Reggae without dreadlocks? South Pacific flair from Cologne? The German musician and singer Gentleman has the music of the Caribbean in his blood. He's giving a hometown concert at c/o pop this week in Cologne.
It was at 18 that Tilmann Otto discovered his passion for reggae music while visiting Jamaica. Specifically, he developed a love for roots reggae - the style of music Bob Marley performed in the 1970s. Now, at the age of 39, Tilmann Otto, alias Gentleman, can look back on a successful career that got its start on the beaches of Jamaica.
Being a German reggae musician certainly puts him in a niche market, but he points out he's no longer the only one. "There are now a couple of musicians who play reggae and aren't from Jamaica, but people still listen to their music and accept them as musicians in Jamaica," Gentleman said. "There are even musicians here in Germany who make good reggae music and haven't even been to Jamaica."
Gentleman's modesty fits well with the performer's stage name. Still, he's a lot more successful than other musicians working in the genre. Two of his albums have hit number one on the German charts, and he has received numerous awards. "New Day Dawn," his sixth album released this spring, shows yet another advance in his music.
"I did a lot more on my own, and I knew from the start which direction it should take," he said of the album. "That wasn't always the case with other projects."
'Just for me'
Gentleman also tapped into new resources for his latest album - such as using the grand piano in his Cologne living room that was originally intended for his studio musicians. Nearly all of his 16 songs originated on the instrument, mainly from just playing around and improvising. Had he not used the instrument for something, he quips, it would have just been standing in the way.
"That means that every single song was developed just for me - the pitch, the tempo, everything," he said.
That focus on his own style meant not working with other popular singers much this time around, making "New Day Dawn" a pared-down album compared to his other discs that absorbed trends from other realms of the music world.
Roots reggae à la Gentleman has also now found success internationally - not just in the German-speaking neighbors of Austria and Switzerland, but also in Scandinavia, Poland, Southern Europe, various African countries and even the United States.
Gentleman sings in English, and has never looked back - even though he comes from a generation of musicians who made a point of singing in German. Renowned artists such as Smudo, a rapper from Germany's popular Fantastische 4 rap group, advised him to do the same at the beginning of his career. But Otto stuck to his guns: "I still try to sing in English as much as possible and am quite happy about that," he said. "I just have to do what I'm really into at the time!"
His new album suggests he's into trying new things at the moment. He departs from the strictly roots genre and, at times, his sound is almost like straight-up pop. Of course, that poses risks: after all, what is new to him may not be new to others, and some listeners may accuse him of merely retreading well-known territory.
So far that criticism seems to have mattered little. Gentleman has his reputation to bank on, and audiences love him when he gives concerts on his extensive tours. He gets a kick out of his relative anonymity in the birthplace of reggae, saying, "People sometimes say to me: 'You're the one who sings that song that was always playing on the radio in Jamaica? I can't believe it!'"
There's an unmistakable twinkle of pride in his eye when he reflects on his success there.