The area where Berlin’s Muaerpark stands today was once a death strip through which the infamous Berlin Wall ran. Today, the public park straddles this area (hence the name, which means Wall Park) and is quickly becoming one of the most significant cultural hotspot of the city.
On what used to be the eastern side of the wall on a fine Sunday afternoon, an Irish man by the name Joe Hatchiban pulls up at the park’s Bearpit Amphitheatre and set up his modest looking karaoke equipment on the circular stone stage.
It is here that some 2000 people come every Sunday to witness and participate in the Bearpit Karaoke show, an event whose fame is growing exponentially and is quickly becoming a cultural identity of Berlin.
On this sunny Sunday, Joe was at his element, teasing volunteers who had submitted their names to perform before a relaxed audience who occasionally take swigs of whatever it is they fancy. They are mostly young, mostly Berliners and a lot of visitors to the city. Some two thousand people come here every week for this.
But the karaoke is not just for the young. In the stands were several elderly couples, loners and even the occasional geezers. Within the space of a few minutes, two old men took the mic to some rapturous applause. One of them, the one who did a German version of Frank Sintra, I understand is a regular feature at the show. Every Sunday he comes, does his Frank Sinatra—always the same song—basks in the applause and goes home happy.
There were more, well, shall we say, exciting performances. Regular attendee, Natalia Ulrych really shook up the theatre with sultry dancing as she performed Britney Spear’s Toxic and had the audience cheering into Berlin’s blue skies.
There were performers from an obscure French island in the Indian Ocean, another from France itself, a dandy looking fellow who danced really well and thrilled the audience, and a subdued Italian, all in the space of minutes. And in the middle of it all is Joe Hatchiban who compeers and directs.
In 2009, he set up his Karaoke equipment at the Bearpit and offered his mic to anyone bold enough to give it a try. Now every week, in fair weather, the event holds. Only the intemperance of winter forces the karaoke to hibernate for some months.
But while the season is in swing, what will strike a first-time visitor is the ambiance; the people determined to have a good time, the singers emboldened to try. The reception they get from the audience is often encouraging. And when a performance is good, the audience usually joins in the singing. But even the not-so-great performers get an encouraging applause.
Perhaps nowhere else is Berlin’s cosmopolitan nature more vividly demonstrated than here. Language is not a problem. Most of the songs are in English and hey, anyone can do any version he or she wants. I understand though that Joe is not disposed to people taking off their shirts.
As the cheers and chorus rose and fell, a few metres away, some young men were busy playing basketball. And going past the long-haired hippies selling wire contraptions for kids or some other crafts, the entertainers performing tricks, on what had been the other side of the Berlin Wall one comes up to the famous Mauerpark Floh Markt, or the Mauerpark Flee Market.
Here you find Turks selling kebabs and assorted food, served hot, you find trinkets from the east and the west of the world, memorabilia and paraphernalia from decades gone: used hurricane lamps, old military uniforms, and helmets, old shoes and clothes. Just about anything. Most of them old. You can start a collection of just about anything here. And vibrancy is not quite like an African flea market, actually a lot less noisy. People here don’t shout. But there is a spirit here, an enthusiasm of people meeting and moving together and smiling into each others faces.
So in a way, Mauerpark is Berlin. It is where the old and the new converge, the smell of the past, and the present, of a dark history and a promising future, of broken down walls, of bridges linking not only Berliners, but people from around the world. This place that had been a death strip keeping people apart is today the city’s hottest melting point.