The Sweet Sounds of A Unified Berlin

Words & Images by: Seth Rubin

PRELUDE

It's September 7, 2008 and I'm six months in on a backpacking trip through Europe. I find myself in Athens, Greece, sitting on a rock, on THE sacred rock that is The Acropolis. The Parthenon stands before me and the sun beats down from above. It's a sight to behold, captured in many resplendent photographs. However, for most, it has remained so far away, nearly untouchable. I sat, thought and watched as the tourists passed by, one after another, with friends and loved ones, snapping photos and basking in the now. Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think how I had no interest in sitting here, how I felt alone and never before so bored of sightseeing. The hot, arid conditions were wearing on me. Later that night I bought a plane ticket to Berlin, Germany for a recharge with the thriving arts scene I had heard so much about.

Arriving in Berlin two days later, I was pleasantly surprised, though a bit unprepared, for the much colder autumn temperatures. It was no longer blazing hot and the green grass shone with beautiful evening dew. I embraced the change and grew excited for the times to come. Still aware of my continually growing boredom with sightseeing, I attacked historic Berlin on the first day with one of Sandeman's New Berlin free tours. I then quickly moved on to the arts.

I knew Berlin had more to offer than what appeared on the surface of its intriguing architecture. I picked up a copy of 030, a magazine guide to what's hot in the local entertainment world. Lying on my hostel bed in the afternoon, I daydreamed to the sounds of New Zealand reggae group Katchafire and breezed through the 030. I took the listings day by day, as my taste buds watered at the thought of endless venues and myriad music types, including punk, reggae, hip-hop, ska, mariachi, metal, hardcore, jazz, rock, funk, soul, and even classical. It was then I decided to dedicate my energy to the nights and music in Berlin.

Venue schedule cards

COVERAGE

That first night I visited the Kaffee Burger, a dark bar with a small stage and dance floor. Simba Vibration from St. Petersburg, Russia was performing for the fourth time that week in Berlin, coming off a weekend dub reggae festival at YAAM (Young and African Art Market). Playing a unique style of "roots-Afro-positive" music, the band is a diverse multi-cultural mix, hailing from the Congo (Africa), Finland, and Russia. Congolese vocalist Seraphin was passionate, engaging and brilliant at including the crowd in the song and dance. His uplifting lyrics are delivered in five different languages, switching between Lingala, Swahili, French, English and Russian. The eclectic music draws elements from various regions of the world - the fine-touch guitar techniques of Finland, the powerful percussion of Africa and the rhythmic dance of Jamaica and Cuba. Possibly a better fit for under the sun at an outdoor music festival, the Simba lions didn't let this cold, wet Berlin night bring them down!

Following Simba, with the night still young and the coffee/beer mix doing the trick, I ventured up to Acud, where an Afrobeat jam session was listed. I entered the crowded, smoky room where the crowd sat and grooved on approvingly for their fellow musicians. It was mid-session with the music being led by a guitarist and a bassist, both from Mozambique. I grabbed a brew and snuck up to the front of the stage for the end of the current session, which finished strong and then the band broke apart, as did much of the crowd. I befriended a nearby seemingly amenable woman named Michaela and we grabbed a table at the front for the next session. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Michaela, a Berlin native, is considerably connected to the local scene and musicians through her nearby guitar and bass repair workshop. Throughout the night, she fed me bits of interesting background information on the venue and musicians. In 1989, the current Acud began organizing events in what was a squat house and began its initially turbulent start, not acquiring a proper lease until 1991. The following years proved positive for Acud, exhibiting art installations, theatrical performances and live music. In October 1999, Thierry Bruehl wrote in the UNESCO Courier, "Daily life unwinds in places like Acud, which reflects the events and the metamorphosis of the New City. These are islands in a sprawling city which only ten years ago was an island itself." The "island" he writes of was the suffocating Iron Curtain-era West Berlin, lying within and surrounded by hostile forces. Only after West Berlin was liberated in 1989 was the art scene and culture allowed to fully thrive.

