As part of our series on discovering new music all over the world our new Berlin correspondent introduces his city with a look at music and culture as well as how Berlin’s past has shaped the modern scene.
Berlin. A city once partitioned by a Cold War wall where on one side inhabitants enjoyed their newfound Western world as best they could, musicians like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds reveled in the cheap living, drugs and anonymity, while East-side their German Democratic Republic (GDR) neighbours experienced high unemployment, separation from loved ones, espionage, intimidation and kidnapping all at the hands of The Ministry of State Security or Stasi as they were better known.
That is of course if you did not succumb to their harsh regime. There was an estimated one Stasi agent to every fifty citizens. Even the Nazis and KGB did not have such manpower.
When the wall came down, citizens stormed Stasi headquarters where some forty-five million pages of files on GDR citizens had been kept. Understandably many requested to see their files. Others did not for fear of discovering who exactly it was that was spying on them, often times their neighbours, friends and sometimes spouses.
Some twenty-five years on and the wall is down, but the evidence of Cold War times is still evident. Ex-Stasi agents roam free, harping back to better times, and some of their ‘doctors’ now practice freely as GPs. East Berlin still looks Communistic with stark lego-like building while the west side boasts high class shopping avenues, plush apartments in leafy burrows and a high standard of living. So what is it that continues to draw people to Berlin?
For modern Europe it is a safe-haven for many young French painters and sculptors who are fed up with a sexist, ageist Parisian art world where young female artists in particular are seen as potential baby factories and so not worth commissioning. Berlin offers a broader-minded approach and a city full of empty spaces waiting to be occupied by anyone with ideas and ambition.
The Spanish and Greeks are escaping recent austerity and already Spanish bars and restaurants are popping up all over revamped neighbourhoods like Neukolln, a once dreary no-go area immortalised by a Bowie track, that is fast becoming the trendy zone. Meanwhile the Oceanic, American and Asian ex-pats are here to study and just have a good old time of it.
Musically Berlin is teeming with variety. From Jazz to Noise and everything in between, it can be found here. It is of course Europe’s Techno Mecca and the clubs attract the best names around. The super-clubs run all weekend and it’s not uncommon for party-goers to spend the entire weekend there.
The punk squats of the nineties and early noughties are certainly not as prevalent, but they do still exist and the streets and trains are full of colourful punks dragging trademark loyal mongrel in tow, and often times vice versa.
Germany did not screw up economically like its EU counterparts and this is evident in Berlin, despite the city being the pauper state of the country. Unemployment in Berlin stands at around thirteen percent. Still, the skyline boasts plenty of construction cranes. Property developers are lurking and in a tug-of-war battle with some locals and artists who want to preserve the cheap open-space ideals that always attracted creativity. The East Side Gallery, the last stretch of Berlin Wall that is a canvas for world-class graffiti art, looks set to be torn down to make way for swanky riverside apartment blocks. The influx of Europeans and Southern Germans is pushing up rents and simultaneously forcing artists out of once cheap areas like Prenzlauerberg.
It’s not all punk and techno though. Berlin was and still is a breeding ground for Classical and Opera music and students alike. There are extensive listing magazines dedicated solely to these genres, with quite literally hundreds of shows in churches, cathedrals, outdoor spaces and concert halls all year round. There seems to be a growing appreciation for folk music in midweek bars and clubs. Experimental music is welcome here and you can find yourself in very unlikely buildings and back streets to get to some shows. Balkan Beats seems to be strong here with designated clubs to dance the night and morning away.
Touring acts, regardless of status or genre, will always make a pit-stop in Berlin. The audience here is noticeably attentive. They don’t hesitate to crowd around the performers and as the beer is cheap, there are always some extra euros for merchandise. Promoters have a knack for sticking like-minded acts on the same bill and you can wallpaper the neighbourhoods with gig posters and not worry about getting fined.
Many musicians who have ventured to Berlin from the States and other countries express some disillusionment with the band scene here, and how the city is ‘not as it used to be’. Then again, what city is?
It’s hard not to feed off the global cultural diversity here and get inspired. Sometimes it’s not what you can take from a city but what you can contribute.
I was told recently by a Berliner how her in-laws had just recently disposed of an attic full of tiles, once legal tender in former GDR times. They had been holding onto them, just in case.
Change has come.
All words by Barry Lanigan. Barry is our new Berlin correspondent and will be writing on bands and culture in the city.
Image by Zoetnet.