1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Music for the masses

Stuart Braun, BerlinMarch 12, 2015

As xenophobia rears up again across Europe and the world, DW's Stuart Braun hopes it might be different in the German capital - where the soundtrack befits the city's 190 nationalities.

Hooligans Against Salafists Demonstration in Hannover. Copyright: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images.
Image: Getty Images/A. Koerner

I recently attended a performance by the Essad Bey City Rollers, a three-piece band playing a kind of hybrid Jewish klezmer/East European sound in celebration of the group's namesake, a writer who was raised Jewish in the Soviet Union before fleeing the Bolsheviks and converting to Islam in Weimar Berlin.

The anti-immigration Pegida protesters who oppose so-called "Islamification" in Germany and have been attracting up to 20,000 people in Dresden - some neo-Nazi cohorts recently attacked a refugee asylum center in the Saxony capital - would not have approved of someone like Bey. The self-styled Muslim prince and "Orientalist" became a best-selling German-language writer, even if he was really a Jew who spoke Russian at home. But in the cosmopolitan Weimar capital, Bey's apocryphal insights into the exotic caliphates of the East were a big hit.

One member of the Essad Bey City Rollers, who on stage was wearing a fez like Bey once did, is Yuriy Gurzhy, who is perhaps better known for his work with a band called RotFront, a raucous balkan beats/ska/hip hop/'turbo polka' act that have a large following across Europe. A Ukrainian of Jewish background, Yuriy started the band with Simon Wahorn, a Hungarian from Budapest, a few years after both landed in Berlin in the mid-90s.

Named after the communist resistance group who fought the Nazis on the streets of Berlin, RotFront are a polyglot band of self-styled "Emigrantski Ragamuffins" that have increasingly reacted against the kind of intolerance that Pegida is peddling. Their song "Gay, Gypsy and Jew," for example, was a response to the sudden attacks against such minorities in Hungary under far-right Prime Minister Victor Orban. The song can no doubt also be applied elsewhere in Europe, and especially to Putin's Russia, Yuriy tells me.

Scene in Berlin logo, Copyright: DW

Rubbers and bullets

A few days after the Essad Bey City Rollers show, I saw a short film/installation at the Forum Expanded section of the Berlinale film festival, which used an intimate sexual relationship as a metaphor for the Palestine-Israel conflict. The frustrated woman in the relationship spoke with her lover following sex, and said that the condom he insisted on using, 18 months after they got together, was akin to the wall the Jewish nation built between itself and Palestine. The condom's purpose, she went on, was to keep Israel pure, to ensure against miscegenation between Jews and Arabs. She said that such interbreeding - and trust - would, in fact, be the way to end the Middle East conflict. But Israel, and thus her partner, did not want this.

Riding home on the train from the screening of "A Spectacle of Privacy," by Lebanese artist Roy Dib, I was thinking about Israel, a state whose very existence was precipitated by extreme nationalism, and a Holocaust concocted in Berlin. I then thought it ironic that Berlin now had a large population of Palestinian refugees, most living in a Neukölln district that is also filling with young Israeli people fleeing walls and nationalism.

I thought, a little idealistically, that perhaps walls had come down and condoms had come off in Berlin.

My reverie was interrupted as a group of 12 or so young men and one woman, most dressed in heavy jackets and black boots, piled into my near-empty carriage. They were followed by a similar number of well-equipped riot police.

The band Essad Bey City Rollers. Copyright: Oleg Farynyuk.
The sound of Berlin: The Essad Bey City Rollers blend countless styles of music.Image: Oleg Farynyuk

The group talked fairly innocuously - if loudly. Then one looked at the police and provocatively said that the group would be in Dresden for the next Pegida rally. I soon spied the insignia on the jacket of the guy seated next to me, which read: "Hooligans gegen Salifisten" (Hooligans Against Salafists).

These racist football thugs (pictured at the top of this article) had gathered in their thousands in Cologne in late 2014 to riot against so-called Islamic extremism in Germany - and inevitably to sing about the purity of the good old Deutsches Volk. I never found out why they gathered in Berlin that night, but assumed their pretext was the Copenhagen shootings two days before, which were carried out by a radical of Muslim faith in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre - he attempted to kill another cartoonist known to draw the Prophet Mohammed, but instead murdered a film director and later a Jewish security guard at a synagogue.

As the riot police stared down the Hooligans Against Salafists in my train carriage, I wanted to believe that they were a tiny minority. When Pegida tried to recently gather in Berlin (under the moniker Bärgida), anti-fascist protesters far outnumbered the right wing xenophobes.

Life in Berlinstan

But who was I kidding? Minorities were again scapegoats in the politics of hate across Europe. Berlin was not immune. As I watched the hooligans act with increasing bravado in the face of the riot police, I became more disturbed by a reality that had echoes of the 1930s.

In recent years, Yuriy Gurzhy has met many Russians who describe the increasing number of neo-Nazi gangs in their country. These extreme nationalists are not only peddling the kind of anti-Semitism that once afflicted the streets of Berlin, but are targeting foreigners and LGBT men and women. "It's really serious," says Yuriy, whose immediate Jewish family, unlike many of his wider clan, managed to avoid deportation to the Nazi concentration camps. But now his relatives in the Ukraine face another danger. Living in Kharkiv in the East, Yuriy's family and friends speak Russian but want to be part of an independent Ukraine. Russian ultra-nationalists in the region do not accept this.

And image of an anti-Pegida demonstration in Hannover. Copyright: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images.
Germany has witnessed many counter-demonstrations against rising xenophobiaImage: Getty Images/A. Koerner

A guitarist and impassioned record collector who started the infamous Russendisko in Berlin in 1999 with writer/DJ Wladimir Kaminer, another Russian exile who writes in German, Yuriy likes that his identity is fluid in Berlin. Like Essad Bey, he cannot be pinned down. He is Ukrainian, Jewish, now has a German passport, and speaks Russian, English, German, Ukrainian. In this city on the border of East and West, a place RotFront calls "Berlinstan," Yuriy believes that it's possible to live without labels, to benefit from many different perspectives.

When I arrived in Hermannplatz, the last stop on my homeward journey from the film screening, in a district where some 190 nationalities now live, I had hope that Berlinstan, of all places, remembered the extreme price of intolerance - that it would not put on another condom.

Stuart Braun is the author of "City of Exiles: Berlin from the Outside," to be released in April by Noctua Press.