Down At The Khyber

Article by Adria Young with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

Memorialized in songs from Joel Plaskett to Cousins, The Khyber Centre for the Arts was ordered to close its doors to the Halifax community on March 31 due to uncovered asbestos. With a month’s notice to vacate the three-storey Victorian mixed-use space, the Khyber Board scrambled to find temporary headquarters, as the City of Halifax and the Board continue to negotiate the need for art space. Alternatives have been found for administration, but the loss to Halifax’s music scene is already palpable.

Dan Joyce, director of the Khyber, says that live music made up one-third of the centre’s event programming, including festivals like the Halifax Pop Explosion and OBEY Convention. “Live music was a big part of the vision,” says Joyce, and it supported musicians by “giving them a space to play.”

The top two levels of the Khyber provided two large ballroom areas for live performance, a third more intimate space and an optional Centre-staffed bar, which has been lately operating in-profit. One of the Khyber’s most unique aspects, says Mark Grundy (Heaven for Real, Quaker Parents), was that “it was a place where a lot of different types of creativity could converge and flourish, creating a sort of tapestry effect between visual art and music.” This relationship especially thrived during OBEY, for instance.

A festival of outsider art now in its seventh season, OBEY relied heavily on the space for festival programming and made use of the in-house expertise and infrastructure for visual art installation. Bands played under media projections and black-lit paintings; the Khyber hosted zine fairs and poetry events.

“The Khyber enabled OBEY to grow because of the freedom they gave us to indulge in non-musical forms of art during our concerts, which really helped give the festival a unique aesthetic,” says Darcy Spidle, OBEY director and boss of Divorce Records. “Early on, we felt that live music didn’t necessarily need to be tied to the bar scene and that live shows could thrive outside that environment.  From a business perspective, the Khyber was a role model, with Sappy Fest and Weird Canada, and helped us through the process of becoming a non-profit organization.” Some of Spidle’s favourite Khyber shows include Stinkin’ Rich (Buck 65), Six Too and Al Tuck in the late 1990s, and OBEY guests like Shearing Pinx, Dirty Beaches and Eric Copeland. “Lots of magic. We’ll miss it this year,” he says.

The Khyber closure also displaced Halifax Rebel Girl Rock Camp, established last summer to provide girls aged 10 to 17 an intro to music and arts culture, from pedals to posters, from video creation to performance. Co-organizer Stephanie Johns, arts editor of The Coast, drummer in Moon and Khyber board member, says the Khyber’s large and varied spaces offered the best all-ages venue for the camp.

“It was perfect because many of the people involved in RGRC were already involved with the Khyber,” she says. “More of an alternative venue than a bar, it was perfect for people on the fringes doing something different that just didn’t fit in a traditional bar or pub-setting, and art was always first.”

The centrality of the Barrington Street location in downtown Halifax also helped widen the art community’s reach by being visible to the general public, with its rich and well-known cultural history.
 “Our history makes bands that know nothing about Halifax and have never been to Halifax want to play the Khyber,” says Joyce. The Khyber’s unconventional structure and mandate will be hard to replace. Still, the Board is hopeful that the Khyber will be restored, operating by satellite in the meantime. 
 “Dan Joyce has been a real cultural hero over the last few months,” says Spidle, “He fought to change the uncertain future into what will likely be a much more improved Khyber Centre for the Arts. The Mayor has promised to invest in the building for future generations in Halifax. We’re optimistic.”