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More by Beebe Bahrami

Berlin’s Eclectic Music Scene

In Berlin, at a French-named café with a Chilean waitress drinking Spanish wine, I was listening to lively Gypsy swing. The Dotschy Reinhardt Quintet was playing that night at the Café Courage and they performed an elixir of mixed styles, self described as “Sinti (Gypsy), Swing, Jazz, Bossa, and Latin,” and definitely inspired by the ghost of Django himself. Their lead singer was a woman with a warm, lyrical voice and all five musicians worked together like weavers of a fine tapestry, each bringing in his or her unique color, texture and tone to create unified images and moods.

The patrons at Café Courage were happily settled and enjoying rich conversation and laughter as they worked over Courage’s menu, which possessed a rich variety of beers and wines and a wide selection of café food for snacking with drinks. The musicians warmed up at 8 p.m. and by 9 p.m. they were in the peak of jamming. The Dotschy Reinhardt Quintet was true to their diverse self-description. They must have performed music in just about every European language.

I had arrived early and Café Courage it was already packed to the gills. Upon entering I was greeted by the warm barman who turned out also to be the owner. In the center of the room were worn and character-ridden wooden chairs and tables. Around the edges stood worn, over-stuffed couches. Many floor and table lamps, all with their own style of frill and 1920s flapper look, were sprinkled throughout the two-room cafe. In the nearest back corner stood an upright piano surrounded by an assortment of other instruments: drums, guitar, mandolin, violin, and stand-up bass.

I sat down with my music producer friend at the only available table. Our view was blocked by a huge, fringe-infested Victorian lamp and we were situated right at the threshold of an old doorway that joined the two rooms. Charming as it was, we were betwixt and between and could just make out the right elbow of the violinist. In spite of poor visibility, my friend, like me, was immediately taken in by the sultry style of the singer and the impromptu rapture of the instrumentalists.

After a long endurance of watching violin elbow, I finally worked up the courage—we were in Café Courage, after all—to petition our Chilean waitress in Spanish, my stronger foreign language, for the better reserved seats that had sat empty for over two hours up in front with a fantastic view of the musicians. Podemos sentar alli, por favor? The German group at the picnic table to my left—friends who traveled together and who rendezvoused here to show each other pictures of their last trip—looked over in curiosity. Spanish is not among the more common languages in Berlin.

Our waitress set down my Protocolo wine, and looked at me with indecision. "Espera un momento. Preguntaré." She then made her way, tray under arm, to the bar where the same chap who greeted us upon entering was leaning, enjoying the music. He leaned further to his right and looked over the waitress’ shoulder right at us, a stern Teutonic face that suddenly broke into sunshine and happy crow’s feet around his warm eyes. He gestured us toward him and escorted us to the seats himself, removing the reserved sign and mumbled something about the no-shows. He then returned to the bar where he filled an order for six Pilsners and his ears with infectious music. We sank into the overstuffed, worn couch and resumed sipping red wine. The group travelers toasted us from our new seat.

Two hours later, still carried away by the rapture of the music and the people, I ordered a dessert that I’d like to rename, Apple Reinhardt Bliss. It was a homemade apple -cinnamon ice cream with homemade raspberry sauce. (I would love to meet the chef who thought up this brilliant combination.) Paired with a Calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy, I could no longer tell where culinary delight ended and lyrical music began. My music-biz friend leaned over in the middle of devouring the dessert and whispered, “I like the music here. It’s a place where you can be close enough to the musicians for what is really intimate music. [And] they’re taking risks in their soloing. You wouldn’t see U2 doing that in a stadium.”

By midnight when I finally decided to head to my apartment, several people bade me return soon and acted as if I‘d known them for years. Rarely have I been in such a public gathering of mirth and good will. Strangers seated near each other engaged each other without trespassing; everyone laughed, listened, ate, and drank.

