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"What's the sound of the Northside?"
In a repurposed Portakabin in Hollyhill, a small but dedicated crew led by music producer Garry McCarthy has built a creative powerhouse for and by the community.
On my first visit to the Kabin Studio, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon this month, the yard outside the Portacabin was a hive of activity. And creativity. Jack, Calvin and Aaron, three local kids, were laying down a rap while Mike Manson That Be Dancin, a professional dancer from Detroit in the US, was hyping them up.
Manson was there on an impromptu visit with TRUTH, Akim Funk Buddha, KayKay47 and DJ Dirty Digits, all part of Next Level, an international hip-hop diplomacy intitiative funded by the US Embassy. After a trip to Dublin, Next Level were doing a week-long camp in Coláiste Stiofán Naofa with Music Generation Cork City.
The visitors then performed a mix of hip-hop, beat boxing and break dancing for the crowd. From the visitors it passed back to the homeside with performances by Darren, aka MC Tiny, Jamie the King, and Misneach, leaving the visitors visibly impressed.
“This wasn’t part of the original plan”, Dirty Digits, real name Dan, tells me.
“We kept hearing about the Kabin, so we asked if we could come up and take a look.”
For a small studio, the Kabin makes its voice heard well beyond its home on the Northside of Cork city. Located in a repurposed Portacabin in the heart of Hollyhill, across from the local library, the Kabin Studio has become a focal point for musical and artistic activity in the Northside.
A temporary space no more
Largely led by Garry McCarthy, aka GMC and “Kalabanx” a songwriter and music producer, the studio collaborates with and receives support from Music Generation, Cork City Council’s RAPID programme, Tomar Trust, and local youth projects like Foróige and CDYS.
“I got a set of keys to the Kabin back in 2012 through Music Generation,” Garry says. “At the time I was looking for a space to do workshops from, and also kind of like a studio space, and this place was empty.”
“But it’s only since like 2017/18 that it’s taken off,” he said.
“To be honest I didn’t expect the Kabin to be here so long.”
That’s because the Kabin was initially conceived as a temporary space; a new road was planned to cut through the area, dislodging the space. On the back of that, investment in the Kabin was cautious and tentative.
However, as with other temporary projects - such as the first parklet on Douglas Street in the city centre - the idea took root and gained a following and a base. Garry says that in the years leading up to the pandemic they started applying for different grants and funding streams and that’s when things really started to kick off at the Kabin.
The Kabin is now open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and it draws an array of musicians and local kids who learn the craft of singing, producing and playing music.
Jessie Cawley who runs trad sessions on Fridays across the street in the library was sitting and watching the impromptu performances when I visited. She says that the Kabin has become the main space for creativity in Knocknaheeny.
“You get rock music on Wednesdays”, she tells me, “and there’s other things like podcasting, videography, acting, as well.”
A large collection of instruments, either donated or provided by tutors, serves as evidence of a valued and respected space. The Kabin has about ten tutors who collectively fill in for tutoring and workshops throughout the week. Some are paid through Cork ETB, while others invoice for their time through other projects. However, the Kabin itself does not have any permanent employees.
Scores of local teenagers have come through the doors over the past decade.
"It's easily been hundreds over the last ten years," says Garry. "It must be hundreds; I don't know, it might even be over a thousand," he adds.
"Like, there might be some groups that do a one-off workshop, and there could be around twenty young people here. So if you include that, it's definitely in the thousands. But when you count just the regulars over the past few years, it could well be in the hundreds."
The goal is to create a space that is welcoming and accessible to everyone. There is no cost for the workshops for parents. Instead, there is a suggested donation, but it is not enforced.
“We don’t turn anyone away, if it’s a one-hour workshop we say the suggested donation is €2, if it’s a longer two-hour workshop, throw in €3”, Garry says. “It’s not enforced, if you don’t have it, you’re not going to be turned away.”
Getting back on track
While many kids come and go, others stick with the Kabin and even go on to work there after finishing their schooling. Seán Downey, a local lad, is considered a Kabin OG, and he told me about the positive effects that the space has had on his life.
“My own story would have been in foster care, and so I would’ve met Garry when I was in residential care in Tralee,” he tells me. “
I met Garry through a Garda Youth Diversion program, as I was getting into a bit of trouble. Then I learnt how to be creative, and it changed my entire life.”
