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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Sound of Heimat. Or why the Germans hate their own folk music

If you think England has a difficult relationship with its folk music, pity the poor Germans.

Hayden Chisholm is a New Zealander of Scottish descent who went to Germany to study music and happened upon the country's awkward relationship with its own songs. Sound of Heimat is a thoughtful documentary exploring his love for and interest in Germany and German folk music that doubles up as an attempt to understand what has gone so very wrong for the genre. As he puts it: "I wanted to find out why the Germans have a problem with their own folk music? The same people who are moved to tears when they hear an Indian in the Andes playing on his pan pipe for the thousandth time that day go red with embarrassment at the thought of a German song." Sound familiar?

Chisholm is an engagingly genial narrator. The third child of a seventeen-year-old father, we hear that he was adopted as a youngster and, in turn, adopted music as a way of making sense of the world. His wondering where he belonged has caused him to wander. Literally - with a saxophone.

And so, mane of ginger hair knotted in a bun, he takes us to examine some rather self-conscious folk singing in a German pub, we accompany him on a yodelling course, meet three sisters who've spent their lives playing the instruments they learnt together as children and the young men trying to make folk sexy by singing traditional songs about shagging... In fact, the first time I watched it I was so taken by the uncanny superficial resemblance of German folkies to English folkies that I missed some of the differences.

I might as well get it out of the way though. Yes. German folk music's problem is the Second World War. And yet that simple statement contains nuances and subtleties that the documentary draws out rather well.

For instance, when I say that Germany's problem with its folk music is the war, I don't just mean the Nazis. National Socialism appropriated the country's culture with a special vigour reserved for that which was ethnically and indigenously German. So folk music took a right hammering. A calm Buchenwald survivor explains to Chisholm that the concentration camp had had a song specially composed for inmates to sing when someone had tried to escape, was caught and returned to be made an example of. Clearly such a thing might very well put you off singing for life (assuming you survived). In fact, he says after the war the sound of a folk song would for a long time simply produce the reaction from ordinary people that: "We've had enough of that."

But there is also an interview with a squeezebox player called Rudi Vodel, who I would say is around 70, a huge wardrobe of an easterner who has lived most of his life in the German Democratic Republic. He describes what being a folk musician under a communist regime meant and the exquisite unpleasantness of having one's songs forensically examined for political correctness by a committee of functionaries with no interest in music whatsoever. So, for instance, a song containing a lyric that ran "It was fun on the mountain and I wouldn't want to swap places with any king" was chopped from the repertoire because there was no room for kings in the GDR's ideology. "In the end it made you think 'Screw you'," he explains, after reliving the whole frustrating ordeal vividly on camera.

And yet Vodel is one of the many characters in Sound of Heimat who seem to have made a kind of peace with the music, which is important because the film implicitly makes the case that a country that is ill at ease with its own music is a country with an identity crisis. The relationship of a people to their ancestors' music is a direct analogy for that country's relationship with its past. How could it be otherwise?

Sound of Heimat is a fascinating and brave film that easily stands up to more than one viewing because of the understated seriousness with which the subject is drawn out. In fact, although it's made waves in Germany - where Der Spiegel recently printed an article asking, plangently, "Why doesn't Germany sing?" - I wondered whether it could usefully have hit the main points of its thesis a little harder for a foreign audience? It's as if it pulled its punches because Germany is still so touchy on the subject

Chisholm and the documentary's German director, Arne Birkenstock are seeking an English-speaking audience for Sound of Heimat (there is a version with English subtitles that I've been watching), so if you're interested and can help arrange this please contact Birkenstock here.

Watching it made me wonder, though, how to anatomise English squeamishness about its own folk music?

Mumford & Sons are arguably the biggest-selling band in the world at the moment despite much of it considering them to be an English folk act. This suggests to me that England's problem with its traditional music is - like Germany's - down to two big historical factors. Germany's have been fascism and communism. For England it's about class and post-colonial anxiety about what the world thinks of us: the usual suspects - and frankly they're nothing that the rest of the world gives a hoot about.

There is a very interesting moment in Sound of Heimat when Chisholm asks one of his interviewees whether the women at a dance would be wearing dirndls. In response she says that the good thing about folk events is that all classes of society are present, the dirndl-wearers and the non-dirndl-wearers, the doctor and landlord as well as the baker. I don't know whether dirndls are considered posh by Germans or not. The point is that German folk is not about class.

English folk still is though.

It's why the Mumfords get such a hard time - though their massive fame and success will, I imagine, go some way to taking the edge off that particular problem for them. They are highly visible posh boys in a genre that thinks of itself as the music of the masses.

However, the rest of the world doesn't really care about the niceties of English class distinctions in the 21st century, whether the acts themselves are worried about appearing "too big for their boots" to  sharp-tongued failures on internet messaging boards or whether aiming high is denounced as arrogance by those without the courage themselves to try. The English have over centuries developed a million habits of mind to keep people in their places: generation after generation replicates its steeply unequal class-based behaviours and it's not something that's being done to us, it's something we do to ourselves. What the Mumfords have neatly demonstrated is that - whatever doubts English folk has about itself - the world has nothing against English folk acts.

And that's useful information.

Whether we're comfortable showing the version of England represented in the English folk tradition to the rest of the world is a different matter.

* If you'd like to talk to Arne Birkenstock about showing Sound of Heimat in the UK contact him at this address. It would be fodder for a lively debate afterwards.

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  1. Having lived with some earnest young Germans, I got a strong sense of what Hayden Chisholm describes.

    However, equally interesting are the counter-currents, such as Folk Metal , some of whom seem to play on the, ahem, politically transgressive potential of folk.

    More to my taste is Corvus Corax, who 'recreate' profane medieval music in a gloriously uninhibited fashion

    All the very best to Hayden in securing backing; the tension between national identity and nationalism remains a central and fascinating issue in many parts of the world.

  2. Anyone remember a German folk band I saw in the seventies called - I think - Augenweide? I thought they were quite good at the time.

  3. In the German speaking countries, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, S├╝dtirol,etc
    Volksmusik and traditional Music are two different things.Volksmusik is kind of German popular music for the low class.The other classes ignore it, and find it a good emeticum.In the alpine regiones the people love naughty songs, for example about the sexlive of catholic priests.


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