In 1994 I was 19 years old and playing in my first band, Thrush Hermit. We were shooting our first video on the third floor of the Khyber building. I met and immediately fell for the video makeup artist, Rebecca Kraatz. We were married 12 years later.
By 2000, my new band the Emergency was jamming on the Khyber’s top floor in Ultramagnetic Recording, Charles Austin’s music studio. The skylight leaked, it was unventilated and hot, and we had to lug our gear up and down four flights of stairs. It was perfect. It was here we recorded our first album, Down at the Khyber, a reference to my favourite New Orleans singer Irma Thomas’ Down at Muscle Shoals. The Khyber was our Muscle Shoals and the music we were making there felt as relevant as anything being recorded at Abbey Road or Capitol, if slightly scrappier and budget conscious. At night we would head downstairs to the first floor Khyber Club to have a drink (or three), see a band (or be the band), and hang out with all the other artists, musicians, potters, freaks and locals. It was one of the happiest and most creative times of my life.
The Khyber is an incubator. It’s not simply a bunch of struggling musicians and NSCAD students hanging out, waiting on some grant money. It’s where people who occupy the fringe cut their teeth, launch their careers and find their community. It has housed hundreds of artist studios, galleries and local businesses over the years. This cross pollination of vibrant creativity and commerce in one building is rare. Can the same case be made about many other local buildings? Maybe the Roy but now it’s demolished.
I understand the argument that suggests these ideas, businesses and projects could incubate in another, more modernized space but it’s not that simple. The Khyber represents something bigger to the community. It’s our mini Greenwich Village or Left Bank. It’s history speaks to you through the floorboards and its presence downtown on Barrington Street is crucial. Yes, the Khyber costs the city money and it is easy to put a number on that cost that scares the city council. What is not as easy to tally is the wealth the building’s occupants have generated and put back into the community over the years. This number is certainly far more than the four million dollars they are saying it will cost to repair the building.
As the historic Halifax we all love disappears in the face of development we have to find a way to preserve and hold onto The Khyber, whatever the price tag. To quote my wife Rebecca, “we still need to have one beautiful lady standing there”.
- Joel Plaskett