Underground Amsterdam at Mezrab’s Subculture Cabaret

By Thea Bladt Hansen

Photo: Alborz Sahebdivani

— Mezrab is known as a House of Stories, a vibrant place where storytellers tell tales from around the world, but once a month the old warehouse building in the centre of Amsterdam invites its guests to go down the rabbit hole for a night of Subculture Cabaret: an unpredictable, chaotic and experimental evening combining art forms that normally belong to different cultural scenes.

Last weekend’s Subculture Cabaret was a hotchpotch of everything from tap-dancing to a cultural song exchange, which according to the performer Esmail Bnaoe could only be described as “Singing something phonetically that you know f**k-nothing about.” Afterwards, a satirical song on Dutch identity written and performed by Georgi Milev, guitarist of the live band, was very well received by the predominantly international audience, who ended up singing along with the chorus: “I’ve learnt to disconnect all my facial expressions from my emotions – don’t smile!” 

Guitarist Georgi Milev performing his original song on Dutch identity. Photo: Alborz Sahebdivani

Created 15 years ago by an Iranian family that wanted to bring their country’s tradition for sharing detailed stories with them to Amsterdam, Mezrab now hosts around 200 events every year and has expanded its programme far beyond traditional storytelling.

A year ago, Margo van de Linde, host and curator at Mezrab, was asked to come up with a new idea for an event. She decided to create Subculture Cabaret as a reaction against the notion that art has to be something specific and exclusive. She explains: “I got bored quite quickly of going to the theatre or going to a spoken words night. It did not make me feel very inspired… To me that is just another slice of a segregated way of living.” Van de Linde therefore decided to combine the creative outcomes of different subcultures in her cabaret at Mezrab.  

Usually events at Mezrab are themed and stick to one artform, but Subculture Cabaret is a clash of diverging styles which are stitched together by a thread of music. The only constant is a live band that provides the performers with musical assistance.

The second performance of the evening illustrated how chaos under the right circumstances can be turned into successful improvisation. The performance was confusing at first, as the stage stood empty. After a few moments, tap-sounds started to rise up from the back of the room. Suddenly, tap dancer Marije Nie jumped into view, musically accompanied by the band’s bass player Matteo Mazzu. The two performed an untraditional duet between tap shoes and bass. When the performance was over, Nie explained that “We have never performed with each other before.”

From the outside, the old warehouse in which Mezrab is located does not stand out much from its neighbouring buildings, but its brown brick entrance stands right next to a pier that provides an unrivalled view of Amsterdam’s waterfront. The racks in front of the building are flooded with bikes, which is customary in Amsterdam. In the evening, the interior transforms as a myriad of people occupy the benches, chairs and sofas gathered around the small stage. Mezrab is a mixture of an underground bar and a cultural centre, and this is reflected in the interior: patterned rugs cover the stage, all illuminated by a disco ball. While at the bar you can order a beer or some Iranian ice cream, depending on what you are in the mood for.

The live band with Anastasis Sarakatsanos on keys, Henning Luther on percussion, Matteo Mazzu on bass, and Georgi Milev on guitar and vocals. Photo: Alborz Sahebdivani

Mezrab recently hosted its tenth Subculture Cabaret. Now that the event has been moved from Wednesdays to busier Fridays, the amount of people attending has rapidly increased. The programme of Subculture Cabaret varies every month, but the concept remains the same: van de Linde is host of the evening and entertains between all performances; there is a band and around eight different artists. All participants perform for free and the people running the bar are volunteers. As there is no entrance fee, the entire evening is funded through voluntary donations by audience members. The donations are then used to rent the warehouse building. 

With its ever-changing programme, Subculture Cabaret has an element of chaos and the role of the host is often to keep that under control. The opportunity to give in to disorder for one evening could be a reason for the recent success of the Subculture Cabaret evenings at Mezrab, and van de Linde says that she “Never know[s] ahead of time what the show is going to be, a red line just starts to appear during the evening… It is sort of rebellious, but in a soft way.” 

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