Michaela at work in her studio, Gitarren Werkstatt

These days Acud draws a regular crowd for blues, jazz and Afro jam sessions that take place throughout the week, often led by Mozambique bassist Carlos Dalelane. Over the course of an evening, numerous musicians switch in and out to take their turn in the spotlight. The resulting dynamics are very interesting. Most get on well together, capturing defining moments, expressing their souls onstage and learning from one another. The gestures of admiration and smiles are priceless. Unfortunately, sometimes musicians don't fit well, whether because of their particular instrument, style of music or simply their personality. How does one communicate to the sweet young girl on the violin that there's no place for her in the Afro-jazz jam? She tried and tried, soloed without end, and cut others off without hesitation, until the rest of the band drowned her out and abruptly cut the song short. An off-mic talk followed that I can only presume was on jam etiquette. Sadly, this talk seemed to reinforce her previous behavior and she quickly lost her space onstage.

The night dragged on and impressive performances were growing less frequent. Calls for "Stormy Monday" were voiced from the foreign vocalist in the back, each time receiving the response that it wasn't a blues session. The drinks flowed and his request grew louder and louder, until he was finally given his chance at the mic and unfortunately embarrassed himself. It wasn't long until a pretty young thang took the stage and flirted the microphone right out of his hands and finished off the song herself. Like anything in this world, in a jam session only the strong survive.

In the local jazz circuit, often the strongest musicians are from the former East Berlin, which existed under the German Democratic Republic (GDR) before the Nov 9, 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent October 3, 1990 re-unification. The East German clubs ("Kulturhaus") were run by the GDR, which controlled everything by requiring every musician to pass a qualification test before performing. Each musician would receive a certain categorization rating based on his or her test scores, which translated to what he/she could expect to be paid. Without this categorization, the musicians were restricted to performing at private parties, which were often raided by the police to further maintain control. In turn, the resulting musicians were of a higher caliber, and were in demand in the West after the fall of the wall. At Acud this night appeared vocalist and blues harp player Big Joe Stolle, a well-known East German blues musician.

Big Joe Stolle (left)

The following night, Thursday, I opted for a sensation from the farther East, the Dirtrucks, an all-girl Japanese punk rock band at the Wild at Heart. As you walk in there is a sign over the door that read, "You are entering a heartless zone. Stay wild!" This was the perfect venue for this band, four small girls who packed quite a punch. Celica (vocals) was geared up in a Ramones t-shirt and AC/DC wristband, while bassist Deth-Tomo was clad in black leather and platform boots. The quartet looked tough and surely didn't lose any energy on their travels over from Japan. They delivered a fire to the senses and then some!

That night I arrived back at the hostel at 2 a.m. with news from one of the employees on how to purchase tickets to the Metallica show in Berlin the following night. I hadn't seen the metal giants in a dozen years, and until recently hadn't had much interest in doing so. I'm one of those that think they hadn't put out anything credible since their 1991 "Black Album," although their latest release, Death Magnetic, showed them regaining their edge, lost many years ago with haircuts and shrinks. I was excited to see this new Metallica and recall the days I knew every word and every riff from their '83 to '91 recordings. I bought two tickets and decided to bring my new German friend, Ben, who I'd be staying with the next few nights through the Couchsurfing.com community.

The show was at the brand-new O2 World and was the first public record release party/show for the new album released that same day. Tickets were only available through official Metallica websites and on the day of the show at the stadium. Imagine, a Metallica show with plenty of seats available! The crowd congregated outside the stadium, predominately 30-somethings dressed in all black and consuming bottle after bottle of beer and Jägermeister, and carelessly urinating wherever someone else wasn't standing. I awaited Ben and his roommate Mattis and made friends with people who wouldn't be remembering the show, nor even entering the stadium for that matter in a few instances.

We got seated just in time for the lights to dim and the crowd of 17,000 to explode. Metallica was in Berlin and for the next two hours they kicked ass like a band who once released an album as intense as Kill 'Em All... then aged 25 years. They tore up their classics, both the expected ("One," "Wherever I May Roam") and the less expected ("Jump in the Fire," "The Thing That Should Not Be"). Five songs from the new album were interspersed and warmly welcomed by the crowd, who sang-along more than I would have expected. Many of those in the seats around me repressed any emotion they may have been feeling. Maybe they were saving their energy for something greater, but either way, the beer in me got the better of them as I mouthed off like I would hope any true fan would. A German man above me heard my cries and kindly (and humorously) apologized for his silent, unenergetic countrymen. After all, who could have asked for a more solid encore of "Blitzkrieg" > "Jump in the Fire" > "Seek and Destroy"?!

Note: Unfortunately my camera was confiscated on entry and our seats were too far away to accommodate my point and shoot. My apologies.

