Why Indian Electronica Artists Are Rooting For Berlin
The annual exodus of Indian artists and promoters to the German capital peaks this year, adding to the increasing number of connections to the city
There is a man moving to the music on the dance floor. In a wheel chair. All around him people groove, drink, jack and sway. It’s 10am on a Monday morning at Berlin’s now-shuttered, legendary Bar25 club, right next to the River Spree. Witnesses to this inclusive, bizarre, joyous moment are Avinash Kumar and Gaurav Malaker from Basic Love of Things (B.L.O.T), India’s leading audio-visual arts collective. It’s an image from a summer day in 2009 that stayed with the duo long after they left the venue and represents everything that’s right with the city. Kumar likens Berlin to “an island” of free thinkers. He says, “You rarely see that sort of situation with nightclubs in India and it stuck with us as a symbol of what the right values in music situations need to be – of accessibility, enjoyment and democracy.”
Kumar and Malaker made their self-planned and self-financed maiden voyage to the mecca of electronic music of their own accord back in 2009. Malaker says that they thought of it as investment for their education and exposure. They expected, like every first timer, a tourist hub famed for its nightlife, but stumbled into a lot more: historic, off-beat and itinerant venues steeped in history, endless parties, some of the lowest rents in Europe and a diverse music scene with over 300 music labels. Add to this a city legislation that recognizes the importance of the music scene (Berlin attracts over 60,000 clubbers from across the world every weekend), and you have the perfect concoction for its happy hedonism.
This year, over hundred Indian DJs, musicians, promoters and music fans will make their way to Berlin and Germany. Among the names in this year’s book of exodus include Monica Dogra and Randolph Correia of Shaa’ir & Func, veteran trance DJ Ma Faiza, techno artists Ash Roy and Ashwin Mani Sharma, hip-hop guru DJ Uri, Delhi-based graffiti artist Dizy (Kajal Singh), online webzine Wild City’s founders Munbir and Sarah Chawla, Mumbai-based promoters Aneesha Kotwani (Regenerate) and Vivek Dudani (Shark & Ink).
The foundations for such a varied talent pool of artists being introduced to Berlin culture are of course multi-layered. But the pivotal moment, which triggered a series of events, can be traced back, ironically, to a man from Cologne. In 2008, Ralph Christoph, Strategic Head of C/O Pop Festival, toured South Asia to research electronic music in the region, at the behest of the Goethe-Institut (German Cultural Centre). Christoph met extensively with stake holders in scenes across the metros, sensed that it was owing season and advised the need to collaborate both locally, and internationally with German artists. Thankfully, Delhi-based Robin Mallick, regional programme director of the Goethe Institut across South Asia and his colleague Farah Batool, programme coordinator put a plan in motion so swiftly that most Indian politicians who follow the advice of Planning Commissions would be put to shame. The same year, artists like techno collective Jalebee Cartel , electro-pop sensation Shaa’ir & Func and live electronic music act Teddy Boy Kill played in Cologne, while tours for Germans artists to India were also organized, culminating in the massive Global Groove festival in December 2009. Over 30 influential German and European promoters, artists, label heads, venue owners congregated in Delhi. It was the first of its kind, European-style electronic music conference in India, with the sole aim of fostering exchange and collaborations between Indian and international partners. It also helped that India’s independent music scene grew rapidly since 2008. DJs and musicians were encouraged by both organizers and audiences at venues like Zenzi, Zenzi Mills and Blue Frog in Mumbai, and similarly forward thinking clubs like The Living Room Cafe in Delhi, Bacchus in Bangalore, High Spirits in Pune, Roxy in Kolkata and Blend in Chennai. Promoters set up booking agencies to structure the way artists were presented to clubs. Marketing heads of alcohol companies found the best route to surrogate advertizing in the country by organizing music festivals, and music management company Only Much Louder launched the NH7 Weekender to kickstart a now thriving festival culture.
In 2012, besides the regular bouquet of Indian artists being shipped across to German festivals and conferences annually, the Goethe Institut launched Border Movement in July. Run by Berlin-based promoter Gerriet Schulz, and local promoters Wild City, the blog and event curation agency covers anything that is new, exciting or on the fringes of electronic music and club culture. Schulz, the soft-spoken, TV-tower of an editor of the blog is as Berliner as they come. He successfully ran the club WMF for 20 years in Berlin, by “the nomadic principle of using temporary spaces often in historical locations and changed location every couple of years. It’s a characteristic that has become normal across the world today but at the time it was definitely new.” His favorite thing about Berlin “is that there is so much space to try stuff out and bring your ideas to life. Even with rising rent, it is still possible to find a space and convince a landlord to give you the chance to try something new,” he says. “You’ll always find people who want to play and work and slave or be involved somehow.” And Border Movement subscribes to the city’s ethos entirely.
Schulz’s trips to India enabled him to understand the lack of infrastructure for artists eager to learn and share competence other than through commercial entities like Red Bull Music Academy. “Through the rise of so-called EDM, there has been increased attention for electronic music but it is often a more commercial vein that is being promoted,” he says. “We want to show what happens behind the scenes and shed light on the little people who are really changing the scene. Working with Wild City, they successfully organized the seminal Pettah Exchange Project in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where 13 artists met to produce music together. It showcased the growing maturity of the Indian electronic music scene. And paved the way for productions and further tours. Renowned bass music producers like Robot Koch and Phon.O from the mighty Modeselektor’s stable of artists didn’t just play and bounce back to Berlin, but now have regular dialog with young Indian musicians and DJs. Schulz says that that the cross-pollination is vital to the Indo-Berlin axis.
