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Scene in Berlin

Berlin's quiet stars: Egalitarian vibe keeps musicians grounded

In DW's special four-part series, guest columnist Jan Kage - a true Berlin insider - shares his take on Berlin's legendary music and arts scene. First up: A chance encounter with one of Berlin biggest future stars.

The striking thing about Berlin's music scene is that those who really make it big out in the world stay cool and calm within the local scene. You hardly ever see successful artists turn arrogant and exclusive.

You can still chat away with Peaches or Apparat when you meet them at a party - assuming you don't make a big fuss about them being stars, of course. Maybe this is still a trace of the 1980s West Berlin punk rock culture, or of East Berlin's socialist egalitarianism.

When I moved to Berlin some 16 years ago, my first encounter with two then unknown musicians was in Kreuzberg's Café Morgenland. It was the heyday of the Frühstücksbüffet culture - meaning that Germans loved to go out for all-you-can-eat breakfasts. It was maybe 1:00 pm and I was eating my third serving and reading the Sunday paper when two musicians dressed in some slick but understated streetwear started to play sweet jazz on a little Casio keyboard and clarinet.

The music was great! You could tell these cats knew what they were doing by the way they presented their little three-song set. They played this jazzy music, but didn't dress in a cliché jazz way, rather in a hiphop way. They did not comment on their music with extra words or gestures; they just did their thing - and did it nicely.

Jan Kage, Copyright: Stefan Ruhmke

Berlin insider, Jan Kage, presents a four-part Scene in Berlin series

Don't forget a face

After the gig the keyboard player sat down at a table while the guy with the clarinet walked around collecting money. Then he sat down with his friend, who had just finished rolling a spliff - another thing that impressed me because he neither hid it, nor did he make a bragging scene of it. They both ordered the then fashionable café au lait in tall glasses, counted their money while drinking their coffees, then left to go on and smoke their doobie.

A couple of years later, I interviewed a new band on the scene: a full-piece show band named Seeed with 11 members playing a nice and easy mix of reggae and dancehall. They'd just released their first hit single, "Dickes B" (Big B), which is an ode to the city of Berlin.

I remember asking the group's mastermind and vocalist, Pierre Baigorry - later also known as Peter Fox -, why he thought anyone in Stuttgart would sing along to the Big B(erlin). He shrugged: "Why? Don't we sing Sinatra's "New York, New York" as well?"

Talking with Pierre, the band's sax player Mo and the other vocalist Demba, I kept thinking to myself: I know these guys. Of course it only came to me after our conversation that they were the two musicians from the café years before who had since become pop stars.

Later when I became friends with Mo, he told me that he and Dembar had made an oath around that time they were playing in cafés never to do anything else but music, no matter how low the income might be. But they sure don't have to worry about money these days.

Down to earth

This past summer, Mo invited me to Seeed's show in Wuhlheide, an open-air theater far out in the Berlin district of Köpenick. I said, sure, I'll come! The Wuhlheide packs about 17,000 guests and Seeed sold it out four days in a row. At the after-show party, there were lots of people from Berlin's hiphop and reggae scenes hanging out, dancing and socializing. Here, everybody is equal.

In 2008, the group took a break and Peter Fox released his solo album, which DJ Illvibe helped produce. It was so successful that Peter Fox is now a household name across Germany. Even school kids sing his songs together with their parents.

After heavy touring and releasing many hit singles from the album, Pierre aka Peter told Illvibe he would like to deejay a party again - just for the fun of it. Illvibe had just played at a party that I promote, called Party Arty. The regular event is about bringing the visual arts and club music plus some poets together in a wild night. Party Arty isn't meant for the masses, but for anyone interested in edgy art and good spirits.

So Illvibe called and asked whether Pierre could deejay at my party. I loved the idea since I like Peter Fox's music and his attitude, and we have been acquainted for many years. But I had second thoughts about putting his name on the flyer because I was afraid it would draw too much of a mainstream audience.

Peter Fox, Photo: Matthias Balk/dpa

Peter Fox made a vow many years ago to spend his life making music

I think Pierre was sympathetic with the fact that I didn't want to exploit his name, too. And I did not want to pay him more then the other DJs. "How much can you pay?" Pierre asked. I told him what I could spend. "So we'll split that three ways between Illvibe, B.Side and me!" he replied. I happily agreed.

Of course you could argue that he really doesn't need the money, but that's completely beside the point. It's just a beautiful thing seeing an artist contributing his thing to a bigger framework. And that's what he did.

After playing his set, he just continued dancing with the rest of the party. All equal here.

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