Café Courage was my initiation into what I now understand as the low-key German warmth that pervades the streets, cafes, bookshops, bars, flea markets, and food markets of Berlin. It is as ever present as the cold and gray of winter in Berlin and is what gives color and panache to the city. And these smaller venues define the music scene better than anything else in Berlin, where so much creativity and experimentation are spontaneously explored.

My mission for eleven days in Berlin was to explore as much as I could of the eclectic music scene. My endurance would have been stronger were it not that many of these places are smoking areas and after a week and a half, my lungs declared enough. But I came away convinced that Berlin is one of the most dynamic city’s on earth. My exploration was by no means comprehensive and was guided by my own taste in music, but I aspire here to offer a well-rounded idea of what makes music in Berlin unique and worth a visit to hear.

Two nights before Café Courage I had attended Rossini’s opera Semiramide at the Deutsche Oper, one of three world-renown opera houses in Berlin. (How many city’s in the world boast three opera houses?) At the Deutsche Oper the same cheer and warmth pervaded the audience as in Café Courage. I noticed many people in the audience were smiling a lot, some, non-stop. It defied the cliché stereotype of the serious German. It made me smile a lot. Berliners love their music and their musicians. Music is as important as air, food, and drink. At intermission, excellent wine and beer in beautiful glasses meant for wine sipping and beer quaffing were efficiently and cheerily served to patrons. I enjoyed a regional red wine that reminded me of a complex and well-balanced cabernet. When I went to the lady’s room I found the bathroom attendant as cheery as the audience, a pistol of an elderly woman, joking with patrons and looking as if she too might burst out into song. When the lights blinked for our return to the concert hall, the same efficiency that spread a feast before us, picked up and everyone ushered back, smiling, for the final half. At intermission I also noticed that people were dressed in every variety of clothing, from flannel shirts and corduroys to evening dresses. Women were equally in skirts as well as trousers. Black was without question the color, as it was everywhere else in town at any time of day.

Semiramide is about a conniving ancient Babylonian queen who winds up falling in love with her son (who in turn is played by a woman in a trouser role, roles which arose during a time when castrati were no longer being “produced” and women could fill the vocal range, and trousers, of such written parts.) The set and costuming reflected some of the experimentation at work in Berlin: the stage set was a mixed design, somewhere between the hanging gardens of Babylon and 1940s and 50s stark lined-furnishings. The cast wore circa-1940s attire, ladies in evening gowns and men in military attire. It was clear from the buzz that Berliners expected pushed-edges with even the most classical of forms.

Semiramide is also a four and a half hour opera and so a good test of an audience’s passion (as it was when it came out in 1823 in a Venice that was used to quicker and lighter entertainment). When the final curtain came down, the energy of the audience was exuberant. They stood and applauded, loudly hooping, cheering and whistling as if Germany had won the World Cup. This went on for a good fifteen minutes if not more. By the time I made my way to the U-Bahn, accompanied by many of the other attendees who also went to the opera by public transport, I was in a sea of murmuring and humming happy people. As I caught my train, many of them coming into the same car, I almost forgot I was in the subway and instead thought I was on a school field trip.

At first glance Berlin seems big, unwieldy, still suturing itself from the divisive wall and splashed perennially with new graffiti and buildings. On the ground, Berlin is a protean place: everyone and anyone can find their place of belonging in this northern European city. It is a city that is continually changing; perhaps that is why its main descriptive word would be eclectic. Berlin’s beauty, in addition to its honesty to face its past while bear hugging its present, lies in its inhabitants. At first glance, it is not a beautiful city. But on the ground, warmth and color and great beauty pours forth from its wildly diverse residents who are reinventing this city and themselves at light speed.

As witnessed in Café Courage and the Deutsche Oper, and many other venues, Berlin’s appeal is its microcosms, its local, on-the-ground communities of artists as hell bent on making it as on having a community of collaboration and support, which they find here. Music in Berlin is wildly diverse and also best enjoyed and really felt on the small scale, be it a café, a night club, or passing under a crossroads path where a lone guitarist is playing for no one and everyone, as the young man I heard as I wandered in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park. He was playing a happy cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “ Sweet Home Alabama” near the Siegessäule, that great golden angel so central to Wim Wender’s Berlin film Wings of Desire (1987). He was so soulful that I am sure I saw the angel’s wings flutter.

