Balkan Gypsies captivate Berlin

Once shunned, Roma musicians are signing record deals and becoming club sensations.

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    Shantel (Stefan Hantel, with accordion) is a German DJ-turned-pop star with Romanian roots who’s become a musical sensation in Germany. Several years ago he moved
    away from house and techno music and toward the sound of Balkan Roma, bringing it into the German mainstream.
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Nica Cristea, or Cristian, as he goes by, is a Rom from suburban Bucharest who is often seen playing his handmade cembalo, or harpsichord, on the streets and in the cafes of Berlin's Neukölln district. He is a sharp dresser, always elegantly turned out in suit and tie, colorful shirt, and trilby hat. He doesn't speak a word of German or English, but will proudly show anyone who's interested the papers that certify him as a musician for the Romanian TV orchestra, his membership card in the Romanian musicians union, and a picture of his daughter, who lives in the same building as him along with Romanian Gypsy horn players.

Cristian is one of an estimated 20,000 Roma living officially and unofficially in Berlin, many of whom have recently arrived in the city with Bulgaria's and Romania's accession to the European Union. While Roma are an integral part of society in southeastern Europe, their presence is a new phenomenon in Berlin and is testing the city's much-touted principles of tolerance and hospitality. Berlin tabloids often publish stories about Roma beggars and criminal gangs, stories that many say contain racist overtones. Last summer, 50 Roma from Romania who'd set up camp in a Berlin park and later sought refuge in a Berlin church, were summarily deported back to Romania.

Yet while Berlin's Roma may be the bane of conservative politicians and the target of the city's tabloid press, Roma musicians are increasingly being embraced by the city's young, culturally minded, and club-going public. Roma musicians – now a regular feature on Berlin street corners and in subway cars – in many ways taking over the role of the traditional Berlin hurdy-gurdy man of yore – are invited into clubs by DJs. Some have even gone on to become club sensations with record contracts.

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"This Balkan Gypsy sound is the new sound of Berlin," says British musician Joe Jackson, a Berlin resident and three-time Grammy winner. When he lived in New York, Mr. Jackson was inspired by the Latin music there, which he took to be the dominant sound of the city. Here in Berlin he sees the new Balkan Roma music as setting the tone.

This is a new phenomenon in Berlin. For two decades now, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin has been renowned internationally as the electronic music capital of Europe, famous for its yearly Love Parade techno extravaganza and all-night techno raves in clubs like the Tresor and E-Werk.

Today, Berlin's techno scene is still a main attraction for young tourists from abroad. But most music-scene insiders here will tell you that techno is not an authentic local movement anymore; real Berliners are increasingly seeking their kicks in Balkan Gypsy clubs.

Bosnian Robert Soko deejays once a month at a successful Kreuzberg Balkan Beats party, where young Berliners dance with abandon to Balkan Gypsy songs by Goran Bregovic and to Germany's new Balkan pop star, Shantel. Mr. Soko, who is a former Yugoslav war refugee and ex-taxi driver, started his parties in the early 1990s in a Berlin punk-rock club, playing Yugoslav cassettes to a mostly Yugoslav refugee crowd for 50 German marks a night – until New York nightlife impresario Steve Mass gave him a regular gig at his Berlin Mudd Club in the Mitte district. Increasingly, Germans started coming to Soko's parties, and by word of mouth the parties have grown to become a Berlin sensation at Soko's new location in Kreuzberg, where he often features live Gypsy acts from the Balkans and Germany.

"Balkan Gypsy music is very danceable," says Soko. "Women love it, men as well. But somehow women are more into the sound. And when women go to the parties, then men will follow."

"After half an hour, everyone goes crazy," adds Ivan Redi, another Yugoslav DJ, who is often in Berlin. "You just can't explain it. There's something there which shifts you, dislocates you for a certain amount of time. It's not based on alcohol or drugs; it's just certain vibrations of dynamics which transport you all of a sudden."

Stefan Hantel, aka Shantel, is a German DJ-turned-pop star with Romanian roots, who several years ago moved away from house and techno music to the music of Balkan Roma, taking the sound to the German mainstream with popular radio and club hits like "Disco Partizani." He often performs at Soko's Berlin Balkan parties.

"Balkan Gypsy music is roots music," says Shantel, "just as reggae and Afrobeat are roots music. What I play is roots music with strong influences in the music of southeastern Europe. It's something new. It's hot, boiling, sharp, paprika, uncontrollable."

Neukölln is a district in southeast Berlin where traditionally a lot of immigrants from Turkey and other countries in southeast Europe have settled. Increasingly it has become a magnet for the new Balkan Roma arrivals, who frequent the tacky new nightclubs that advertise well-known Bulgarian Gypsy chalga singers. In the last couple of years, Neukölln has also usurped the place of Prenzlauerberg, Mitte, and Friedrichshain on the city's east side and is now Berlin's new hip, bohemian quarter – something like New York's Lower East Side.

While young German hipsters tend to shy away from the new Balkan immigrant clubs, a couple of new locales run by intellectually minded Roma (from the Balkans, or others with Roma roots) have opened that are attracting a mix of German students, intellectuals, and Balkan Roma musicians, who often get together for impromptu jam sessions or regular gigs.

Rroma Aether Club Theater on Boddinstrasse, run by Slavisa and Nebojsa Markovic, two Roma brothers from Serbia, is one such place. Every Saturday night here, Germans, foreigners, and Balkan Roma gather to listen to flamenco and Balkan beats.

"The people that come to us have a variety of backgrounds," says Slavisa. "But the one thing that all these people have in common is that they have a lot of experience with regards to nationality and ethnicity. These people are border-crossers. And that's what's so special. These people understand that nationality is a projection; that ethnicity is not a requirement for people to get along together. It can be that people of the same ethnicity have much in common, but it is no guarantee. That is what we are developing here, what we are moving."

While Berlin's new Roma arrivals may be a thorn in the side of Berlin politicians, who often make thinly veiled gibes at them – criticizing "problem families with no desire to integrate and assimilate" – Berlin's Balkan Roma are being embraced by the city's music scene.

"London has its West Indians; Paris has its Arabs and Africans," says Henry Ernst, coexecutive of Asphalt Tango, one of three Berlin-based record labels that specialize in the music of Balkan Roma. "But these guys from the Balkans are just our immigrants."

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