The VölkerBall "Das Finale" brought in an early Saturday show at the Kesselhaus, hosted by radioMultiKulti, a local Berlin multi-cultural radio station. The show was the station's last, as they were soon shutting their doors and cutting their frequency.

Berlin's Nosliw and Die Feueralarmband (The Fire Alarm Band) entertained the VölkerBall attendees on the outdoor stage to welcome in the evening. The diverse crowd brought their own high vibes for the band that dipped into reggae, dancehall and hip-hop while keeping the songs family-oriented for the young and old. Though they often perform together, Nosliw is a solo artist of wonderful acclaim, while the Feueralarmband, a.k.a. BigFinga!, is hailed as Germany's best reggae backing band. Over the last several years, they've supported such well-known Jamaican artists as Jah Mason and Junior Kelly. During the performance, radioMultiKulti brought out a large bag of orange balloons for the crowd to release into the night sky - each balloon represented an employee let go by the unfortunate collapse of the radio station. While the overall vibes were positive, the balloons and accompanying announcements reminded the audience that their presence at the show was in support of a drowning station.

Next up, Tiger Hi-Fi delivered roots reggae, soul stylings and contemporary dancehall to a neighboring packed room. Vocalists Olivia Christou and Vido Jelashe were fantastic. Christou's beautiful voice and Jelashe's deep, powerful dancehall spirit were unique contributions to their playful interactions with the crowd. They describe themselves as the "perfect choice for music lovers who value spirituality, romance and the beauty of dub sounds." This performance featured the Black Uhuru roots classic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and treated the crowd to an unexpected finale of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to close the show.

Following the Hi-Fi's energetic performance, "Das Original" lineup of Los Multikultis felt the pressure to keep the vigor flowing, and deliver they did. Los Multikultis are just what their name suggests, a multi-cultural mix of musicians with a wide variety of instruments and styles – a perfect fit for the VölkerBall and a brilliantly entertaining performance, especially from bassist Sabah Habas Mustapha, who poured his heart and soul into the music. Delivering a wonderful mix of rock, jazz and German traditional songs, the group even played "Tequila!" which led the already captivated crowd to break into dance. While the station may be on its last legs, there is great excitement and support for this house band to carry on the name and positive spirit in the years to follow.

Last on the bill was the electro-dancehall Boundzound, a side project of Demba Nabé of internationally popular Berlin-based reggae group Seeed. Boundzound hit the large, young crowd with an explosion of intensity. Loyal Seeed fans and Boundzound newbies filled the hall with their energy. Songs such as "Get the Message" were electric, captivating and catchy. A mix of dancehall reggae, hip-hop and electro, the music is unique but accessible. Those in attendance this night were enthralled by the dark, electric music, a drastic difference from Los Multikultis in the neighboring hall. The girls reached out for Nabé's attention and one was even lucky enough to receive a passionate kiss from the singer. If this performance was any indication of Demba and Boundzound's future, they can expect continued success from this hot project!

On Sunday I returned to my musical roots at K17 for the No End In Sight Tour 2008 and an aggressive shock to the senses. Though I missed German opening act Übergas from Hamburg, S-Core took the stage next to promote their latest release, Gust of Rage. S-Core, from Strasbourg, France, delivered the metal that their French and German followers have come to know very well since they formed in 1998. Massive, dreaded frontman Ket screamed at the silent crowd, which stood some 15 feet from the stage. Nonetheless, S-Core's energy was far from lacking as they pounded away at song after song, only pausing momentarily for birthday shots for their bassist, Myron.

Following S-Core were two of American bands, representing both the East and West Coasts. Vengince from Oakland, California, continued to warm the crowd as leadman Relentless invited the seemingly shy fans to move closer and return the band's energy. Vengince had traveled a long way on their own dime to promote their latest album, As It All Sours. The Oakland quintet hit the stage with their supercharged "modern music with a hardcore and experimental twist," as they term it, bridging the gap between the French metal and the hardcore of Pro-Pain's set later in the night. Relentless shared the vocals with keyboardist Father, who performed with more energy and emotion than any other keyboardist I've ever seen. Dank on guitar and Slim on bass equally contributed to the band's ferocity as they thrashed around the stage as if it were on fire.

Between performances I roamed the crowd at the outdoor bar at the back of the venue and befriended several of the intimidating looking attendees. It had been some time since my last true metal show - Metallica really didn't attract this same raw fan-base. However, these days I recognize the open, friendly personalities in these black shirt, chain dangling, skull ring wearing men. It was intriguing to speak with Slim of Vengince before they exploded onstage, seeing his mellow, happy and friendly off-stage persona turn into an appropriately aggressive, heavy presence upon hitting the first shattering bass note to kick off the set.

