Berlin has long been a city that doesn't sleep. There's too much music in the air and dancing going on. Right now, singers are storming the German capital and being met with open arms. Anne Thomas spoke with a few.
On a glorious day last fall, I was just surfacing from the smells and sounds of the weekly Turkish market on the banks of the Landwehr canal in Kreuzberg when I heard a charming voice and the strum of a guitar.
It wasn't even noon but a crowd was dancing away to such classics as Volare, Tu Vuo Fa l'Americano and Sunny Afternoon. I put down my baskets laden with salads, apples, feta cheese and flatbreads and found a spot where I too could wiggle my backside.
At any time of night or day, you'll find music and people dancing in Berlin. This might be in a park, a subway station or more prosaically in a nightclub. And although it’s the city's eclectic club scene that has attracted the most attention and tourists, live music is alive and kicking.
"Berlin is a living, breathing metropolis," says Danish singer Frederik Konradsen, who delighted my ears that sunny day. "It's a fantastic city from a street performer's point of view - so many good places."
English folk singer Stephen Burch, alias The Great Park, says more and more musicians are moving to Berlin because "they think it's sexy and exciting and there are a lot of places to play."
"And generally speaking you're treated better when you play small concerts. The audiences are nicer and quieter. The beer is cheaper! This makes a hell of a lot of difference to people who want to play music."
Ray Mann agrees: "When I arrived here I found myself falling into the singer-songwriter scene - a mixture of locals and expats - who do little gigs that are very intimate. The audiences come to see either someone they know or discover something new and that's amazingly gratifying."
The language of love
The Australian musician says he's still in his "honeymoon period" because he's only been in Berlin for a few months. Konradsen uses a similar analogy: "I am still in a state of 'discovering' Berlin and that's exciting. Berlin and I are in love and maybe one day we'll start to argue but till then I'll bring flowers every day."
It is pertinent that these singers would use the language of love to describe their relationship with Berlin. The universality of love and those other favorite subjects of song lyrics - death, conflict and religion - can help singers quickly find an audience here regardless of their background or mother tongue.
Although there are many examples to illustrate the transcendental nature of music, in Berlin I often think of Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marleen and the fact that she was popular among soldiers of both the Allied and Axis forces, as well as civilians all over the world.
Seduced by Berlin's past
Stephen Burch admits he is seduced by Berlin's past, by the "unavoidable history of the place, even if that sounds trite." He says he felt immediately drawn to the bullet-ridden buildings, the cobbled streets, the wide avenues and that this all fit in very well with the interest he has always harbored for conflict, for adventure.
Today's Berlin is not the one sung by Dietrich before she went to the US but there is still a trace of the spirit that drew people here in the Weimar era, a sense of freedom that permeates the air, and the music scene.
"This is the kind of town that accommodates so many forms of experimentation and expression," says Mann. "I feel really uninhibited to just invent something and not worry about not being liked because people assume you're good unless you prove you're not…"
"I'm less self-conscious playing here," agrees Burch. "Maybe there's a feeling that playing here gives you a certain freedom with the language. It's freed it all up. I'm writing in a much freer way."
He says this as Edith Piaf (surely one of the greatest singers ever) comes on in the modish bar we are drinking in and begins telling us that she has no regrets and her life is beginning again…
From Berlin to Buenos Aires
On the other side of town in Prenzlauer Berg - a district that knows all about starting again - there is a small venue dedicated exclusively to songs and rather flatly called Café Lyrik, where you can hear modern-day Piafs singing French chansons, Russian ballads or German lieder.
When I go, it's tango night. With a splendid head of black curly hair, a deep powerful voice and a touch of lipstick, Chilean singer Renée Figueroa transports her listeners to Buenos Aires, enchanting them and bringing tears to their eyes with stories of broken love, prostitution, madness, nostalgia, nature.
Berlin may not be Buenos Aires and may not be a patch on the place it was in the 1920s, but broken love, madness, prostitution, nostalgia and nature are still very present.
And it is the city's unpredictable character that attracts. "I love the fact that you can get a beer and anything to eat at anytime at night. I love walking about, stopping spontaneously, listening to what's going on," says Stephen Burch.
While Frederik Konradsen plays a game with himself to see if he'll get invited back to someone's house after a day of gigging. "I hope someone will open a door. In one week in Kreuzberg I got invited to dinner three times by a stranger - that has never happened in Copenhagen!"
Ray Mann incorporates such unpredictable encounters into his work. "I write primarily about moments between people and always about a certain kind of feeling," he explains. "The concept about the kind of band I wanted to have, or music I wanted to make, what atmosphere I wanted to create was born on my first visit in Berlin. These are the spaces in which the kind of interactions I am writing about are happening."
Spaces, he continues, "in repurposed buildings with certain fixtures left, vintage furniture nicked from out front of people's houses and shoved into a place, where people hang out, chilled, maybe listening to music or talking and if you're subtle when you play, they'll just tune in."
These spaces in small smoky bars in Neukölln and Kreuzberg are also where The Great Park feels most comfortable. His favorite venue is Gelegenheiten, a former butcher's shop with tiled walls: "It has a really reflective sound and the people who work there are super. It's brilliant. It doesn't feel too contrived whereas some other places look a bit too constructed."
This is still true of Berlin as a whole - it's brilliant and not too contrived, yet the more people sing its praises, the less unpredictable it becomes. Some are worried it's changing too fast, but others couldn't care less - they just want to party, and so long as the music plays that's exactly what they'll do.
Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Jessie Wingard