DISSIDENTEN - STORK & HYENA - KEN HUNT PROWLS AROUND DISSIDENTEN
In his short story The Hyena, Paul Bowles hit on a vivid metaphor to explore the tensions of tradition versus progress. He described a contest of wits between a stork and a hyena. The stork, he explained years later for his biographer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, represented tradition, the hyena progress.
Dissidenten's roots may be found in the German rock scene and a group called Embryo. The German rock scene of the late 1960s followed the cue-cards that the British and Americans flashed up - English - language folk, protest and beat music in particular. But, as the years ticked away, by the early 1970s the Germans had developed a distinctively European identity and outlook. All manner of national and regional influences were evident and the country's position in mainland Europe meant that foreign influences, ranging from French chansons to German cabaret, from straight ahead rock music to Stockhausen, were being absorbed and adapted for home consumption. A taste for psychedelia and technology and awhole bundle of ideologies further shaped the scene. this cultural melting pot produced groups such as Amon Düül, Frumpy, Can, Kraan and Kraftwerk.
Among the most eclectic of the groups was Embryo whose first album Opal appeared in 1970 on Ohr, the label that from a German perspective perhaps best bottled the genie of the age - OK, 'zeitgeist' if you really insist. Two members of the group. Friedemann Josch and Uve Müllrich, would eventually split away to found Dissidenten's first incarnation. "We left Embryo in the winter of 1980/81," recalls Friedo Josch, "and we shot off to India." Embryo itself recoiled, then reformed. Embryo's later history is beyond the scope of the article but they too pursued a multicultural path as their Embryo & Yoruba Dun Dun Orchestra from the early 1980s suggests.
"We come from Berlin," explains Uve talking in December 1993, "but for the last couple of years we've been living partly in India, North Africa, Spain and now we have a place in Portugal." Parenthetically he adds of Portugal, "It's nice there. You can get all the North African stations." India though was a place that had long held a special fascination for them. One of Embryo's finer visions had been to travel overland by bus, Teutonic Merry Prankster-style with 'embryo road movie' thrown in, to the Indian subcontinent, a journey immortalised in Embryo's Reise- - Embryo's Journey - with all its womb to tomb associations. Between September 1978 and May 1979 they worked there, made contacts and recorded. Embryo's Reise drew together field and studio recordings made in Afgghanistan, Pakistan, India and Germany. it stands as a signpost to the subsequent, far more accomplished world that Dissidenten would map.
Contrary to earlier allusions to Ken Kesey, theirs was no hippy Goa getaway. "During that year," says Uve, referring to Embryo's excellent adventure, "we got the real kick and made lots of friends all over the place. We played for the Khomeini Welcome Party at the University of Tehran in '78: when Khomeini came and the Shah fled, we played. We played with the Afghani National Orchestra in Kabul in '79 when the Russians came marching into the studio to announce the overthrow of the government. We had to stop playing for a while while they did their thing. Then we continued."
Being present in places when things are popping is a knack they never lost. After all, if you must label yourselves dissidents adventure may attend. For instance, in 1992 during the making of The Jungle Book, Dissidenten were curfewed in the studio while India teetered on the brink of insanity ("It was at the time of all the Ayodhya business with the Hindus ripping down the Moslem mosque and the riots"). Remarking on their aforementioned knack, Uve sets up a punch line, "actually, we'd just returned from Tangier and Madrid where we'd been based for three years and the Wall came down in Berlin. Just invite us if you have any problems in your society! If you want to make Scotland independent or solve the Ireland problem, just have us play. "
Since 1983 when they sweettalked their drummer into joining them-he had been playing with Pili Pili, then also featuring songstress Angélique Kidjo- the core of the group has remained stable. Friedo Josch plays woodwinds. keyboards and vocals, Marlon Klein percussion and keyboards, and Uve Müllrich bass, guitar, other stringed instruments, keyboards and vocals. This basic lineup has seen many hired hands come and go. Starting with their debut, Germanistan, released in 1982, they have always had a cabal of supporting musicians. Germanistan was a cobilled affair with the Karnataka College of Percussion. "We started playing in Europe at the beginning of the '80s and the band we had had together with the Karnataka College of Percussion then had to go back to India so we thought we would move somewhere else." They were drawn to Tangier, leading to Sahara Elektrik in 1984, Life At The Pyramids in 1986 and Out Of This World in 1990. The Indian connection eventually would produce their most polished and satisfying creation to date, The Jungle Book. These projects conjured a mysterious aura, not in a Residents sense, not in a 3 Mustaphas 3 sense, but approaching them in terms of being intriguing.