Seán has been coming to the Kabin since its establishment in 2012, and he has experience with every aspect of the Kabin.
“I would’ve been a rapper and there was a lot of musical activity happening around the city. Then in 2017, this place started running workshops on a Monday night, and I would’ve done work experience with Garry, studying multimedia. Then I got a job as an assistant tutor.”
The Kabin provided Seán with the chance to explore his creativity and ultimately led to paid employment for him.
The Kabin also has its own council, appropriately named the Kabin Youth Council, which grants a degree of autonomy and decision-making power to the teenagers involved.
Aaron, 13, has been coming to the Kabin for a year and is a member of the Council.
“I help decide what we should change”, he tells me.
Seán explains the concept of the Council to me: “They want ownership…so having things like the Kabin Youth Council here and giving young people a say, even down to the colour of the walls matters,” he says.
“It’s a place that they come to to be creative and it’s great for them to be a part of something, it allows them to make friends.”
Aaron, Jack and Calvin also gain from the freedom that comes with the Kabin.
“We’d all be listening to music rather than making music, (coming here) makes music easier to access”, Aaron says. “But you can just chill here, and there’s loads more to do than just music.”
A sense of belonging is what brings Aaron, Jack, and Calvin back to the Kabin week after week.
"If you ask the young people who come here, they always use the word 'family' to describe this place. It's like a huge family," Seán says.
And this sense of family is evident as soon as you step inside - the walls are adorned with pictures of all the kids who have been part of the Kabin, whether on adventures, working on projects, or simply having fun. Every person who passes through is remembered and permanently included in the story of the Kabin.
Moreover, the Kabin provides the kids with opportunities that many others can only dream of.
From the Kabin to the Avenue
"When they're on stages like that and in the limelight, I guess it makes things more real for them. And occasionally, they also get paid gigs," says Garry.
“Sometimes they’re asked to perform at small festivals and things like that are quite encouraging as well.”
Garry also mentions that some of the teenagers who have been part of the Kabin have had the chance to release music and videos. He tells me about a group of six teenage girls called Misneach, who wrote and produced several songs last year. "Misneach" is the Irish word for courage.
Cara and Sophie, two members of the Misneach crew, started writing songs in the Kabin in 2018. Then, in 2022, they collaborated with Garry and the Kabin crew to apply for funding from the St. Patrick's Festival x TikTok Creative Fund. They were chosen as one of the winners and were awarded €10,000.
"We then encouraged them to write three songs about female empowerment, and they also created three music videos to accompany the songs," says Garry.
Misneach has received offers to perform throughout the country and will soon be performing at this year's Belfast Pride Festival.
In addition to music, the Kabin also offers workshops in multimedia, videography, and coding. More recently, they’ve been getting their hands dirty with horticulture workshops.
"I think, especially in the past year or two, the Kabin has evolved into more than just a place to write rap songs. We now have access to videographers, video editing, podcasting, and even graphic design. It has become an all-around creative space," Garry explains. He mentions "Throwing Shapes," a short documentary created by the Kabin Studio in collaboration with Graffiti Theatre for the Cork Midsummer Festival.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with Garry and all of the crew in the Kabin for many years on numerous projects, and it’s been great watching them all grow artistically and as people,” says Stevie G, a music producer and DJ, who has been making the trip up to the Kabin in Hollyhill for years as part of outreach and youth work projects.
“It’s a great hub and an important part of the community plus it shows what can happen when youth work gets supported,” he added.
While the Kabin currently only opens three times a week, Garry would love to see it open on a full-time basis.
"Have it open five, six, or seven days a week. Make it a space, a true hub for creativity in the Northside and in Cork city," he says.
“(That way) anyone in the area who feels like they want a space where they can be themselves and be creative, that this is a space where they can go. That we finally get to a stage where we have full-time staff here, that we’re fully supported, we’re not applying for grant after grant after grant and hoping we get it.”
“That way it becomes a full-time space,” Garry says
Garry and the team have accomplished a lot, an awful lot, from a repurposed portacabin. Who knows how much more they could create with a full-time space. Maybe, one day, a local artist will write that song, about one of the city’s most vibrant and creative musical spaces.
You can catch some of the Kabin crew at Elizabeth Fort on June 10 as part of Rhyme Island’s “Rock the Block” grand finale.