Balkan Gypsies captivate Berlin
Once shunned, Roma musicians are signing record deals and becoming club sensations.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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"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."