It is a mystery they have made the most of. "We are always facing the problem that people want to see faces," Uve confesses. "Who are Dissidenten? We found this a bit difficult. There are over ten people on The Jungle Book and faces don't mean anything so we ended up disguising our identities. We always get painted or there's a weird photo or we get dressed up all silly, just to get around the fact that you have to put faces there. At the same time we don't disguise who we are. Who really cares? I think it's more important in the pop world which we only touch on."
"Maybe it has a bit to do with the way these albums came together," Uve suggests. "We've drawn lots of inspiration from folk music in general. Most of the Arabic stuff [recorded by Dissidenten] has a strong Scandinavian, German, Celtic background. When we set the thing up we went to Arabia. Apart from me: I'd been living there for three years and five years in India. We go there and record the whole thing according to compositions we've laid down. Sometimes you have to change things because the lyrics - which we never write maybe have to be changed to something else. In the end it always turns out there's a whole bunch of musicians involved in the making of the record. They're never the same musicians who perform with us live. So somehow one has to define a clear image of what the group is and at the same time one doesn't want to upset the people who are participating."
As he has alluded to it, we can out Uve, for, like many musicians, he had a folk background, something on occasion he admits is useful to fall back on. "My mother used to play the accordeon. She used to play all that shanty-like Northern [German]stuff. The village where I come from - I was born on an island in the Baltic- friends would come around and play all sorts of things.
These were my first influences and I believe I still draw a lot from that folk music when it comes to understanding other forms of folk music. I found it very difficult, even though, having considered myself a jazz musician at one point in mv life, I found it very difficult to join in on the classical level of Indian music. Maybe I'd have to be John Coltrane or whoever to do that - which I am not. But I found it very easy to talk in the key of folk music to them. That seems to be an archetype that is similar and equal all over the world."
It is hard to be specific about when they set up base in Tangier. Owing to the mercurial nature of the group, being approximate is difficult enough. Asked how long they lived there, Friedo remarks that it varied from individual to individual but they lived there over some three to four years from the beginning of the 1980s to 1985. That said, they would flit in and out of the city. 1983 though, he recalls as a peak year.
The first tangible product of their North African sojourn was "Sahara Elektrik" . "With that Arabic project we'd been friends with this Moroccan group Lem Chaheb for a long time. There were three groups: one svas Jil Jalala, the other is Nass El Ghiwane and that one is Lem Chaheb with Cherif My. Lamrani who is composor and writer for them. We got together with him - and it's a friendship that is still lasting. In fact Marlon is in Tunisia now producing his new record. We asked him if he could write lyrics for us. Which he did. He never sang apart from on Sahara Elektrik. We always got people in to sing but he wrote the lyrics for us. Collaborating with him very often we would have to change the music. of course, because he needed two or three more words. We realised that in the countries where they do understand the lyrics we were hitting another dimension."
Sahara Elektrik took off and reinforced their vision and their belief that they were running true and straight. "By accident," says Uve, still sounding as if he cannot quite believe it, "we had this enormous hit in Spain, Canada and South America called Fata Morgana. It's on Sahara Elektrik.. It sold around a million copies in Brazil alone which doesn't mean anything in terms of money but does in popularity. In Spain we suddenly had big crowds up to 150,000 when the thing hit Number 1."
Living in Tangier and moving in all sorts of social circles, it was inevitable that they would run into one of the place's longest domiciled and most feted literati: Paul Bowles, the author of, amongst other works, The Sheltering Sky. a namedropper manqué, Friedo reveals, "We got to know him through Erin Lindbergh, the niece of that American who flew the ocean. At that time she was often in Tangier as well." When Dissidenten approached Bovles in the hope of his providing a little something for their next album... well, they were there and Uve tells it better: "We were neighbours with Paul Bowles and we know each other. Tangier is not that big. We got friendly. Reading his writings, knowing his background and being around for a couple of sessions, we asked him to write some sleeve notes for us. He said he wasn't really into that but he could give us a story which fitted. We used The Hyena which, I feel. certainly has something to do with how this approach to this music is received in the West. Sometimes it's received in a phoney, New Agey way and in that story he's talking about it, about the stork who knows everything and who is so wise and so enlightened. But when it comes down to it he has to survive like the hyena."
