German musician Heinz Ratz felt asylum seekers in Germany weren't being treated fairly. So he found some of the best musicians among them and went on tour to raise awareness. Now the ensemble is part of a documentary.
Two year ago, 45-year-old Heinz Ratz went on a bike tour through Germany with his band Strom & Wasser. But it wasn't just a leisurely summer outing - their aim was to campaign for justice for refugees in German politics and collect donations for their cause.
Along the way, they visited 80 different refugee camps where they came into contact with musicians who had been well known in their home countries, but weren't allowed to work - let alone travel - within Germany.
"Back then I had the idea to invite [the musicians] to Hamburg to record a CD with them and then go on tour," said Ratz.
And that's how the band's next album, "Strom & Wasser featuring The Refugees," came about. "The Refugees" were 30 musicians from 15 countries that had nothing to do with Lauryn Hill's former band with the same name.
The resulting CD, whose cover features a green rowboat stranded in a desert, is a mix of world music, rap, folk, and pop.
Stalemate rather than new start
The CD was then followed up by a tour. To make it happen, Ratz had to secure special permission from the authorities for the musicians to travel. "The musicians I worked with are very much in danger of being deported," commented Ratz in the documentary film "Can't Be Silent," directed by filmmaker Julia Oelkers.
Nuri from Dagestan, Jacques and Revelino from Cote d'Ivoire and Hosain from Afghanistan were a few of the participating musicians who had left their countries to make a new home for themselves in Germany. So far, the only thing they've experienced in Germany is standstill.
Often, people in their situation wait in refugee homes for years in the hope of receiving a residency permit. They are not allowed to work or get an education, and many aren't allowed to leave the region without special permission.
The concert tour and Oelkers' film didn't only bring attention to the plight of the refugee musicians, but also made Heinz Ratz and his band a bit more famous than they already were.
Personal experience with uprooting
The son of an indigenous Peruvian mother and German father, Ratz has never stayed long in one place. He's lived in Spain, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Argentina and Scotland. He's moved 15 times in his life and changed school 16 times in his youth.
And Ratz is no stranger to homelessness - even if his was voluntary. At the age of 25, he spent one year living on the street out of protest. Ratz has also been active in theater, and has been publishing short stories, books on tape, and music CDs since 1994. He's given many readings, and in 2010 he participated in a comedy tour called "Hitler's Last Speech."
"Heinz Ratz is not just a very nice colleague with an amazing stage presence, he's also one of the strongest and most unusual talents of the younger generation," said German singer-songwriter Konstantin Wecker of the all-rounder.
Ratz is not only talented, but also dedicated to his principles. In 2009 he swam some 1,000 kilometers in various Rivers in Germany to advocate, together with the environmental organization BUND, for the preservation of the natural habitats located near the rivers.
"Can't Be Silent" isn't a portrait of Ratz as a person, though, but rather of the refugees he's put in the limelight. Ratz only appears three or four times in the film to explain the project and the tour schedule. The film's focus lies fully on the music, fears and hopes of the artists on stage.
Some kind of paradise
One of them is Sam from Gambia, who feels like a prisoner in the residence for asylum seekers in Reutlingen where he is living. His songs speak of the war that destroyed his country.
Jacques from Cote d'Ivoire says that he'd be spending all his time in the refugee home if it weren't for Ratz's project. Nuri explains that, while everyone else talks about their exotic travels, he's not allowed to leave the village where the home for asylum seekers is located.
What they all have in common is that music is what's keeping them going. They see the concert tour as a kind of paradise, although deportation is a constant and very real possibility.
On stage, they are singers, musicians and rappers. In everyday life, they are excluded.
With their music, they draw thousands of listeners into the concert halls, but they wouldn't even be there themselves if it weren't for the special permission they were granted.
"Strom & Wasser featuring The Refugees" wow their audiences with reggae rhythms and thought-provoking rap texts about life in refugee homes.
For the film, director Julia Oelkers had to rely on video material that the asylum seekers made themselves, because she wasn't granted permission to film inside the residences. Nevertheless, she managed to weave together a documentary that tells the stories of people caught between the euphoria of applause and the hope of a better life.
A medal for the activist
The most peculiar scene in the film takes place in the German chancellor's office in Berlin, where Maria Böhmer, the German commissioner for migration, refugee and integration affairs, is presenting Heinz Ratz with a Federal Medal of Integration.
Clearly poorly prepared and gushing with flowery language, she asks Ratz to come up to the front. "When you see the desperation of these people who come here and often wait for 10 or 20 years with a 'tolerated' status, without the possibility to work, educate themselves or travel, and often vegetate, you tend to view the government's policies quite critically," said Ratz from the stage.
Böhmer had her picture taken with two of the musicians. One of them has since been deported.