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Xavier Naidoo: German identity is not shameful

German soul artist Xavier Naidoo was part of a late 90s movement encouraging artists to return to the German language in pop. Performing in various formations, he is an enduring presence in the charts.

Award-winning, million-selling soul singer Xavier Naidoo

Award-winning, million-selling soul singer Xavier Naidoo

With his smooth R 'n' B productions and German lyrics, Xavier Naidoo achieved international acclaim, not only with his solo music but also with the band that gave him his break in the music industry, "Die Söhne Mannheims" (Sons of Mannheim).

After a clutch of prestigious music prizes, numerous hit singles and five studio albums - four of which hit the top spot in the German album charts - he is one of the most prolific and respected artists in the German music scene.

Deutsche Welle's Amy Zayed caught up with Naidoo and guitarist Mister Baylis on their promotion tour for the latest Söhne Mannheims LP "Barrikaden von Eden" (Barricades of Eden).

Deutsche Welle: You have been active in the music scene since 1995. What's the secret of your success?

Xavier Naidoo: I think it was primarily the German language that made us unique. It was not only giving Germany soul music. It was giving the Germans a piece of soul back. After the Second World War it just didn't feel right to sing in German or to have lyrics with a proper meaning sung in Germany. People felt awkward when they traveled abroad, not wanting to say they were German, so how on earth would you expect to find decent German music?

There was a lot of English and American music around, but I wanted to give Germans lyrics they could understand, so they could learn to handle pop music.

The great thing about pop is to be able to read between the lines and identify with the song. We were missing out on that. I grew up speaking English and German, so I had the privilege of being able to read between the lines. I loved Prince and Massive Attack and Soul II Soul! And all the drum and bass stuff. I felt so at home in that scene.

I wanted to give people that joy of understanding and identifying with what I was singing. So we started to do it ourselves.

Is there something special about the German fan base?

Many of Naidoo's songs have a Christian bent (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Many of Naidoo's songs have a Christian bent

Xavier Naidoo: What I've come to realize over the last few decades is that once you are in the German fans' hearts, they will never ever let you out again. I mean look at people like David Hasselhoff. He was never as popular in his own country as he was in Germany. When he did his recent album and tour here, everybody was back supporting him like in the old days. You'd never find that anywhere else.

There are about a hundred million German speaking people in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, so the market is immense. If you can reach out to them with a love song or whatever, then that is great.

What's wrong with the local music scene? If you look at places like the UK, everybody seems to either have a band or manage one. Isn't there enough interest in Germany, or is the market too small?

Xavier Naidoo: We never grew up with an entertainment sector. In the last 30 years it seems like this whole business was somehow cut off from Germany, or at least we didn't take it seriously. It's not like we grow up with pop music like the British or the Americans.

Only now are more and more German bands appearing on the scene, and more of them sing German. I'm eager to see where it will lead to.

Mister Baylis: The German music industry doesn't seem to realize how much potential we have and how big this business is and could be. We import so much music from the UK and America. Look at France, they play far more French music on the radio than we do German music.

But look at Sweden, they do a good job of exporting their music to the world. Even Iceland has people like Björk. Where's Germany?

Mister Baylis: The Swedish have very good pop music.

Xavier Naidoo: But then our radio situation is far less open and international than it is in Scandinavia for example. They play jazz next to speed metal and then you could hear an indie song followed by a pop song. In the UK BBC 6 Music will play all sorts of stuff outside mainstream pop.

The German band Söhne Mannheims Foto: Uwe Anspach +++(c)

The German band Söhne Mannheims

Here in Germany our stations are split into different categories. And if you don't fit, you're either made to fit or you don't get any airplay. Other countries have American series with subtitles so they learn to play with different languages far quicker. We are kind of in a bubble where we used to duck and hide feeling ashamed of our German identity.

It's such a paradox. We don't even have our own folk music. All we have is Schlager, which is a parody of German folk music with no substance, just rubbish. We used to have beautiful folk songs with wonderful arrangements and brilliant lyrics. They're all gone or got lost through ignorance and peoples' fear of their own identity.

There is this ever-growing ongoing discussion on music on the internet and illegal downloads. But you've always given fans the chance to legally download some of your stuff even before release.

Xavier Naidoo: I think we have to start living with the Internet. The question is where it will lead. Either we won't be able to download anything for free, or we will be able to download everything for free, or there will be a completely different solution. 

The main problem is that some people have closed their eyes for far too long, especially within the music industry. At the end of the day I need to have my music online. If out of the five million people that click on my website 500,000 buy the single, that's great. Maybe there would be more sales it if I didn't put my stuff on YouTube or give away free downloads, but maybe not, because nobody would have the chance to give it a listen beforehand.

There is so much out now, and nobody has enough money to buy everything, but lots of people show up at the concerts at least, so no harm done!

Mister Baylis: Music is a public thing, so it should be accessible to everyone. But then again the musician needs to earn a living. So I think it's something for the government to take care of. Why not have an artists' tax?

Born and raised in Mannheim, Naidoo released his first German language album in 1998

Born and raised in Mannheim, Naidoo released his first German language album in 1998

You've done a lot to improve the German music scene, even organizing a contest for upcoming artists to be the "New Söhne Mannheims" and feature on your videos and single. What else do you think could be done for the local scene?

Xavier Naidoo: What we really need are places where young bands can play and organize gigs. What's the use in renting a rehearsal room and practicing your butt off if you can't play anywhere?

In Mannheim we already have a pop academy where you can study popular culture and music. We have a music park. The music industry seems to finally be recognizing the need, but more investment in popular music and culture is definitely required.

We also need music TV shows again. All we have are those silly casting shows, but no decent live venues for small bands. That just kills any development in the German music scene. But then again I like to watch these casting shows because they are the only way to find out who has talent in Germany.

Mister Baylis: Yeah, but what sense does it make to have one pop idol and put that poor person to play in front of two million people if they haven't ever played live before? And then you watch them fall after two years and laugh about them, but nobody considers that these poor people didn’t have any experience.

If I had the chance, I'd create a show where people can come and sing their own songs, and the best musician wins. Then you wouldn't need any silly producers, and people would know you by your own style. That would be better than singing cover songs, then going into a studio to record some rubbish that has nothing to do with the songs you sang on TV, and then wondering why nobody wants to buy it.

If you rise too quickly, you might fall quickly too. 

Interview: Amy Zayed

Editor: Rick Fulker

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