Two Exemplary Berlin-based Musicians

Musicians in Berlin are like the minstrels of medieval times; they hail from everywhere, have amazing stories, and absorb the life around them with all their senses so as to tell stories through their music. Like minstrels of old, they also learn numerous languages in their travels so as to make it in different cultures. True, Berlin is a city suffering from underemployment, and yet, some of the world’s most talented musicians come here to make a go at it. Berlin’s creative energy, though not rife with the tension of its post-WWII and Cold War days, is still vital, coming from a new tension that is caught up in recasting itself as a city of light, a city aware of its shadow but no longer willing to let the shadow define all of it.

Two Berlin-based musicians whom I met while in the city are archetypal of the kinds of modern minstrels who come to Berlin, remain dedicated to their craft, and become among the city’s gems.

I met both Rashidii Graffiti—best known simply as Rashidii—and Malcolm Arison at, of all places, the Hilton Berlin. It was not a place I expected to find happening music but there at the base of two Busby Berkeley staircases, near the main entrance, sat two musicians who define what makes Berlin so appealing musically.

By 10 p.m. I was settled at a table in the Atrium Wintergarten, the Hilton’s airy bar and sitting area in front of the staircases. Two women were also settled up front, giddy and restless like dedicated groupies everywhere in the world. Rashidii, a handsome and graceful man with wonderful long hair and a warm, strong face, sat down at the piano while Arison, handsome too but more like the lead heart throb in a good romantic comedy, set up his microphone stand, guitar, and made his harmonica at the ready.

As the two, who made it sound as if there were four or five of them playing, leaned into “Honky Tonk Women” a huge group of elderly Germans mulled in. Just in from the theatre, these folks were on an elder tour and hailed from near Hannover in northwestern Germany. They were excited to be out of the theatre and at this live music venue.

A gregarious couple sat at my table and informed me that they were from “a small town on the crest of the river Weser.” Further, they were on a three-day tour to take in Berlin’s culture and indicated that this two-man band was a peak for them.

We ordered a round of beer and settled back. Rashidii and Arison were starting into a moving version of “As Time Goes By.” In between songs, Graffiti worked his considerable charm and humor on the crowd, asking them for help with German grammar as only an American who has striven to master it over twenty years can pull off.

As the evening wound down, somewhere past 1 a.m., my German table mates sighed with deep satisfaction and bid me a good night. They could return to the crest of the river Weser having fully “taken in all the culture of Berlin.”

That evening led to a beautiful relationship as both Rashidii and Arison invited me and my music producer friend to meet up with them in the city and hear more of their music.

Rashidii is a classically trained musician who can pull off a Howling Wolf performance as easily as he can a Bach partita on piano or a Rolling Stones riff on electric guitar; he can sit down at a moment’s notice and sight read a classical piece, or as easily belt out the Blues—take your pick, Delta, Chicago, Texas…Trained in classical music as much as blues, jazz (at the Berklee School of Music in Boston), and rock and roll, Graffiti has played in many venues throughout town, including cocktail bars, the Hilton, a spa retreat on the Polish border northeast of Berlin, and at galas for Audi (with Arison).

Rashidii is an American who hails from the Philadelphia area and has made Berlin his home for over twenty years. His presence is still missed in Philly where in late August of 2006, Johnny Meister of the Blues Show on WXPN, played several cuts from Rashidii’s album Where I’m From, Places I’ve Been (on the Hummingbird label released in 1986) after a West Philly listener requested he play something of this legendary and sorely missed musician. Meister knew Rashidii had departed for Berlin some 19 or 20 years ago but knew no more. From Philadelphia to Berlin, in those twenty years Rashidii’s rich voice had gone from one similar to J.B. Lenoir to more like a perfect blend between Howling Wolf and B.B. King.