Onto the prime meat of heavy hardcore vets, New York City's Pro-Pain. Following their 1992 debut, Foul Taste of Freedom, Pro-Pain has been delivering unrelenting hardcore for the last 15 years, and remain just as heavy and tight as ever. Recognizing this, loyal German fans have stood behind them, and were in tune with every note. Following the younger opening acts, Pro-Pain's presence was intense. The crowd closed in, with a small center spot left open for the mosh-pit explosion to ignite. For the next hour, the quartet pounded away at their instruments and chests, roared through the lyrics and stared down the fans - young and old, male and female – clamoring below them. Many tracks from their July 2008 release, No End in Sight, were featured, while the classics such as "Foul Taste of Freedom" certainly weren't forgotten. It's shows like this that make one feel fully alive, and yet thankful to not be dodging fists, crowd-surfers and bodily fluids on a more regular basis.

Ready for another genre change and musical experience on Monday, Viva Mexico! surely provided more than I expected when setting out for the show. It was September 16, commemorating the anniversary of Mexico's revolt from Spanish rule in 1810 and the start of the 10-year-long Independence War. Considered Mexican Independence Day, this day unites Mexicans throughout the world for a night of traditional fiesta, and Berlin was no exception. Arriving at Maria am Ostbahnhof, a large venue hidden in the bush of Spree River, I was welcomed by a trio of guitar, upright bass and drums. The music itself was merely satisfying, though the lighting and backdrop created a nice moody/trippy setting, covering the trio in grid-like light patterns.

Next was Mariachi El Dorado led by the distinguished Victor Ibáñez. The traditional Mexican group, living in Berlin, was joined on this night by five electrifying dancers, who spun and twirled through various Mexican dances. Behind the dancers, the mariachis, in traditional dress and sombreros, kept them moving while encouraging the crowd to feel a part of the performance.

Lastly, La Calzada de los Muertos, the evening's feature act, took the stage. The band, named after the pathway of the dead in Teotihuacán at the pyramids "Pirámide de la Luna" and "Pirámide del Sol," was founded in 2004 by Mexican immigrants to Berlin and play an exciting Latin blend of ska, punk and rock. The band provided a brilliant, festive performance on this special night, and near the end of the show invited the energized crowd to join them onstage and raise the Mexican flag overhead. The action ended the evening in proper style, unifying the band and the audience.

Running low on sleep, night seven had arrived and I was happy to be nearly done with my exploration of Berlin. Interested in visiting the artistic and alternative community of Cassiopeia for my last night of music, I was pleased to find veteran New York City rappers Black Moon performing.

Like many other artistic communities in Berlin, RAW-Tempel (of which Cassiopeia is a part) is slated to be torn down and replaced with a more commercially mainstream design. Currently the area is home to four different clubs, an exhibition venue, a large indoor skate park, a beer garden and the highest climbing tower in Berlin. As described on the Cassiopeia website, "The Cassiopeia is an urban playground for adults and grownup kids in the heart of Friedrichshain." Only two years ago, the area was undeveloped and barren; today it acts as an outlet for many of Berlin's artists. As can be expected, the proposed plans have been met with the great sadness of those losing their community space(s). The recently opened O2 World Arena is a similar example of commercialism overrunning the small businesses and artistic independence that existed in the area near to RAW-Tempel.

With a later start than the previous nights, I arrived at 11:15 p.m. as the house DJs spun old and new hip-hop for nearly an hour to warm up the crowd before the Speakin' Hands Orchestra switched out DJs and local violinist P-RZM took the stage with dollar sign violin in hand. The Orchestra duo of DJ Q-Millah and violinist P-RZM presented an exciting hip-hop variant unbeknownst to many but well received nonetheless. While Q-Millah spun and mixed the beats in the darkness at the back of the stage, P-RZM inserted the violin's melody, its ecstasy and agony, to add just the right amount of spice. The room slowly began to fill and those in front provided the feedback and energy for P-RZM to pour his soul into the violin. The Orchestra performed for some 40 minutes, and while many took time to warm to their sound, others grew tired of the duo, wishing for another element, perhaps another musician to round out a plausible trio.