Border Movement also invited artists like Sandunes (Sanaya Ardeshir) and Lifafa (Suryakant Sawhney from Peter Cat Recording Co) to play at festivals like Worldtronics and Fusion. Says Schulz, “It spreads the word to foreign artists that India is a place that is happening in terms of underground music. And exposes German curators and festival-goers to what is really going on in India.” The investment has paid off. Indian DJs have turned the dash into a marathon. Inspired by the initial thrust, techno artists like Ash Roy, through his label SoupHerb works regularly Berlin-based artists. Roy has also played at the legendary Fusion Festival every year since 2010. “Two years ago, I played the Tanzweize, main techno stage,” he says. “Before my set, this German guy points to me and asks, ‘Hey, aren’t you the guy from Jalebee Cartel?’ Someone recognized me in Germany! It was overwhelming and then he says, “I will get all my friends here. There were so many people. This was one of my favorite gigs.”
Others like Correia from Shaa’ir and Func have made Berlin their de facto inspiration destination. Says Correia, “A lot of the art on display is by artists who are visiting or live there or are from other countries. I love how Berlin nurtures that and encourages it and allows it to become an unfiltered mess. And at the same time, has the capacity to keep it all organised and free. Nobody lives art like people in Berlin.” His close friend and DJ Kris Correya, who hosted several German DJs at Zenzi, which he helmed, set up a house and techno label District 50 in April 2013. It is named after Mumbai’s cosmopolitan suburb Bandra, in the vein of Berlin’s local gems like Stil Vor Talent and BPtitch Control, to release tunes by homegrown talent. The electronic music scene is not the sole benefactor of Berlin’s cultural cache. India’s fledgling hip-hop community received a turbo boost in 2010 when German hip-hop pioneer Akim Walta, visited the country along with globally recognized graffiti artist Loomit on a privately financed networking trip. Walta felt that he had walked into a time machine. “After three decades in the global hip-hop movement, I felt transported to the Eighties in Germany,” he says. “Everyone I met had the same motivations and dreams as us back then, a strong sense of community and social responsibility.”
Walta took it on himself to urgently connect the dots, bringing together b-boy crews, graffiti artists, DJs, rappers, beat boxers, and recognized the leaders in each scene. He organized workshops and book releases, participated in festivals like Mood Indigo, and toured with a dozen German artists over two years. But he’s personally proud to have taken six Indian hip-hop practitioners (B-boys Simon, Kid, Bgirl Amby, graffiti artists Zake and Sun1, and DJ Uri) on a knowledge-sharing trip across Germany in 2012. Walta found a kindred spirit in Daniela Dierker, Vice Consul, Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Mumbai. Dierker allied with Uri Solanki, head of the DJ department at the True School of Music in Mumbai and India’s foremost hip-hop DJ, to organize five music tours of German artists at various gigs across India. DJ Uri himself has, since 2012, played over 40 gigs in Berlin, including a three-month residency at Berliner Grizzly Adams’s (Rene Noe) weekly Wednesday night at Cassiopeia.
Each year, he returns back to Mumbai hungrier. Says Uri, “I must say, the deep rootedness of the music scene is incredible. The old school funk & hip-hop enthusiasts, like Marc Hype and Grizzly Adams, for instance, have such a vast knowledge of old school beats and breaks. Through these guys I have learned to go back in time and play music that people have forgotten about. Now, my buzz is playing to people and taking them back in time with a track they haven’t heard in years.”
Berlin is taking clubbers and DJs both backwards and forward. To be sure, India’s next generation of DJs is heavily aided by Berlin’s largesse. Impressed by the initiative at the True School of Music, DJ Uri’s Berlin contemporary Grizzly Adams worked out a deal for the institute in Berlin with Native Instruments, leading software and hardware manufacturers for DJs and producers. Native Instruments now provides free and subsidized gear not just to the True School of Music in Mumbai but also to techno don Arjun Vagale’s I Love Music (ILM) Academy in New Delhi. The Native Instruments team also ensure a regular supply of masterclasses by German artists at the school. Mumbai supplied the German capital with a masterclass of its own last May. In a landmark historic moment, Charanjit Singh, the 72-yearold acid house trailblazer, performed alongside the genre’s British godfather A Guy Called Gerald, at the world’s most famous techno and gay club, Berghain. The gig was part of the prominent CTM festival, dedicated to presenting “a diverse range of artistic activities in the context of sound and club cultures since 1999.” Singh’s manager and agent Rana Ghose, who has been instrumental in getting the artist to gig again, was at the event. “I was pretty excited to have Charanjit play at the Berghain given the historical significance of the venue,” he says. The Berghain is Berlin cast in stone. Located in a former power plant, it’s spacious, multilayered and welcomes a mixed, open-minded crowd. It still strives to balance its historic gay past (much like techno itself), with an arbitrary door policy but insides locals and tourists breathe easily.
It’s an attitude that most Indian artists find refreshing and compels them to return to both, the club and the city. Kumar, from B.L.O.T, says, “Berlin is a completely global population of artists and audiences, and it’s better that way. It creates a more secular, democratic network of music, where being Indian does not necessarily grant you better or worse rights to be successful.” And Shaa’ir & Func’s Correia agrees. “You don‘t have to overcome third world baggage of religion, politics and society,” he says. “If you are brilliant and talented, you are accepted without having to present a giant bio or résumé, no bribes will get you into the best spaces to be, just being yourself will do.” David Bowie once remarked that Berlin is, “The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.”
And India’s emerging sideshow is all the better for it.