The scorching sun is momentarily masked by a cloud as the young woman softly breaks into song, wavering over the opening cadences. Her voice cracks as the first verse draws to a close. Lifting her eyes to the dozens of rows of listeners – shoulder-to-shoulder and silent in anticipation – she takes a deep breath, and launches into the chorus at full power. The crowd erupts into euphoric applause, swaying and singing along as she belts out Adele.
“This is the first time I’ve sung in public in two years,” says Rhona Smith afterwards, visibly shaking as she puts the mic down. She laughs, then cries overwhelmed tears as the audience’s applause turns into a standing ovation.
This is Bearpit Karaoke – and it’s just reignited a former singer’s love of the stage. Consisting of a microphone hooked up to portable speakers, powered by a car battery and transported on a bicycle, it’s a Berlin institution that, this year, has been running for a decade in Mauerpark – the green lung of the upmarket Prenzlauer Berg district.
The event is held each sunny summer Sunday, in a concrete amphitheatre built on a spot that was once on the “Death Strip” that straddled East and West Berlin. Today, Mauerpark welcomes up to 50,000 people each weekend, who come to meander through flea-market stands piled high with knick-knacks and street foods; watch buskers and basketball players; spray-paint tags on the remaining 800m stretch of Berlin Wall; and test their mettle singing in front of some 2,000 spectators.
Although it’s now one of the capital’s most legendary alternative spectacles – attracting professional singers, wannabe stars and total beginners alike – Bearpit Karaoke had modest beginnings. Dublin-born expat and bike courier Gareth Lennon (who runs the event under the name Joe Hatchiban) saw the potential in karaoke for creating alternative tourist souvenirs.
“YouTube was just getting big,” remembers Lennon. “My idea was to film karaoke around the Brandenburg Gate or something, and offer it to the singer as a YouTube upload. I got a rudimentary loud speaker, battery and converter, and set off on my courier bike in February 2009.”
He would set up the speaker, start singing and grab people from the street to join in. “I could tell there was something in it, because I was able to get people to sing and others would watch. It was cool,” he says. “But the random nature of it meant that if someone didn’t want to sing, the crowd would break up.”
The way to mediate that was to find a permanent location – and Lennon was living near Mauerpark at the time. He decided to try out the concrete pit; the first hosting of Bearpit Karaoke was primarily just a technical test. “I hadn’t established the life of the car battery, so one Sunday I decided to set it up at the amphitheatre and find out how long it would go for,” he says. “It was cold – there weren’t many people about, but I got a lot of them to sing.
“As the weather improved I started to go back regularly. Word got around and by the end of May, there were people there waiting every Sunday. I knew if I wasn’t going to be there the week after, I’d have to tell the crowd. That’s when I knew it had begun.”
It might have been an instant hit with the public, but over the years the karaoke has come up against obstacles with the local council, which tripled the cost of its permit in 2012. The event was almost cancelled for good this year, following a series of noise complaints from local residents.
Its saving grace was its popularity with the party crowd – who, luckily, also happen to make the rules. “The council is made of very young people,” explains long-term Bearpit supporter Dr Martin Haring, who sat in on their meetings. “They listened to the neighbourhood but ultimately were positive about the vibe that’s created by the karaoke, where everyone is welcome.”
This vibe plays out in the diversity of performers that have played here over the years. Syrian refugees have taken to the stage. Hopeful young men have proposed to their future wives and opera singers have graced the amphitheatre with arias in between Staatsoper shows. And a grey-bearded older man in a grubby chequered shirt has performed My Way by Frank Sinatra, in German, every single Sunday, his eyes misting up with tears as the audience rises to its feet to applaud his final note.
“A lot of moving stuff happens, and all sorts of weird stuff,” says Lennon. “But those moments when everyone feels the same thing at the same time, when something clicks? You can almost reach out and touch it.”
Bureaucracy dictates that it would be a difficult event to pull off anywhere else in the world, and Lennon is convinced that he wouldn’t be allowed to run Bearpit Karaoke in Berlin now if it wasn’t already so established. While the popularity of karaoke reaches near-hysterical levels in South Korea, the Philippines and Japan (where it originated), it’s generally confined to soundproof booths rather than in the open – as it is in the West, if not before an inebriated pub crowd.
But Bearpit’s atmosphere of freedom and acceptance is unique thanks to Lennon. Despite having received advertising offers from the likes of Coca-Cola and Volkswagen, he’s rejected any notion of commercialising the event, preferring to fund it via small-change donations that he discreetly collects when he’s not emceeing. Every performer is equally encouraged and all of Mauerpark’s weird and wonderful characters (and there are many) are welcome. If Lennon sees a singer falter, he joins in the verse, dances beside them, nods in encouragement.
“He coaches the singers and helps them perform better,” smiles Dr Haring, who has sung here more than 10 times and is sporting a Bearpit-branded T-shirt. “He knows how to pick out the right people from the crowd.”
Lennon is also a born showman, and bookends each Sunday session with his own performances. Today, he rounds off proceedings with a theatrical, gravelly rendition of Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher, getting the crowd going one last time as the police arrive to shut things down at 7pm sharp.
“Standing in front of so many people and performing is a thing I usually never do,” says firsttimer Marjolein Bieri, who’s in Berlin celebrating her engagement. “But everyone claps, sings along and cheers.”
One performer, Mario Giacometto, has been singing here since 2009 – around 14 times so far. “Sometimes we’ve had famous singers,” he remembers (in May, the winner of 2017’s The Voice of Germany, Natia Todua, performed). “But really it’s about losing your fears and being one with the public. Singing is a spontaneously happy act. It resonates with and unites people that hear it.”
For Dr Haring, attending Bearpit Karaoke since day one has even informed his university research. A professor in entrepreneurship at an Amsterdam university, he uses karaoke as a core part of his teaching programme. “It gets them out of their comfort zone,” he explains. “I’ve specialised in karaoke as a way for people to connect with each other. Singing makes us more open and friendly.”
It’s all high praise for a one-man set-up that happened almost by accident and that still takes place under a striped parasol in one of Berlin’s scruffiest parks. But Lennon doesn’t seem fazed by its success. His thoughts on the phenomenon’s 10th anniversary are typically understated – never overhyping the come-one, come-all vibe of what is arguably both the city’s coolest and most accessible event.
“It’s something to stick on a T-shirt, for sure,” he says. “But 11 years would be cooler than 10, and so would 14. It’s just another year.” bearpitkaraoke.com