They would reprint Bowles' short story on the inner sleeve of Out Of This World.. Maybe not custom made it was nevertheless appropriate in more ways than probably anyone grasped or imagined possible then. Time only strengthens the belief that Bowles really hit on something. Without wishing to spoil The Hyena's ending, in this allegory of the struggle of tradition versus progress the hyena wins. Still, what is tradition but progress tenacious enough to root and grow to deny the sun to what went before?
"The most important single element," wrote the composer and writer, "in Morocco's folk culture is its music". Anthologised in Their Heads Are Green. . . in 1963, that was Bowles's opening gambit in The Rif, To Music. The whole tale, pungent with kif and still worse disruptions to the mental processes, replays experiences gained in collecting folk music undreamt of by Cecil Sharp in Britain or America. As far back as the 1930s, his interest fed by Pathé records, his head fed by Moroccan folk music, Bowles was in pursuit of an elusive quarry: Northern African folk music. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation would fund collecting trips and in May 1959 he was in Tangier with an Ampex openreel itching to document the nation's folkways. He barely scratched the surface before politics intervened and the Moroccan authorities clamped down, cutting short his work in October l 959. A few years on much of the folkways that Bowles had had designs on was "degenerate", lost forever. The hyena had won again. The hyena had long hightailed it in search of fresh marrowbones by the time the Moroccan Ministry of Culture initiated an overdue research programme 30 years on. The Library of Congress, incidentally, would not get around to issuing a double album set of Bowles's recordings until 1972. Most of his magnetic haul lies mouldering in some American library grave. Denied us but not everyone, however. "He had an enormous collection of African music that he'd recorded," Friedo Josch remembered in January 1994. "We listened. He turned us on to the music." Bowles sowed a patch of seeds that deserves future cultivation.
Working closely with people from diverse cultural backgrounds has granted Dissidenten insights denied most climetravellers. By immersing themselves in various cultures their music has soaked up influences and inflexions wherever they have settled - but ones within a context. Consequently they have not fallen prey to that hoodwinking reality, that rock star syndrome of visiting exotic studios, laying down a few, and then pocketing that DAT souvenir. (Remember, DAT tapes last longer than any pesky suntan which always needs topping up.)
Uve: "We'd done very many field recordings during our travels. Of singers just singing in the village or whatever. And we would add this stuff on the sixteentrack or sometimes the other way round. We did a similar thing to Brian Eno on Life in The Bush Of Ghosts where he has the Koran singer. We were pretty fond of [Life...] actually. But in Arabia, playing it to friends, there they looked a bit bewildered. We realised while we were looking at the voice more like an instrument they were into the lyrics and what they meant. They were playing the tape again and again. Obviously there were a number of people out there listening to words and we had to do something about it."
The Jungle Book is the apogee of their work to date - not a case of hedging bets, more the expectation of great dreams in heaven to come. It employs many of the lessons learned over many years in many countries. It also makes good use of a technique that goes back far her than that l981 work by Brian Eno and David Byrne: that of using found sound to add context and atmosphere. "Wherever we are," Uve explains, "we have the little headphonesized microphone running. DAT players are perfect. It looks like you're listening to a Walkman but in fact you can go into situations and what you hear you can record. We have two of them. We do days and days of recording. It'll probably take me years to listen to them all again." DAT technology on The Jungle Book eavesdrops on a street scene, an oxcart trundling along and aquatic snapshots galore. All invoke images that add to the album's dramatic development. "Lots of our own ideas," Uve offers by way of a general overview, "even things on The Jungle Book, are based on European folk music. We come from Northern Germany. There's a certain Esperanto that everybody understands, what we call the Global Esperanto. Call it rock music because wherever you go there's Jimi Hendrix. On that basis of 'folk music' we always communicate. People interpret our compositions in their own way: in the case of The Jungle Book in an Indian way. "
This continual juggling act between tradition and progress will lead them next to the New World exploring Native American music. Substitute the coyote and all its mythic archetypes for the hyena and you're running with a whole new world of images. For me, that defines a prime, a deep joy within Dissidenten's work: their ability to scatter paradoxes while creating such vigorous musical hybrids. Theirs is a balance between the hyena and the stork, progression and innovation within tradition. Where it's all heading, heaven only knows, but I recommend sticking around for the ride.
Special thanks to Michael Moser for his help with Dissidenten's embryonic journey.