With roots in Uganda, Colombia, South Korea and Poland, the Berlin-based band Culcha Candela call themselves a "mini UN General Assembly." On their latest album, the group continues campaigning for respect and tolerance.
DW: The title of your new album is "Candelistan." What does that stand for?
Matthias Hafemann ("DJ Chino"): "Candelistan" is an imaginary land. We used to have a forum by the same name on our website. When we were looking for a title for our colorful hodgepodge of songs, "Candelistan" seemed to hit the spot. It's a place where everyone is nice to each other. That's the most important rule: "Be nice!" If you can do that, you're welcome to join right away, there's no restricted access. It's a place filled with tolerance and respect - an attitude we'd like to spread.
What have you got that other bands don't have?
John Magiriba Lwanga ("Johnny Strange"): Diversity is our thing, it sets us apart: We are extremely colorful in many ways - culturally, and as individuals. And still, although we are by no means a homogenous mass, we work together. We come from different perspectives, we're like a tiny world. If we can't make things work on a small scale, we can't make them work on a large scale. That's our vision of "Candelistan": no matter what religion, skin color or sexual preference - we respect anyone who's cool.
So you benefit from your diverse roots?
Omar David Römer Duque ("Don Cali"): We give people a glimpse of the world as it could be: different people from different countries who can create something and live peacefully together. If everyone were to follow that path, we would no longer need borders anywhere in this world. That's what we always say in our show: "Take a look around at all the people of all colors. We want colorful, you want colorful - so let's just start sharing and paying attention to mutual respect." We want people to understand that it's doable.
DJ Chino: Our characters, our social and cultural upbringing - that diversity in itself makes for variety. We've learned to use this variety and not see it as an obstacle. We focus it all, and then we move forward with it. I believe that's our actual strength.
You are all very open about your backgrounds, which is something others might hide.
Don Cali: It's important to be true to oneself. We express that on our album: "No matter what everyone else says - do your own thing! Try it out! If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else believe in you?"
Have you had any negative experiences?
Johnny Strange: With racism? Of course - times, for instance, when we didn't feel instantly welcome. It depends on how you deal with it. Usually, you can turn the situation around. My dad taught me not to let it affect me, not to care if people aren't crazy about me right away. If you're positive, he would say, people will react in a positive way, too. I've fared well so far with that attitude.
We should feel sorry for people who are so afraid that they turn to violence, perhaps because of a weakness on their part. These people don't think much of themselves, really, and they're thankful if you respect them all the same. That's how you can change them.
Don Cali: Often enough, it's just ignorance, based on a lack of education. A self-aware person can really only feel empathy with someone like that. You have to find ways to explain how things work. When you try to hammer something into someone, the exact opposite happens - they clam up and you have a problem.
DJ Chino: It's no coincidence that people are so afraid of the unfamiliar, particularly in Dresden or other parts of East Germany where fewer foreigners have settled. I believe that where people get to know each other, this fear is marginal.
Johnny Strange: I agree. I grew up in the district of Berlin-Kreuzberg, where I had more problems with the Turks than the Germans. At first, I felt threatened. But then, as I formed more and more friendships with them - also through music - I noticed how they added to our world and how much more beautiful the world is if you overcome your fear. It's difficult, and it's a task the entire nation has to tackle: the fear of the unknown.
What role does Berlin play for the band?
DJ Chino: For us, Berlin was the ideal breeding ground; we could have easily grown up here together in some apartment building, next door to each other. That's normal, and it should be like that everywhere, and inevitably, it will be. People shouldn't be afraid, but see it as a welcome enrichment.
Concerning migrants and migration - is there anything you found particularly moving these past weeks and months?
Don Cali: The refugee crisis, and how so many people are so reticent when faced by people seeking shelter. As far as I'm concerned, we could do without borders all over the world, because this is our world. It's not "his world" or "his country" or "my country" - the world is ours. One day, we'll laugh and say, "Hey, we used to think there were borders."
DJ Chino: We recently visited a refugee center in Stuttgart, a very moving experience. We spent an afternoon with people from different corners of the world. They cooked for us, and were excited about our visit days in advance, just like we were. We were really curious to meet each other, and somehow, that curiosity became something really positive. We made music together, and listened to their stories. That was an incredible experience for us.
I think it was a great experience for the refugees, too: getting to know people who cared about what they had been through and how they are received here in Germany. It's unfortunate that these people's potential is not really being used. The way to go is to integrate them, allow them to work and make them feel understood and accepted. Once that happens, these people will flourish and that's what matters.
Don Cali: The refugees also came to our concert. And you could tell, they are just ordinary people. We have to meet these people at eye level, not with pity. They have to be integrated, given a chance to live and to share in our good fortune.
Tell us about the "Bock auf Bunt" (Up for Colorful) initiative the band launched.
Mateo Jaschik ("Itchyban"): On our last tour, 1 euro (currently about $1.10) from every ticket sold went to the "Pro Asyl" [refugee support] organization, and we gave that campaign a snappy slogan, "Bock auf Bunt." For the past 13 years, the band has been made up of all colors; we're an example for successful integration. So many people in Germany volunteer to help, despite their own problems and everyday life.
It's great to see civil society move closer together, to see so many people get involved despite the fact that politicians are not providing much of a model, and that people in Germany and throughout Europe don't agree on the issues. People take matters into their own hands, which is a really good thing. We wanted to help, too, and we collected a lot of money with our campaign.