Berlin′s musical melting pot | Music | DW | 16.03.2012
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Berlin's musical melting pot

Music lovers can take violin or piano lessons anywhere in Germany. But what about tabla or bouzouki lessons? An academy in the capital wants to change what it calls the Eurocentric approach to music training in Germany.

"We may be having a financial crisis in Greece, but we're not having a culture crisis," said Dimitris Varelopoulos with a laugh, adding, "Here Germans and Greeks are making music together and having fun."

A newly-formed quartet with German and Greek members is practicing rebetiko music, a style that originally comes from the harbor city of Piraeus. It is Sunday afternoon in Berlin's diverse Kreuzberg neighborhood, and the Global Music Academy (GMA) has invited participants for a workshop. Anyone with a sense of curiosity - and ideally a bit of music experience - is the target audience.

Dimitris serves as a docent, giving tips when the players get stuck. Hobby guitarist Wolfram has come to the workshop for the first time.

"A friend of mine loves rebetiko, so she was the one who made me come," he said. But he quickly found a different workshop that was a little more to his liking: "Flamenco - now that's real guitar music!"

India in Berlin

American tabla teacher Laura Patchen

American tabla teacher Laura Patchen

While Hellenic sounds fill the room, Turkish instrumentalists and singers are practicing next door. The conservatory at which they are studying shares a building with the GMA. Two doors further, a few women from Berlin sit with drums on a cushy rug. They are taking part in a tabla workshop, concentrating on rhythms from India.

Instructor Laura Patchen moved from the USA to Berlin 35 years ago, where she happened to get to know a tabla master from India. Their meeting inspired her to get further training in the Indian bongo-like drumming style. She has since made a name for herself as a musician, thanks mostly to luck and her own initiative.

Getting trained in non-European instruments is simply not part of the German educational system, neither at music schools for laypeople nor at academies that train professional musicians.

Against Eurocentrism

Working at an institution that brings musical cultures from across the world together has been a dream come true for Laura.

"Today there are so many influences from everywhere, including in music. We now have the capacity to transport ourselves around the world, and there are people from all over now living in Berlin. The idea of founding a Global Music Academy here is very timely," she said.

GMA co-founder Andreas Freudenberg

GMA co-founder Andreas Freudenberg

One could also argue that the GMA is long past due - globalization in music still has not really taken hold in Germany, a country that has very high regard for its own musical tradition and approach to training. World music can be heard anywhere but learned almost nowhere in the birthplace of Bach and Beethoven. Though German music academies offer a few tentative projects that go beyond the traditional borders - usually in the areas of guitar or pop music - a solid education in the musical cultures of Asia, Africa or Latin America is simply not on offer.

That's Eurocentrism, and it needs to go, said GMA co-founder Andreas Freudenberg.

"European music has long belonged to global culture. As a result, people here feel important and powerful enough, so they have little interest in opening themselves up to the process of allowing cultures to interact," Freudenberg said.

He stressed that the process involves more than just multi-culti posturing.

"It's really a difficult task, and it doesn't suffice to just make fusion music," Freudenberg told DW.

One of a kind in Europe

Instead of offering the same old fusion, Andreas Freudenberg is going all out. The musician organized the successful Berlin festival Carnival of Cultures, and with the GMA, he has now created an institution unique throughout Europe for combining music instruction for lay people with courses for professionals. People from nearly 200 countries live in the district of Kreuzberg where the academy is located, and South African musician and teacher William Ramsay is set to serve as creative director.

GMA docent Bo Sung Kim from Korea

GMA docent Bo Sung Kim from Korea

Though the GMA has already been running for a few months, its first degree programs will be on offer in 2013. Currently the accreditation process is still underway. Initially the private university, financed largely through tuition fees, will offer Bachelor degrees. Later it will add programs to earn Master degrees.

The university plans to have regular professor positions, and the GMA will also employ musicians on an as-needed basis for projects. The institution has already made impressive contacts with a number of international artists coming from places as diverse as Korea, Brazil, Angola, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Musicians from various European countries have also taken part, including a few from Germany.

Other tonalities, other meters

The courses will not be limited to instrument training. They also include music theory, which represents a significant challenge and a new domain for the academy's organizers, said Dietrich Wöhrlin, a drummer and GMA program director. The tonal system upon which European art music as well as pop music is based represents just one of many such systems in the world. The same is true when it comes to rhythm and meter.

"Once you've tried to break through these structures and take on other constructs and theories, everything suddenly gets easier," he said, adding, "When it comes to a universally valid theoretical construct - that's physics!"

Music isn't just art; it's the organized construction of certain frequencies of a certain length.

"So you try to turn off your own cultural blinders and have a look at other approaches and styles of music," Wöhrlin said.

Mobile campus

Musicians take part in a workshop at the GMA

The GMA issues open invitations to local musicians for workshops

Dietrich Wöhrlin knows what he is talking about. He recently took part in a workshop for the GMA at the University of Dar Es Salam in Tanzania. The multi-week GMA pilot project was financed by the State Department. Conceived as a mobile campus in various countries, it is intended to become one of the university's standard offerings.

But it's not a "development project," stressed GMA head Freudenberg. In Tanzania, it was about bringing musicians from eight African countries together to develop new ideas for transmitting and teaching music in their regions. In return, the expertise of African colleagues is essential for the academy in Berlin.

"We're taking this project to those places where we had difficulties finding teachers prepared to work at the university level," Freudenberg explained.

One of the university's aims is that as many students as possible should study abroad. That means the institution needs as big an international network as possible.

Once university courses get underway next year, the music lessons available to all - and not just enrolled students - will continue. That's important to Freudenberg, who says he wants the GMA not just to serve as a music academy for students but as a key juncture in Berlin's cultural life.

Author: Aya Bach / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker

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