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Culture

Much Ado About Nothing

At the air guitar championship in Berlin, contestants duke it out to see who's best a stroking imaginary instruments. The winner will represent Germany at the world championships in Finland.

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Grasping for thin air and the title

It's standing room only tonight at the Knorre in Berlin. About 200 people are sitting, standing or huddling body to body at the Berlin culture center, with its bar-like atmosphere. The crowd, hungry for scandalous behavior, is ready to see some sweating and passion at the first-ever national air guitar championship. The winner will receive an air mattress and a flight to Finland, where he or she will represent Germany at the ninth-annual Air Guitar World Championship.

Deutsche Meisterschaft im Luftgitarrespielen, Mark Böhmer

Mark Böhmer has winning on his mind

Tonight there are 14 air guitarists who have dared to make their way to the small stage in an effort to win over the audience and the judges. "I'm going to win, obviously," says Mark Böhmer (photo), 29, who's driven in from Hanover to participate. When he isn't strumming a make-believe guitar, Böhmer normally plays the drums, but for the championships in Berlin, he's "playing" a double necked guitar with acoustic strings on one neck and electric strings on the other. He's been training for months for the big night: he's been walking, he's toned his biceps and he's done finger exercises. Yet despite all that preparation, he says his performance tonight will mostly be spontaneous, "with the exception of two or three small things I've put in my program. Instead I'm going to just look and see what's happening on stage and what the atmosphere is like."

When asked if, like in the real world of rock and roll, drugs play an important part in his work, Böhmer nods. "A huge role," he says, "but I can't tell you anything else about that. But obviously you have to have a beer or two" before going on stage. It's an understatement that will be highlighted by events later in the evening.

Fighting for world peace

Before the show, competition organizer Friedericke van Meer is being chased down by microphone brandishing journalists. Six months ago, the transsexual founded the German Air Guitar Federation with a group of friends. "I just randomly came across the World Association's Web site and was really impressed with what I saw there, especially that air guitar is, in part, a service for world peace," she explains. "I was also very interested in the mix between seriousness and self-irony. I've never found that kind of mix anywhere else."

An emcee clad in a velvet pin-striped and a pink-frilled shirt explains the rules and history of the air guitar to the audience, which is already growing impatient. Each contestant gets 60 seconds to persuade the audience. "The decisive factors are the overall artistic impression, the visual presentation, technical ability, the song, everything. You can, of course, influence the judges through your applause," he explained. The three-member jury, comprised of has-been German musicians, awards each contestant with between four and six points.

14 air guitarists give their all

Deutsche Meisterschaft im Luftgitarrespielen

This audience is hungry for scandalous behavior!

After a short performance by a real, e.g. live, band, it's finally time for the competition. "Hell Sinki," is the first air guitarist to enter the stage. He's got a beer in his hand, which he slowly imbibes before starting his performance. The man in his late 20s sporting a haircut not unlike members of the British band Oasis, abuses his imaginary guitar to powerful rock 'n' roll riffs, his fingers unrhythmically running over the imaginary strings. He jumps into the air, then slams back down to the ground. At the end of his performance, he falls off the stage to howls from the audience. But the jury is stingier with its praise, giving him a 5.7, 5.5 and a 5.4.

More embarrassingly good performances follow. "Echodrive," an older guy, is hopping around the stage chaotically, unaided by the Pink Floyd music he's supposed to be accompanying. With horn-rimmed glasses, an undershirt and red swimming trunks, he fiddles around for most of his performance with his fantasy amplifier which keeps making interference sounds.

Deutsche Meisterschaft im Luftgitarrespielen, Hiro

Move over Buddy Holly, this is our new guitar Hiro.

But there are also some highlights, like Hiro, a young Japanese guy who quickly becomes a crowd favorite. Dressed in a tie, pressed pants and designer glasses, his face is washed over in an ecstatic look as he performs. Then he turns his back to the audience and begins waggling his ass. By the time he starts wriggling with his fake guitar on the stage floor, it appears he's already clinched the title. The stage is then covered in a hail storm of bras and tissues. When the jury just gives him medium marks, booing fills the hall.

Meisterschaft im Luftgitarrespielen, Mark Böhmer

"I guess I shouldn't drink before the show next time."

Next up is Mark Böhmer, the cocky dude from Hanover. For the event, he's brought along a roadie, who first tests out the guitar. Donning a wife-beater undershirt, Böhmer launches into an air guitar version of "Delay Nuclear" by The Hives. He competently strums his instrument, rolls around on the floor and gets down on his knees. It's a powerful performance, but this crowd is not easily pleased.

"You're an inbred," yells one member of the audience. The judges each give him a 5.7 -- not bad, but still not enough. "It didn't go all that well," he says. "I would have thought that the jury would have concentrated more on stylistic things or creativity. But I had the feeling that the most important things to them were appearance and fun factor." But soon enough he's laughing again. "Next time I know that I can't drink anything before the performance, otherwise I'll forget how the song goes."

The accidental champion

Ingo Schulz kitzelt seine Luftgitarre

German air guitar champion Ingo Schulz: I'm too sexy for my shirt!

One candidate first decided to join the competition when he got to the hall. Ingo Schulz (photo), a 33-year-old from Berlin, says he didn't even know he was coming here tonight. He says he didn't feel like going to a disco with techno or house music. Instead, the businessman decided to come here, but only as a spectator.

But then he thought, "Why not?" He chose a song by AC/DC and grabbed his "guitar." With jeans and a checkered shirt he does a mean Angus Young impersonation, licking his instrument with his tongue and pulling at the strings. It's an exceptional performance -- pure, honest and without any twaddle. The jury then crowns Schulz the German championship, and this time the audience has no objections.

"When I play songs from AC/DC," Schulz explains, "I get the feeling that the 10 meters that separated me from Angus Young at his last Berlin concert are a lot smaller. I feel like the music is alive again, and not just for me. If it pleases the audience, then it's even better."

He's also got a pretty laid back attitude about representing Germany at the world championships in Finland next month. "I'm definitely going to do AC/DC again," he says. "I don't know if it will be the same song. So, now it's time to go to Finland for world peace."

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