Next, Black Moon entered the room. The veteran hip-hop trio from Brooklyn, N.Y. - DJ Evil Dee and MCs Buckshot and 5ft - waited stage-side for the Orchestra to finish, and afterwards Evil Dee dropped props to the Speakin' Hands Orchestra then prepped the stage for his MCs. The stage was set and the NYC rappers rose to the platform with an experienced, confident presence that the last 15 years have instilled in them. They killed the show, dropping rhymes on the German youth, who sang-along in large numbers with every word, exhibiting their hip-hop knowledge and passion for these vets. Meanwhile, Evil Dee kept the beats smooth, the vibes grooving and the crowd on their toes. The deep love and mutual respect between the group and crowd in this small venue was a moving sight and certainly a perfect way to end my week of music.

CLOSING

Enter the new millennium and a city of perpetual change. Enter Berlin, where an international music scene satisfies all tastes, where musicians of various countries, religions and governments collaborate, where there is support by the masses for a large, diverse artistic community (though one that must struggle against the driving trends towards commercialism). It's a city where immigrants may live, congregate and campaign for their home country's freedom, and a place where memorials, monuments, and pieces of the Berlin Wall ensure citizens and tourists won't forget the area's tragic past. Berlin is a city where concerned youths bond together to organize and fight against increasingly inhuman ideals in the arts, society and government.

The microcosm of the world's music in Berlin serves as an inspiration and example for others currently torn with strife. It is a place where people come together through their common appreciation for music, putting aside the tragically misunderstood differences of the past and celebrate that which makes each person unique.

- - -

All photographs © 2008 Shrubin Photography. All rights reserved. Illegal duplication or usage punishable by law.

Download a PDF of this article formatted with photos. For additional story photos: Flash gallery or Flickr.

If interested in further information or photographic services, please contact Seth Rubin.

[Published on: 1/23/09]

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Comments

rainydaywomen420 starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/23/2009 06:58PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

rainydaywomen420

very nice article, thouroughly enjoyed

johnnygoff starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/24/2009 08:19AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

johnnygoff

Please do more articles Seth! I know this trip was once in a lifetime, but your images and words really captured the essence of what is Berlin's music. From roots reggae to metal, from bomemian to brazen, The Berlin music scene is much more diverse and vast than i had ever imagined. We are so music-centric in the States, thinking we are the epi-center of any Good music. Thanks jambase for this interesting look into Seth's musical wanderings overseas! More Features like this please!

NittyGritty Sat 1/24/2009 10:52AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

NittyGritty

awesome article, really jealous...looks like an incredible time.

Conjugal Burning starstarstarstarstar Sun 1/25/2009 06:15AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Conjugal Burning

Wow i really want to jump across the pond after this read. I am glad others can enjoy jumping from show to show, crossing over multiple genres and having a blast while at it. Kudos to you Seth, and kudos to that gorgeous dreddie momma getting her groove on in that pic.. third from the top!

Buggtape Sun 1/25/2009 06:21AM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Buggtape

AWESOME! Really great idea. We want more travel stories! Berlin is a huge city (cuz it used to be two cities), and you did a great job! What's next? St. Petersburg? Cape Town? Amsterdam-Tilburg? Melbourne? Montreal? Vancouver? Cairo?

SHRUBIN Sun 1/25/2009 05:08PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

SHRUBIN

Bless up all the comments! johnnygoff, good point, very true. buggtape, no plans just yet, but nawlins jazzfest is always a good time!

And here's a little something else that got dropped somewhere between my computer and this online version, meant to be at the end of the Prelude, give it a read...

Take notice: when stripped of their color, the following images focus on the emotions inherent in and common to us all. These emotions, inspired in the presence of live music, break down the barriers that so commonly tear us apart and redirect the focus to what is truly important. It is irrelevant from where each person has come, nor do race, religion, or belief divide, but rather fall secondary to the sounds that enlighten each of our days.

For other articles, from Australia in 2006:

http://www.jambase.com/Articles/8198/WOMADELAIDE-MUSIC-ARTS-and-DANCE

http://www.jambase.com/Articles/8531/Blues-and-Roots-on-Easter-in-Australia

CriscoBisco starstarstarstarstar Sun 1/25/2009 06:32PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Thanks for the great read. You've fanned the flames of my desire to go abroad.

dvegas starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/27/2009 06:18AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

great read! you the man Shrubin . . . how 'bout something on the Lonnie Smith show you saw? Lets go Mets!!!