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Grace Barbé - pic by Dave Le May
Grace Barbé - pic by Dave Le May

19 March

Photos by Dave Le May

Walking into the Milk Bar last Friday, the venue had been transformed from the fusty, down at heel band room it once was to a lively dancehall type venue.  It was good to see that a few small touches are all it takes to make such a big difference — in this case the stage set up with a plastic palm tree adorned with fairy lights holding down stage left and an actual pot plant (no, not that sort) on stage right, as well as a lighting rig that included patterned yellow lights that bathed the empty (not for long!) dance floor, as if to show the punters as they arrived where they’d be spending most of their evening.  There also was the merch stand set up over on the far wall of the venue and the DJ booth sitting just in front of the sound desk, from where DJ Lady C played reggae, dancehall, ska and grooving music all night long.

Tonight, Grace Barbé and her band rocked out harder and more potently that I’ve ever seen them rock before.

Somehow the venue looked — what’s the word? — complete.  For the first time in all my years attending gigs at the Civic Hotel, someone had nailed down all the details, and what a difference it made.

Afrotropik Records is a Fremantle-based record label and music management/mentoring team specialising in Afro and Island sounds.  Led by Grace Barbé, the multi award-winning musician, originally from the Seychelles, who now calls Fremantle home, their limited edition vinyl runs regularly sell out and, being home to Barbé’s own band, Crucial Rockers and Soukouss International, you can guarantee that any event they put on will be one giant party.

Tonight was no exception.

But, as the set-up of the venue foreshadowed, this was never going to be just some ordinary good times in the suburban wilds of Inglewood.  No, no, no.  With Barbé, you get more than just good music, you also get wisdom.  In some ways, it’s a very Australian thing, the getting of wisdom, but in Barbé’s world this is a very different Australia to Henry Handel Richardson’s and thank whoever it is you might want to give thanks to for that.  For starters we live in a world where Barbé can proudly put her own female name to her work and, although that’s now been the case for quite some time, Barbé’s Australia also is a multicultural, matriarchal society where music is the language of both love and learning.

Sound good so far?  Just wait till you hear the music!

The evening got underway with Noble Kings’ take on Ghanaian influenced funk, afrobeat and highlife music with a pinch of psychedelic rock.  At least, that’s what the bio on their Facebook page says and, having now seen them perform their extended jams, heavily laced with arpeggiated guitar grooves and driving percussion, I’m heavily inclined to agree.  Watching their set, I was transported home for a while to my days of childhood in the early 70s when my family lived for seven years in Zambia.  These were the sounds of the local record store in Kitwe where we lived, filled with artists and music so different to the diet of Johnny Cash and Rolf Harris my brothers and I were fed by our parents.  So different, they almost sounded illegal and so, of course, we just had to join in with them, soak up as much of it as we could.  Part way through Noble Kings’ set I sent my brother, who now lives in Spain, some video of proceedings asking, “Remind you of anywhere?”  His reply, “I’m green with envy.”

Noble Kings play high energy, high musicianship African rock.  They keep it tight, but they can wig out with the best of them.  By the time they’d finished their set just about everyone in the rapidly-filling venue was on the dancefloor soaking up the rhythms, moving and being moved.  If you get the chance, go see them.

Crucial Rockers are Grace Barbé’s ‘other’ band.  Flanked by her long-time collaborator and musical director, Jamie Searle, but switching to six string duties while Searle plays bass, Crucial Rockers is Barbé’s chance to party on down while playing a range of reggae, ska and dancehall originals and covers, including current single, an interpretation of Womack & Womack’s ‘Teardrops’. 

“We’re going to take you around the world,” announced Barbé at the opening of their set, wearing a felt hat, a little disguise that was a small nod to the fact that she was due to come out again later in the evening and be the actual Grace Barbé.  Confused?  Don’t be, come along for the ride.  And what a ride it was!

We got the dub reggae of ‘Breaking Down’, a track originally released by Grace Barbé; the pop reggae of next single, ‘By My Side’; a cover of Rita Marley’s ‘One Draw’, a tribute to the women of reggae music and just a damned fine song, beautifully rendered by Crucial Rockers tonight and sung by Barbé with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye; and a whole lot of other laid back party grooves in between.

Crucial Rockers ended their set with a dancehall style mash up worthy of the late, great U Roy, taking in standards like ‘Jammin’ and ‘Pass The Dutchie’, among others.  They were so, so good, I just had to send my brother another video.  This time he didn’t even bother replying.  Still dealing with the green, I guess.  This band is exactly what their name suggests, both crucial and rocking.  Put ‘em on your list.

I was so very relieved when Barbé did me a personal solid and came on right after Crucial Rockers to do her thing as Grace Barbé, instead of making me wait until after Soukouss Internationale, as advertised.  Well, that’s why she did it in my little world, anyway.  Oh, to be so important!  Just to be clear, I was relieved because I was kind of worn out from another day of going through a wonderful sort of second adolescence, nothing to do with Soukouss, because they’re quality party people to their core, but it did mean I could mostly fulfil my duties as a music reviewer and get a slightly early night. 

(My apologies, Alfred, if that’s too much first-person stuff for you.  I’m sure you’ll find somewhere to share the confection that is your outrage, but please keep out of my patch in future.)

Walking on stage sans hat, hair combed up into two magnificent afro-buns, one on either side, and strapping on her trusty bass, the one she’s won awards for playing, Barbé was in her element from the very beginning of her three piece’s set.  In this band, Barbé is part musician and song writer, part performer, part teacher (something she does as her day job) and all matriarch.  This is a delicate balance and one that couldn’t work unless the music was just so, which, with Grace Barbé, it always is.

I’m going to indulge in one more personal recollection to exemplify (sorry/not sorry, Alfred).  Many years ago, my brother, the same one I was sending videos to tonight, introduced me to a raggedy but quite influential English punk band called Alternative Television, playing me a live album where, at one point, their singer, Mark Perry, was just repeating to the audience, “Listen,” for what felt like hours while being roundly ignored by whatever bunch of late 70s youths were in the room that night.  No one cared what he had to say because he hadn’t paid his dues by serving up music good enough to make him worth listening to. 

Whereas, with Barbé the music is so good that, tonight, she had the packed dancefloor filling the space right in front of the stage, a feat almost unheard of in painfully reserved Perth; doing the coconut at the end of her set, massed formation dancing that involves shaking your booty; and, in between, drinking in songs about the strength and wisdom of women and listening enthralled to her take on what it means to live in a matriarchal society.

Yes, with Barbé you get it all and it’s delivered with such gentle strength and wrapped in music that is so moving, both physically and emotionally, that you can’t help but want to be part of the revolution she is leading.  Singing in both English and Creole, Barbé’s music pulses with life that comes from her birth home in the Seychelles, traverses the African continent and the West Indies, and has a home in the culturally diverse and creatively fecund shire of Fremantle.

Tonight, Grace Barbé and her band rocked out harder and more potently that I’ve ever seen them rock before.  In the past I’ve sensed a bit of hesitance from Barbé on stage, tonight she came to us fully in charge of her powers and swept all before her with a performance that could be hard for her to top in years to come.  But you know what, it’s a challenge I’m sure she will relish and be entirely capable of meeting.  After tonight, I have the sense that this is a woman, an artist, who could do anything.

Again, my apologies to Soukouss Internationale for slipping off early, I’ll join your party next time around.

Triple Engine Triple Engine


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