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Defiant musician

November 6, 2009

Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, jazz singer Angelika Weiz had to fight to produce songs in English, but her record still was never released due to its criticism of the East German system.

Singer Angelika Weiz smiling
Singer Angelika Weiz stuck to her artistic convictionsImage: picture-alliance / ZB

Any occupation other than singing was out of the question for Angelika Weiz. Weiz grew up behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic under Communist rule. There, she started defying authority at a young age. "It first began during my school years. I was forbidden from performing with the school band," Angelika said, laughing.

At a school party, her teachers once caught her smoking and declared that she would be banned from singing forever. "That made no sense!" she commented. "No one could forbid me from singing, and they certainly could not do so for life."

Weiz is posing elegantly in a black tailored suit in the early 80s
A confident Weiz, in the early 80s

Still, she first completed vocational training to become a photographer as a kind of back-up career and even worked in the field for a while. It was only shortly after that that she began studying singing in Weimar. She started out in the Department of Dance and Light Music, but quickly discovered a passion for jazz and blues. She joined several bands and performed in numerous student clubs.

A rising star

Her full voice gained a reputation, which is why the producers of the East German state record label Amiga first took note of the singer. When the Guenter Fischer Band - one of the best known jazz bands in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - began looking for a singer, Amiga asked Angelika Weiz if she wanted to join.

It was stressful but fun, the singer said, recalling the time when her star began to rise. "I learned a lot," she said. "We also had tons of fun, and many people suddenly knew who I was," she said.

A Change in Mood

Weiz appeared together with the Guenther Fischer Band in the Palace of the Republic, the largest performance venue in East Berlin, which has since been torn down. With her increasing success, the singer also became more confident.

She had once considered herself to be a pleasant and well-behaved woman, but during rehearsals in the Palace, she realized she needed to become more tetchy to protect herself. "It dawned on me that if I didn't start standing up for myself, people were going to walk all over me."

It was a smart move, she said, because she gained the reputation of being "difficult." It discouraged East German authorities from approaching her for propaganda purposes. "No one ever asked me if I would appear with the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth organization of the GDR) to sing for GDR leader Erich Honecker."

The Young Pioneers chorus performing "Our Homeland"
The Young Pioneers chorus performing "Our Homeland"Image: picture-alliance/ ZB

Weiz stayed with the Fischer Band for three years and then went on to found the Good Vibrations Orchestra. She wrote her own songs - a mixture of jazz and rock - with English lyrics. That's when she began running the gauntlet.

Pushing back

The public authorities had put up with her appearances, but when she wanted to produce a record, she hit a roadblock. The state record label, Amiga, claimed that pop music using the German language was a cultural and political achievement that they would not allow to be destroyed.

Angelika Weiz and her band did not buckle. Although Amiga refused to allow Weiz to produce her own record, she and her band were still invited to appear at a pop music festival in 1988 where the "Golden Amiga" was awarded. Weiz used her appearance as an opportunity to speak openly about the band's problems with the label.

Members of East Germany's Central Committee were also sitting in the audience. Shortly after the festival, Angelika Weiz received a call that she would indeed be able to produce her own record. "Finally I would be able to push through my English song texts," she recalled.

A young Weiz; next to her photo, a letter from officials reading: "We will not accept your rendition of the song 'Our Homeland' for political reasons"
An letter from officials: "We will not accept your rendition of the song 'Our Homeland' for political reasons"

But the long awaited consent did not come without a hitch. The authorities said that at least two of the songs be in German and they had to pay tribute to East Germany.

Recycling a Pioneer song

From the start, Weiz knew that she could not write an original song in the way the authorities had demanded. Instead, she "recycled" an old song written in 1951 during one of the meetings of the Pioneers - another East German youth organization.

"Our Homeland" was written in celebration of the East German countryside. But for Weiz, the song took on new meaning.

"Our Homeland is not just cities and towns; Our Homeland is also all the trees in the forest," the song starts out, and continues on to praise nature's beauty in the GDR.

Weiz reinterpreted these lines, and viewed them as a form of protest in light of the dramatic polluting of the environment that occurred in the GDR. But she felt that this critique was not enough. Together with her composer and pianist, Wolfgang Fiedler, she elaborated upon the song:

What remains of all this,
Where is the beautiful homeland that we love,
What should happen,
When the dreams die away in the land of the Palaces
Where every year we see a piece of that which we consider holy, decay,
And what should we tell our children,
When they ask about their homeland,
Every group of people protects its land until it falls apart.

Iron Curtain torn away

Production of the album began and the band spent many long nights mixing songs. When the record was completed in March 1989, everything appeared to be running smoothly.

A black and white portrait of Weiz
Weiz wrote songs in English

Despite the new critical version of "Our Homeland," the editor seemed to approve. But, soon thereafter, Amiga decided against the release of the LP.

Angelika Weiz was accused of corrupting a song of immense patriotic meaning for the GDR. The final mixed version of the album simply disappeared into a cupboard somewhere.

This, however, did not surprise Weiz. "I suspected that would happen, and I would have fought to get it released anyway, but then the Wall came down."

After Germany was unified in 1990, Weiz released the album herself, but did not receive the attention she was accustomed to during GDR times. "No one wanted to hear anything from us 'Ossies," from those of us from the East," she said. "I could completely understand that too because everyone needed time in the beginning to reorient themselves.”

Uncensored, or not?

Since the fall of the Wall, Angelika Weiz has remained true to herself. Her band is still together and now performs under the name Loud People.

Weiz, dressed in purple, singing into a microphone
Producers from Amiga were impressed with Weiz's voiceImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The singer has also founded the Angelika Weiz Trio, a gospel project called United Voices and has made many guest appearances with the likes of the Babelsburg Film Orchestra. She's also performed at Friedrichstadt Palace in Berlin - the most famous revue theater of the former GDR.

Weiz said she loves the variety in her work and finds it liberating, but Reunification has also brought other forms of constraints. "I would like to be able to produce music, but I lack the financial means to do so," she concluded. "Money is today's form of censorship."

Author: Nadine Wojcik / gmb
Editor: Louisa Schaefer