What struck me immediately when I heard Rashidii in the Hilton was that he fully occupies his voice; he’s there in the heart and soul of it. So many other singers seem to skirt the periphery not totally taking the core. The effect was to pull me into the music completely and feel its emotional and technical vibrations fully. To listen to Rashidii play piano and sing is to journey to the heart and soul of the music.

Two decades ago when Rashidii arrived in Berlin as a professional musician, he was attracted to the vibrant creativity of a city in love with its musicians and seeking to define itself beyond its Wall. His talent and panache bring regular and new listeners to his table frequently. Most recently Rashidii has opened the Rashidii Graffiti Event Gallery in Berlin’s current Greenwich Village-like neighborhood, Kreuzberg, just south and east of the city’s center. The RG Event Gallery is a diverse venue for music, theatre, film, dance, and art. Rashidii envisioned it as a place where artists could gather and showcase their talent. “The gallery is planned as a private art club,” he explained, “in a living room setting with attention to health food [and drink], music, short film, and music and dance.”

Officially opening the first of May 2007, though events have already been unfolding there so it is worth calling ahead to find out more (0049-01-5117962641), the RG Event Gallery will be open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and will also offer two shows on Thursday nights, the first starting at 8 p.m. The Thursday night shows cost an entry fee of around 12.50 euros where visitors can enjoy a show in a venue for only 20 people. This a fantastic deal where entrance fees and tickets to shows exceed 12 euros for much larger affairs. Moreover, RG Event Gallery is also the site for recording an Internet TV show, Grosse Fische, Kleine Fische (www.grossefischekleinefische.de), which has been rising in popularity and for which Graffiti is a co-star. It’s the place to go in Berlin if you want to truly sample the artistic talent in the city. Also, that it is a smoke free environment is a boon; these are rare in Berlin.

Malcolm Arison is a master of harmonica, guitar, and voice. His music ranges anywhere from rock to blues to old standards to Yodel Pop. Yodel Pop? More on that below. Arison hails from Manchester, England. He arrived in Berlin, like Rashidii, some twenty odd years ago. He was a young man on his walkabout then, taking in the world, and when he got to Berlin he decided to stay a while and explore his options. Berlin then was already known for its creative experimentation in all the arts, perhaps as a tension to and resistance against bland, Soviet visions of humanity’s potential. Arison stayed on, opened a café, and he always, always, played his music. Like Graffiti, he saw the Wall come down. And like Graffiti, he stayed on to define the next era of music. Now he is a full time musician, sought after to play in diverse contexts with wildly different groups. His harmonica, not to mention his guitar and voice, are so broadly expressive that he easily makes the transition from one context to the next. Perhaps this is why he has recently taken to song writing and developing music for film.

Malcolm Arison’s harmonica playing possesses the widest range possible of expressiveness in the instrument. He is on the harmonica what Heifitz is on the violin; that range of expressiveness and mastery. Unlike the current trend for harmonicists to just belt it out, Arison knows when to belt and when to hold back. The skill of his restraint and interpretation, his meshing with other musicians and his solo virtuosity all together make him one of the masters of the harp alive today. His harmonica can reduce you to evocative, deep-feeling tears or spring your tootsies into action and send you across the dance floor happy to be alive, your body vibrating with the music.

One of Arison’s most current performances are with another Berlin-based musician, Ed Csupkay, where they play a range of blues, folk and country and with excellent German lyrics. You can learn about their gigs, news, and the late January 2007 release (and release performance) of their new CD on the EMI label (Das Tier in Mir/The Animal in Me) at www.myspace.com/edcsupkay.

Arison also can be seen at White Trash, www.whitetrashfastfood.com, one of the really hot places to be in Berlin right now. It is also a place that, if you could take a peek into the mind of Berlin while it dreams, it might look something like this beer, pub food, and local music spot that is a mélange of kitsche Tex-Mex and Chinese decor. At White Trash, Arison plays with singer and yodel pop diva Kutzkelina (Doreen Kutzke) in Kutzkelina and the Devil's Harmonica.

