This is an awful time to realise I don’t actually know the words. In front of me is a thousand-strong crowd, one that’s been consuming beer with gusto all afternoon. They’ve come for entertainment and, unfortunately, that entertainment is me. For a not even faintly gifted amateur, this is a terrifying prospect.
‘Bearpit karaoke’ is a very Berlin enterprise. It kicked off in early 2009 when bike courier Joe Hatchiban got hold of a car battery and some speakers. “I already had the cargo bike,” he says. “So I started rolling around town to see if I could get people to sing, and put the videos on YouTube.”
One Sunday afternoon, Joe rocked up at the Mauerpark — a scrappy piece of parkland once bordered by the Berlin Wall. He saw the weekend flea market, and decided to set up his equipment in the graffiti-strewn stone amphitheatre built into the side of a hill. A few curious shoppers wandered over for an impromptu sing-along.
Joe returned the next week, to be met by an even bigger crowd. Since then, providing the weather has held out, his karaoke bike has been a regular Sunday afternoon fixture in the Mauerpark.
The speed with which the amphitheatre fills when Joe shows up is astonishing. A smattering of die-hards are there before 3pm in anticipation, but as soon as Joe arrives, there’s a stampede to find a seat.
One chap, clearly the worse for wear, decides that he’ll just lie down behind the bike for the duration. To his credit, Joe pretends not to notice the snoozing karaoke tramp as a stream of singers brave the bearpit.
Some are clearly regulars, such as the chap in an ill-fitting suit who shuffles on and belts out a German version of My Way before disappearing with his shopping bags. Others clearly fancy themselves as real singers — the girl from Manchester sassing up 99 Red Balloons has clearly had training.
But the vast majority are just up for a laugh. And the bearpit roars and applauds far louder for the flawed but enthusiastic. One pair show incredible balls by getting up to ‘sing’ Tequila by The Champs. They end up prancing around the stage for three minutes, performing increasingly silly dance moves and occasionally yelling “Tequila!” It’s a masterpiece.
There’s a tremendous atmosphere: a real community feel infused with a delicious sense of humour and good-natured appreciation of the inherent absurdity.
That feel-good vibe continues right up to the point where I’m on the stage, staring at a legion of people who’ve been buying beers off the enterprising salesmen for the past two hours. My cosy happiness turns to outright fear. Particularly when I realise that, unlike normal karaoke, the lyrics will not be in front of me.
There’s only one way to go: full-on, no-holds-barred prank monkey. As the opening bars of Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again blast out of the speakers, I prepare to sacrifice pitch, subtlety and correct lyrics on the altar of volume and showmanship. They don’t care if I hit the note; they just want me to go for it at full power.
I launch into a shamelessly exhibitionist display of primeval roaring, camp strutting, air guitars and desperate arm whirling. The crowd claps along and cheers, getting behind the bellowing incompetent served up to them. It feels incredible; what should be a thoroughly humiliating experience leaves me beaming as I skulk off. Joe has created a monster — but an utterly loveable one.
Image: By Alexander Puell (CC-BY-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons