My Barbarian: The Not-So-Amateur Dedicated Amateurs
Superheroes in Canadian-flag garb sing in French and English from a wooden stage to a crowd of onlookers. In a forest, anachronistically costumed singers wax poetic about squirrels. Another song, “Unicorn L.A.,” has the mythical creature as a lyric and visual motif. These are some of the delightfully off-center images in My Barbarian music videos. Malik Gaines, the group’s codirector, explains that the group’s name is evocative of the “barbarian” in Western literature—a challenge from the outside. The group decided to endear the term, hence My Barbarian. They make the idea stick with elaborate costumes, live shows and three-part vocals.
My Barbarian is a group of performers who were born into multiracial, multicultural 1970s California. Their upbringings exposed them to experimental theater, hippie-collectives and high art in rock operas. They are, therefore, a performance troupe that sings. Or a group of musicians that perform theatrics. Gaines, Alex Segade and Jade Gordon have translated their talents into genre-defying performance. “Most of us were self-trained in music and we taught ourselves to sing adequately well,” says Gaines. “It was nothing we learned in school, so that contributes to a dedicated-amateur quality.”
My Barbarian’s performance and musical repertoire draws from a number of influences. Gaines explains a common impetus among the artists: “We take seriously the playful element of culture, mythology and history building.” Under the powers of My Barbarian, that element yields playful didactics that confound cultural issues. My Barbarian recently appeared in Amsterdam, invoking multiple historic eras in its performance-as-critical-commentary on Dutch colonialism.
This season’s StudioSound, My Barbarian’s “Non-western: Our Western,” is a western that takes place in colonial-era Los Angeles and will be performed in Madrid. As to be expected from the troupe’s penchant for the unexpected, theatrical appearances will be made by the Virgin Mary, the U.S. Marines and a pterodactyl from La Brea Tar Pits.