Then they took Berlin

by Sandra Dempster / 29 December, 2007
It's been the biggest year yet for Wellington band the Black Seeds, who kick off a New Year's tour in Taupo this week. Before Taupo, there was Berlin.

Summer, August 2007, Berlin: politicians are on holiday, leafy beach bars abound by the Spree River, and New Zealand's ambassadorial team in Germany, Alan and Lynette Cook, are chilling out at one of them - roots/reggae venue YAAM - enjoying a sunny- evening event that the embassy's First Secretary and Cultural Attaché, Zoe Coulson, has been promoting by email.

Set into the city end of the graffiti-covered East Side Gallery (part of the old Berlin Wall), the bar has rules posted at the gate - "No Drug Abuse + Deals", "No racist attitude", "Watch your language". Abide by them, and you're entitled to a place among the few hundred gathered for the main attraction, the Black Seeds.

"It's great to have a group like this here in Berlin, bringing some New Zealand music to Germany," enthuses Alan Cook. "Obviously the crowd's delighted, including us."

Indeed, the band, on a hard-playing working break from Wellington southerlies, promoting the European release of their album Into the Dojo, have got the notoriously un-booty-shaking locals grooving under blue-gold sunset skies. Dancing Berliners representative of the city's cultural diversity (tonight, especially, people of African roots) vastly outnumber a sprinkling of New Zealanders.

Similar demographic patterns are repeated at each of the Black Seeds' three Berlin shows, including a sweat-on-your-sweat finale at legendary Friedrichshain venue Lovelite, where another capital-to-capital adopted import has also played.

"The first band from New Zealand at Lovelite was Fat Freddy's," says Christophe Brunk, the club's manager, busy handing out flyers, "and the Black Seeds are the third [the other was Brother J]. All were introduced to us by Daniel Best of Sonar Kollektiv."

Celebrating its 10th birthday this year, the Berlin-based indie label - Lovelite's website gives them the "green thumb for good taste" - represents Fat Freddy's Drop in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, and the Black Seeds worldwide, excluding Benelux, Australia and New Zealand.

Brunk expected that people would discover both the Black Seeds and the Lovelite concert, organised at the last minute, via what Germans call Mundpropaganda (mouth propaganda). No worries - people packed that gig. To paraphrase central vocals and guitar man Barnaby Weir, who's been dusting off high-school German à la J F Kennedy ("Ich bin ein Berliner, is that how it goes?") to cheers, there's some "positive South Pacific vibe for ya".

Key phrase here is mouth propaganda, for aside from both bands' hard work, its ripples are largely responsible for Pacific soul sounds in Berlin. Both groups were signed by Best, A&R representative for Sonar Kollektiv's diverse interests, and manager of dub and reggae sub-label Best Seven.

"I met Fat Freddy's," he explains, "because Recluse, a DJ from Detroit who moved to New Zealand, came to Berlin and said, 'Dan, I have something for you, think you might like it.'"

That vinyl single, "Midnight Marauders", released on Best Seven in 2002, marked the beginning of a fruitful business relationship that has seen Fat Freddy's in Berlin every year since and produced releases like Joe Dukie's collaboration on "No Memory of Time" with another label artist, dub-electronic "original Berlin girl" Eva Be.

It also started friendships. Recalls Best: "Suddenly they - Mu [aka DJ Fitchie], Nicole [his wife], and Dallas [Tamaira, aka Joe Dukie] were outside my place, in my apartment, they all slept in one room and we barbecued on the balcony. Jenny Hülsmeier [label licensing manager] and I went to Nicole and Mu's wedding near Napier this year."

Dukie puts it this way: "First time here we slept on people's couches and went back in debt. Now we're staying in hotels and might have a bit of money when we get home."

In July Fat Freddy's Drop crammed Berlin venue Fritzclub am Post-bahnhof (capacity 1250) to its rafters. "It makes me goosebumps," says Sandra, a Berlin fan of two years, accompanied by fellow fan Anika. "They should come more often." Salem, a south-Germany-raised Eritrean, heard about the band from his cousin: "It's very, very cool. What they're doing is real." So goes mouth propaganda. Best's planning a 2000-capacity venue for 2008.

Fritzclub also spawned a predominantly German crowd, although Kiwis did materialise. Aucklander Chris Leyland, resplendent in a "Keep New Zealand Beautiful" T-shirt, who'd flown - "I've come all this way" - from Nice, was devastated by the door's "SOLD OUT" sign, only to be rediscovered inside later, patting his heart, "absolutely ecstatic", having bought a ticket freed by guest-list no-shows.

Anna Kirkby of Raglan had forgone drunken London shows and flown over for the special atmosphere generated by Berlin audiences, "those moments where the band and the crowd are feeding off each other beautifully". Trombonist Ho Pepa (aka Joe Lindsay) comments, "The vibe in Berlin has always been really good - listening, ecstatic fans - when we're here it really feels like home."

Aside from telling Berlin "You're awesome", Fat Freddy's tipped the crowd about the Black Seeds: Mundpropaganda again. Says Weir, "It's great - they've paved the way for us - we owe them a few beers." Partying at Lovelite, the band shouted Russian beer and sticky Jägermeister for two holidaying Dresdeners - one adorned with an Aotearoan bone carving - who, after that tip-off, went to every Black Seeds Berlin gig.

The Black Seeds trace their own personal path to Berlin.

Weir: "Our bassist Tim Jaray lived here for a few years and has a German partner."

Daniel Weetman (vocals and percussion): "He said we should be playing here."

Weir: "We toured last year. Matt [McLeod, band manager] met with Daniel Best. Dan wasn't immediately blown away with us."

Best: "I didn't like their first album, then I got the new one. 'The Answer' stood out."

Weetman: "Five or six months went by."

Best: "It grew on me. I thought, 'I need to sign this.'"

Weetman: "In the early hours of the morning Mattie got a call, then called me. I'd been out partying" - he imitates a sleepy voice - "uh, great ..."

Weir: "Our gig at Bohannon [first in the Berlin mini-tour] was important - now Dan's seen us slam a gig he knows what we're about. The Germans are not quick to get loose; we had to deliver."

These connections, all hours of day and night, are what it's all about. It's a label tradition, "like a big family", says Eva Be. Jürgen von Knoblauch is one of the DJ-producers who formed ground-breaking endeavour Jazzanova, which then created Sonar Kollektiv, "home of soul-food music in all kinds of genres and directions", in order to develop their musical vision and that of friends and companions. "The Black Seeds CD is very successful for us," he says, "and we also hope to establish this personal side of things with them."

As twilight deepens into dusk at YAAM, members of Eva Be's live band join the guys on stage for "Fire" and a virtual mass choir spontaneously sings along. Smiles beam everywhere, and by the time the Black Seeds play "Something So True" everyone's hearts are won over, not least by an all-time record for Andrew Christiansen's infamous sustained trumpet note.

The Black Seeds (with guests including Anika Moa) play Taupo (December 26), Mt Maunganui (27th), Coroglen (28th), Waihi (29th), Lake Hawea (New Year's Eve), Riwaka (January 2), New Plymouth (January 3), Mangawhai (January 5) and Takapuna (January 6).

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