August 14th, 2009


In deepest Neukölln, where almost nobody cares

Sowieso is a venue in "deep Neukölln" (that mysterious grid out by the eastern runways of the now-defunct Tempelhof Airport, organised around the lugubrious Schillerpromenade) which is still in the grip of some sort of magic. Do I mean "just starting to be in the grip of" or do I mean "still in the grip of"? What I mean is that because money doesn't bother with such areas -- not yet, anyway -- amazing art and music is still occurring here. Or is just beginning to occur. Here, completely without being spoilt by money or crowds, unboring events take place totally uncompromised by anything approaching popularity.

Last night Hisae and I arrived at Sowieso -- an old butcher's shop largely unfucked-with, decor-wise, by its proprietor, a Dutch artist called Marc, and apparently used for children's puppet shows -- just in time to catch some sort of Western approximation of a bearded Indian anchorite (I didn't catch his name) sitting on the floor, generating a kosmische drone that could stop time -- or at least stop the twenty or so people present from talking. His loincloth was made of white insulating tape, a flower was wedged behind his ear, his body was smeared with white dye, and a small plant sat on the tiled floor by the mixer, possibly as a kind of spiritual inspiration. In most places you or I might go -- in London, in LA -- this man would have been laughed at or talked over. Not here in deepest Neukölln. Here you could have heard a pin drop.

Sowieso Sounds (mp3)

Something about the Sowieso patina matched something about my cheap Camson camera, and I wanted to share that happy happenstance with you today. But really I want to talk about the joy of unpopular art, and why Berlin is so great, and how I never get tired of it. This was a Rinus van Alebeek show, and the drone guru was followed by Nibble Nibble Kiss, Rinus' band with Angie Nina Blue Yeowell. I say "band", but nothing so vulgar as rock music was involved. Rinus mumbled narratives and activated handheld tape machines (mini-dictaphones using bizarre tape formats, things you have to scour flea markets all your life to find, although Rinus says friends just give them to him free) and Angie sang directly onto a sheet of metal -- I've been using plate reverb all my life, but I've never seen someone achieving the effect by singing, literally, onto a plate of metal. It was great, an intriguing 3D sound experience made immersive by the many pinpoint device speakers being used.

Somehow, my mind wandered to concert rooms on the other side of the world. Sowieso so wasn't LA's House of Blues, or its revamped Troubadour, which feels like a shopping mall approximation of a brewer's theme chain, with bands playing. Remembering the horror of those rock venues (they may have started out fine, but got ruined by money and drumkits and incremental horribleness) was part of my pleasure at being in this unpopular Berlin room, where barely a beat or a melody was allowed to encroach on the pure experimental textures, and it felt as if the audience would tolerate anything, and anything might happen. And something did happen: headliner Midori Hirano brought a breath of sweetness to the proceedings, juxtaposing music box melodies with motorcycle engines.

What am I trying to say? Something about the joy of things that are great yet get no applause, perhaps. Some days I get a hundred comments here on Click Opera, and I like that, but other days I get almost no comments and I like that too, especially if I know it's a good entry. There's something wonderful about an austere, difficult thing, something liable to go over most people's heads, something that isn't on anybody's hip list yet, something that leaves you a bit flummoxed and gawpy but finally gets a round of respectful applause because, well, something that free and weird and stubborn ought to exist. Something that eschews both sex and violence. Something created with deep seriousness, and yet destined to appeal to almost no-one.

It's the "almost" there that really matters -- an "almost" which, if it were a place, would be a tiled butcher's shop in a mysterious working class area of lamps and cobbles. A place like Sowieso, Berlin.