Berlin’s ‘bearpit karaoke’ under threat

The Guardian, May 28, 2012

Sebastian has the crowd in the palm of his hand. Belting out a version of Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know?, the enthusiastic Australian gets the 1,500 or so onlookers to join in the chorus before doing an honorary lap around the improvised stage.

He is one of about 50 amateur singers from across the globe who have mustered the nerve to take part in this afternoon’s instalment of a Berlinphenomenon: bearpit karaoke.

For the past four years thousands of visitors and locals have been flocking to the open-air karaoke sessions on Sunday afternoons in the Mauerpark, which stretches along part of the former “death strip” between East and West Berlin. Now a decision by the local council could put the hugely popular mass singing session at risk.

Officials have tripled the prices for the permit needed to hold the karaoke, to €1,500 (£1,205), and have stipulated that the shows can only be held on 12 specific dates during the summer.

That could disappoint many of the 30,000-50,000 people who visit theMauerpark every Sunday. While many are there to check out the sprawling flea market adjacent to the park, the karaoke is undoubtedly also a huge draw.

The singing spectacle came about pretty spontaneously, says Gareth Lennon, the 38-year-old Dubliner who runs the karaoke under the nameJoe Hatchiban.

Back in 2009 he and some friends hit upon the idea of cycling around the city with his new cargo bike, equipped with a speaker, laptop and microphone, and trying to film people doing karaoke.

One afternoon he decided to swing by the stone amphitheatre set deep in the steep grassy slope on one side of the park, and see if people would perform. “Within a month or two we were getting fairly full houses, and it has just gone on from there.”

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