If you are unfamiliar with Yodel Pop, it is a fresh musical style well worth checking out. It’s catchy, energetic, and fun; yodeling has been rescued from the margins of traditional sounds to become a very appealing pop sound. And it’s one-hundred percent original, which is saying a lot in the music world where everything is borrowed. You can also explore this new genre on-line: www.kutzkelina.de, www.alpendub.de, and www.prx.org/pieces/1948.

Also, look for an original music composition from Arison in an upcoming film by German filmmaker Clemens Maria Schönborn and produced by Kaminski. Stiehm.Film GmbH (Berlin).

Diverse Music Venues in Berlin

Here are some favorite venues. Bear in mind that I prefer the smaller, more intimate spots over the big stadium scene, which also exists.

Rashidii Graffiti Event Gallery (RG Event Gallery), Solmstrasse 37B – 10961 Berlin – Kreuzberg. Open M-F, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Living Room. Two shows are slated every Thursday evening, the first beginning at 8 p.m. Stop by for healthy food and drink in a non-smoking atmosphere with great art on display, or call (01-5117962641) to find out what is the weekly program. Additionally, the Internet TV show, Grosse Fische, Kleine Fische (www.grossefischekleinefische.de) –Big Fish, Little Fish, in which Graffiti co-stars, will also be filmed in the gallery. On it will be some of Germany’s biggest stars, such as Nina Hagen and Tokyo Hotel. RG Event Gallery is located in Berlin’s artsy hot spot of Kreuzberg, a mere one minute jaunt from the neighborhood’s main street, Bergmannstrasse. Bergmannstrasse is a great street on which to wander, rich in antique shops, second hand shops, cafes, and bookstores. A stop at the RG Event Gallery will acquaint you with the multitalented artists who’ve made Berlin their home.

Café Courage, Saarbrücker Strasse 17 – 10405 Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg, tel. 030/41716859. A great selection of specialty coffee drinks, alcoholic drinks, noshes, snacks, and desserts, averaging ~2-3 euros for drinks and 3-5 for snacks. When there is live music, the cover, around 5 euros, is added to your drink and food tab at the end of the night.

Kaffee Burger, Torstrasse 58/60 – 10119 Berlin, www.kaffeeburger.de (click on “programm”), has something of a wild wild west saloon blended with a spartan German coffee house upon entering. Then you go to an adjoining room to your right and enter the performance space, which like the previous room, is also spartan with all hard floors, tables, chairs, and walls, but it has a substantial stage and the floor offers a wide girth for dancing. The smell, dim light, and worn feel all speak of Kaffee Burger’s popularity for live music, dj’s, dance, drink, and also evenings around film and literature.

White Trash, Schönhauser Allee 6-7, www.whitetrashfastfood.com, is one of the venues where you will find Malcolm Arison. It has been a hip place for a few years but appears to have recently really hit the top as the place to be for a taste of the musical creativity that is pulsing in Berlin. It is also the sort of place that gives the quintessential definition to Berlin Kitsch, decorated with what appear to be flea market and second hand shop chic, the overarching theme is a blend of Texan and Chinese aesthetics.

Hecht Club im Prater Garten, Kastanienallee 7-9 – Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg, www.pratergarten.de. This is a wonderful large hall. In winter, dining takes place in the warm all wood interior with comfortable small and large tables bringing both communal sharing as well as privacy to each gathering. A tiny stage with thick curtains stands in the back of the large room where diners sit, announcing that at times music and theatre alike unfold here. In summer, there are concerts outside with the open outdoor beer garden. The beer garden dates to 1837. The food year round is one-hundred per cent traditional German and shows off German cuisine at its best and freshest. As soon as I sat down and ordered a beer, the friendly waiter brought me a basket of fresh-baked dark-grained traditional breads and a ramekin of a lard spread with caramelized onions. I was dubious about the lard but realized my danger when I tried it and fell in love with this little thimble of pork fat and dark, rich onions, especially on the healthy, fibrous bread. For entrees, I recommend you try, when it is available, the wildschweinpfeffer (peppered wild boar with red current sauce and red cabbage). Another wonderful entrée is the forelle gebraten, pan-fried trout with toasted almond slices in butter and lemon sauce. Their fresh greens salad was also delightful, topped with red cabbage, cucumbers, and toasted sunflower seeds. Be sure to finish off your meal with one of several brandies (Calvados, Osborne Veterano, Cognac…) and a serving of apfelschrudel with real whipped cream and vanilla sauce. For all this—a salad, entrée, beer, dessert, and brandy—expect to spend around 20 euros.

