The thrum of an amplified guitar wafts into the intersection of 45th and Chester. Its melody, rising from the dimly lit picnic area of Clark Park, is a sonic reminder that it’s Thursday night.
Nearly every Thursday evening since August 2020, musicians, poets, storytellers, and spectators have been gathering in the park for what has been named the West Philly Open Mic.
Week after week — at 6 p.m. in the summer, 5 p.m. in the winter — organizers Line El Dirini and Andrew Galati welcome people of all ages, talents, and backgrounds to get on the mic and share their art. The lively outdoor affair, now well known throughout the neighborhood, often goes until 10 or 11 o’clock at night.
On this dark, chilly December evening, an enthusiastic audience of about two dozen attendees — perched along the stone wall or sitting at picnic tables, sharing snacks and libations under the orange glow of streetlights — cheer on the trombonists, flutists, singer-songwriters, guitarists, djembe drummers, and spoken-word artists who take turns at the microphone or stand together and jam. The effect is like a mini block party meets a DIY venue under the stars.
“It’s a really cool atmosphere,” said Lexi Lewis, a neighbor and frequent Open Mic spectator. “People are so welcoming, fun, and open-minded. Everyone’s invited to come.”
The series began by happenstance in the summer of 2020. Worldwide, the pandemic had dealt a catastrophic blow to performing artists. Closed venues and canceled performances were wreaking havoc on not just their livelihoods but their spirits: For many, the brutal interlude of playing and writing mostly in isolation was hobbling their creativity, social connections, feelings of belonging, and mental well-being.
Such was the case for West Philly singer-songwriter Line El Dirini, 35, who yearned to play music in public and connect with other artists again.
“I was jobless and thought I’d busk,” she said, explaining her July 2020 purchase of a small, portable, battery-operated Cube amp. “But I’m always very shy to just go in the street and sing like that.”
So she asked her friend Andrew Galati, 35, also a singer-songwriter, to join her. That Thursday evening, they gathered with a few friends in the picnic area of Clark Park and played.
“It was everything we had been missing,” El Dirini recalled, describing how good it felt to play alongside musicians again. Soon, others wanted to join. Forming a socially distanced circle, the group established a round-robin, each artist playing one song apiece until they got all the way around the circle and began again. They went around and around.
The group returned the following Thursday and the one after that. El Dirini and Galati took precautions, wiping down the microphone between performers, masking up, and encouraging social distancing.
Participants began telling their friends to come. Eventually, the group became too large to fit in a circle, and the Open Mic reshaped itself into a more traditional performer-audience setup. Word of mouth continued to spread — poets and storytellers joined the mix. Passersby heard music and asked to join.
One of them was Sam Sander-Effron, a local trombonist and melodica player.
“I found this as I was walking on a random Thursday night,” he said, marveling at how the event offered “a safe and respectful place to be social at a time when that was hard to find. I heard the music and met all these incredible musicians.”
Sixteen months and one vaccination rollout later, the West Philly Open Mic has grown to a considerable size. Dozens of people in the West Philly area have made it a weekly tradition, with new participants joining every week.
“It’s an aggregate, communal effort,” said Galati, noting how attendees contribute helpful items to the cause such as extra batteries for the amp, or a raised fire pit to keep participants warm. (One regular, Rob Butler, a lighting technician, often arrives with a setup of headlamps affixed to tripods to illuminate the performers at the front.)
“[Line and I] just provide the spark,” Galati said.
Unique to the weekly gathering is the deliberate absence of “the list” — the usual focal point of traditional open mics — which catalogs performers’ names in order of performance time and determines the evening’s lineup. Artists frequently scramble to arrive early enough to nab their preferred spot.
In the early days of the West Philly Open Mic, El Dirini and Galati — longtime attendees of countless other open mics — decided to leave out that element.
“By doing away with a list, we’ve done away with a lot of expectations that come with an open mic,” Galati said. “In that sense, we’ve freed ourselves and the audience to partake in a spontaneous creation of an event. I don’t think we’d be able to do that in a conventional format.”
This ethos is evident in the uninhibited participation of attendees, even those who are new to the stage. They hop in whenever and however they feel moved to. Spontaneous, improvised jamming is a signature of these nights, blending artists of varied genres and mediums. Musicians play together, often unrehearsed, and it’s not uncommon to see a drummer or guitarist play alongside a spoken-word artist.
“I never bring anything prepared,” said flutist Samia Bouzid. “I just bring an instrument and jump in and play.”
Zakaariyah The Hardin, a hip-hop artist and promotions director at UTM Radio, an independent music platform, said he’s at the Open Mic every week and believes strongly in its collaborative nonformality.
“We clap through the mistakes,” he said. “You don’t have to be perfect.”
Some attendees arrive carrying instruments or notebooks to read from; others come just come to watch. Regulars wave enthusiastically at those they recognize. The event has become the birthplace of a multitude of friendships and has seeded collaborations that have continued far beyond Thursday evenings, said El Dirini.
“I have friends who have joined bands” through the weekly gathering, she said. “In a time where it was really hard to connect, I think the Open Mic provided a space to come together and say, ‘Hey, we’re people, and we need each other.’”
Added Galati, “It took on a life of its own, and that has continued to this day. It started a course that extends beyond us.”
As the evening hums on, the picnic area fills. A singer vocalizes over a pattering guitar theme, afterward saying it’s her first time performing on her instrument solo. A poet recites dream poems. Then it’s time for another jam with guitar, voice, mandolin, trombone, and harmonica.
The magic of the evening is not lost on musician Stephan Tsapatoris, a West Philly Open Mic mainstay who cycles through four instruments over the course of the evening.
“The companionship and joy of sharing the space, the music, and love of the arts helps with the mental health of the entire community,” he said. ”And it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing.”