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'I write songs to express a feeling that won't go away'

Interview: Willie Schumann / rkFebruary 1, 2016

Her songs touch on gang rape in India and the refugee crisis. Multi-instrumentalist Graziella Schazad tells DW about her Polish-Afghan roots and what she likes about mixing musical styles.

Graziella Schazad, Copyright: L. Drewes
Image: L. Drewes

Melting Pop: Singer Graziella Schazad

DW: Your father emigrated from Afghanistan to Germany. What was it like for him? Today pictures of war often arise in many people's mind when speaking about Afghanistan.

Graziella Schazad: When people ask me where my father comes from and I say, "Afghanistan," they usually have a stereotype in their minds. But my father was really lucky. He comes from a very wealthy family - my grandfather was a doctor. As the eldest son, my father was privileged in coming to Germany at the age of 17 to study here. He became a psychologist. But in Germany he wasn't really doing better. He missed his family, didn't speak the language and suffered from culture shock, as he always described it. Today, he considers himself more of a German than an Afghan. He's very thankful for being here and loves this country.

Your mother is from Poland. What's her story? Why did she leave the country?

My mother was born in Poland and came to Germany when she was six years old. She was a refugee - not a war refugee, but more of an economic refugee. At first, she lived in a refugee camp. Because she always stayed with her family, she doesn't have any bad memories of that time. It was still hard though, and she really had to struggle through the first years.

Your parents' stories are very different. Do you see any parallels to the refugee situation of today?

I think everyone who doesn't leave their country by their own choice feels very lonely and isolated at first - especially if they don't speak the language. It's an experience you might know from vacation. Even the bordering countries have diverse cultures and different languages.

Did you also make some bad experiences respective the foreign origin of your parents?

For my father, who lived in a refugee center, it certainly wasn't an easy time, especially because he didn't speak a single word of German - and he was only 17. My mother was even insulted in school. Then she stopped speaking Polish. Today she doesn't speak the language anymore, which she regrets very much.

So both my parents had some bad experiences that many immigrants are probably familiar with. But they never told me anything about that time when I was a kid. I think that's the reason I grew up with lots of naivety. And we always kept in touch with our family. So I never had the feeling that I had to hide in some way or act different. Of course I wondered when I had the feeling that something was wrong, but I never related it to the color of my hair or my origin.

Graziella Schazad, Copyright: L. Drewes
Schazad plays a violin, piano, guitar - and singsImage: L. Drewes

What was your childhood in Berlin like?

I was born in Moabit, a neighborhood in Berlin where I also grew up the first years. People with different cultural backgrounds lived there, what I liked very much. At that time we stayed a lot with my father's family and spent a lot of time with my uncles, cousins and aunts. I enjoyed that time very much. I was also in touch with family members from all over the world, whether from Canada, New York or Ohio, where my grandparents used to live. Also my aunt Walli from Poland visited us at least once a year for a few weeks. I found these meetings really enriching.

From Berlin you first moved to Ingolstadt in southern Germany and then up North to Hamburg, where you live today with your family and your child. Why Hamburg?

I think it is very important to become independent from your parents and your childhood environment stepping out into the world. For me the big wide world was southern Germany. But I recognized very quickly that this was no place for me to be creative. Then my husband suggested, "Hamburg is a great city if you don't want to move to Berlin." So we moved to Hamburg, where we've already been living for eight years now. It's much smaller than Berlin, but is still a great city.

Let's talk about music. You started very early making music. How did that come about?

As a kid I always wanted to play the piano. I always used to play our neighbors' old piano. When I was three, I started playing the guitar and at the age of four I began to play violin. But mostly I wanted to play the piano, so finally I got one when I was nine. I think this was very essential for my songwriting.

How did you get you first record deal?

My main objective was to play a lot of concerts, so I played at small festivals, trade fairs or weddings. The experiences you gain, getting to know yourself better and getting in touch with the audience, are things you can't buy, not even with a record deal. The year I got my first contract, I played more than 70 concerts. There was nearly no event I wouldn't have played at.

At some point I just got a call from a label that wanted me to send them some demo recordings. I said, "Sure, but I would prefer to come by and play live for you." So I went there, played something on the guitar and my fiddle, and sang a song. I also played a song on a piano, which just happened to be standing in the room. It just was a very cool moment.

Graziella Schazad, Copyright: Willie Schumann
Graziella Schazad during filming for DW's "Melting Pop" series on PopXportImage: Willie Schumann

Does your musical mix of different styles refer to your multicultural roots?

Of course these roots influence me. When we record music and ask ourselves which percussion we should use, I tend to choose an Indian Tabla rather than a normal drum. But I would say that especially the way my family and I lived at home has shaped me as a person and of course has an impact on my music.

On your current album "India," there are many socially critical songs. "How Many People," for example, is about refugees and war. Is there a concrete aim you want to achieve with your music?

Sometimes I feel bad when I say this, but I really write songs to express a certain feeling or to take a closer look at an issue when I realize that this feeling isn't going away. But I never write a song with the intention of writing for "something." There was this horrible gang rape of a girl in New Delhi - I couldn't stop thinking about it for months. I tried to write about it a few times, but I couldn't because I was so shocked. But I had great songwriters by my side,who helped me to get to the heart of it. It's great there's a song people now can listen to, but it all started with the writer's block I had. Same with "How Many People" - a song about a Syrian refuge boy I've seen, who came to Germany with his father and who has lost everything. He just tumbled into this life here and had to cope with the situation.

What do you feel about the many refugees coming to Germany now?

This is a very current issue. It's all happening right here - not in our neighboring countries. And I'm very happy about Germany's cooperativeness. I know that has been mentioned many times before, but I'm really moved and proud that this country is responding like it is. So now I hope everyone will find a place to live here and make it.

Are you a good example of someone who has come to Germany and made it here?

I think you can't compare my situation with that of the refugees of today. I was privileged to grow up in this wealthy country, where you have all opportunities. So I always remind myself of that and I'm grateful for everything from the bottom of my heart. I just wish all the best to the refugees.