Offenbar, Unter den Eichen 57 – 12203 Berlin – Steglitz/Zehlendorf, tel. 030/859-65-845, www.offen-bar.de, offenbar@arcor.de. This cocktail bar with every possible cocktail, beer, and wine in the offering is on the SW outskirts of the city where nevertheless, young Berliners flock to hear good music and be with each other. Somewhat tame by other bar standards, but still as smoky, the servers and the clientele are welcoming and fun to be around. The music can be outstanding. The night I was here I heard Rashidii Graffiti on voice, guitar and keyboard with his three man band, a stand-up bass player and a drummer. They rolled out rock and roll, jazz, and blues and had a serious fan following. Drinks cost ~3-5 euros.

Hilton Berlin, Mohrenstrasse 30 – 10117 Berlin – Mitte, tel.49-30-20230. I know what you’re thinking, the Hilton? Yes, there can be incredible music here. Drinks cost ~3.5-5 euros.

Berlin ’s Three Opera Houses—Note that all three opera houses’ websites list their seasonal programs:

The Deutsche Oper Berlin , Bismarckstrasse 35 – 10627 Berlin – Charlottenburg, www.deutsche-oper-berlin.de. The easiest thing to do is to go to the opera house ahead of time where the ticket office is open during the day and select the type of seat you want. I got one of the less expensive seats (17 euros) and it was in a box with seating for about fifteen people. The view was excellent except that the box’s roof cut off our view of the super titles. As they were in German, and I can’t read and understand German that fast or without my dictionary, this ticket-reducing feature was not a problem.

The Deutsche Staatsoper, Unter den Linden 5-7 – 10117 Berlin – Mitte, tel.20-35-45-55, www.staatsoper-berlin.org.

Komische Oper, Behrenstrasse 55-57 – 10117 Berlin – Mitte, www.komische-oper-berlin.de.

Classical music: Berlin possesses seven symphony orchestras.

Walk and explore: Musicians are everywhere outdoors performing and they’re all good.

The Tiergarten, right in the heart of Berlin, its central park, is a great place to wander and see local life at its most spontaneous, from walkers with their ski poles, to the lone musician picking out great tunes, to some of wildest Berlin reminiscent of our childhood fairytale forests of spirited trees and undergrowth.

Churches as sources of music: Wander into the open churches, too, and look at their bulletin boards for musical concert listings. In Kreuzberg I wandered into St. Thomas Kirche because I saw a string of musicians with violin cases and the like in their hands walking through the church’s front doors. I followed them like an ant trail and got to listen to them rehearse and also learned of the upcoming concerts in the church. (I also learned that St. Thomas collects money to send to Holocaust survivors so that they can afford to receive proper counseling in order to cope better with the scars of the Holocaust.)

For More Information

When you first arrive in Berlin, get your hands on that week’s ExBerliner and Zitty Guide, which are most easily located at the city’s tourist offices. ExBerliner is in English and the Zitty is in German. Even if you don’t read German, get the Zitty Guide. It lists all the most current living arts and cinema schedules and venues and even in German you’ll be able to make sense of titles, venues, times, addresses, and prices listed in this very comprehensive guide. Given that several of the places listed in your guidebook will no longer exist (a Berlin phenomenon), the Zitty guide is your cure to rapid change—a venue had to exist the week before to be in this publication.

www.zitty.de

www.exberliner.com

www.berlin-tourist-information.de

www.fetedelamusique.de (Berlin’s annual international music festival in June)

 
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