it seemed logical to develop my karaoke project with them. So over the course of a year I visited them, talking with them, going on trips, playing music bingo games and playlists to stimulate their musical memories. The music we have shared ranges from reggae, calypso, ska, rock steady, rock and roll, traditional folk songs to R&B, Jazz, Country, Val Doonican and even glam rockers The Sweet! I loved that they were full of surprises like that.

To strengthen the story telling and recollection part of the project I have worked closely with Chocolate Films to document the project. We envisaged a documentary that would delve deeper into the memories and lives of the people who had been sharing their stories with me. I then enrolled the help of my Funk Chorus collaborator, Andrea Encinas, to work with the group to use song to trigger their memories. Through these workshops we developed a performance that we took to Clapham Common bandstand, Clapham being a significant place in the story of Caribbean migrants who came over on the Empire Windrush. This was the place where they spent their first night in the UK, in a disused bunker. One of the memories that resonated with me and many of the people I interviewed was of Sunday afternoons playing records on the Blue Spot just like my Dads phonograph, friends coming over, sharing food, laughs, drink and plenty of dancing. These warm memories reminded me of my childhood and I wanted to evoke some of this joy and sharing during the Sunday on the Bandstand.

It is also really important to me through this work to also explore the way that much of the music, especially that which came from Jamaica, has influenced popular music as we know it today. I want this project to give credit to Duke Reid, Pama Records, Derrick Harriott and others who made Jamaican music available and popular in the UK. I have mentioned the Specials Too Much Too Young, but there was also the reggae punk crossover of the Clash, bands like Blondie covering John Holt and the Paragons The Tide is High and the more contemporary complex dance music of Drum and Bass and Dub Step. This music has had an important role in the development of contemporary popular music even though, at the time, many broadcasters wouldn’t play it or deemed Black music to be bad or indecent. To many young white people looking for a way to voice their new ideals black music has been a way to explore these ideals and sometimes exploit them.

We have been able to get permission to make re-records of 9 pieces of music that we listened to and sang over the last year, which have been used to provide the sound track for 10 karaoke videos. These videos use archive footage from amateur Brixton filmmaker Clovis Salmon AKA Sam the Wheels, who has been filming in his church and in and around Brixton since he came to the UK in the 50’s. I also used donated photographs and my own archive of family photographs, to tell the story of migration and settling into life in a new country. There are record sleeves and 7inch records brought in by participants and also the ones I listened to and played as a child. There is also footage filmed by Chocolate films of the process of engagement I have had with the participants. These karaoke videos reflect the experiences of the participants in the UK and their participation in the project.

Barby Asante
Feb 2009

Monday 20 April 2009

Radio London interview

If you missed Dotun Adebayo's interview with Barby Asante and Rachel Wang on BBC London last night you can catch up with it on the BBC i-Player for the next week

Saturday 11 April 2009

Dominoes and Bingo - The premiere

Dominoes and Bingo the warm and affectionate documentary about the characters behind Barby's Karaoke is going to receive its first public screening on 21 April at Clapham Picturehouse, SW4.
There are a limited number of free tickets available for this screening (see flyer below)


Friday 13 March 2009

Dominoes and Bingo

Barby's Karaoke has been documented by film-makers Chocolate Films and their film, Dominoes and Bingo is currently in post-production. The film will be premièred at The Ritzy, Brixton in April 2009

Thursday 12 February 2009

Monday 9 February 2009

Picture This


As part of the project the participants in Barby's Karaoke sat for portraits. Here are a small selection of portraits of some of the characters involved in the project
Posted by Picasa

Photography of Sunday on the Common and Picture This by Nicola Dracoulis

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Karaoke on the Common

An unexpectedly beautiful late summer's day was the perfect setting for the Stockwell Good Neighbours' first public performance. Following on from a DJ playing some classic old school sounds the group began to sing a selection of songs, getting the assembled audience to join in with them for a rousing performance.