A scene from the Gropius Bau on Halloween Night, 2019. (Photo: ©Adam Janisch)
Identity and jazz, for me, go hand in hand. Much of my own discovery of this music was shaped by racial and familial-like ties to its artists, many of whom became the mothers and fathers I never had. But the connection goes far deeper than I had imagined. Whenever I cover a festival in Africa, Europe, or the Caribbean, the host country becomes inextricably linked to my own background—that of a black American woman. While I rarely have the opportunity to discuss my Trinidadian heritage in print, I have even fewer chances to reflect on my German ancestry, (Effinger, that is), until now.
Aside from having my mother’s surname and my inexplicable love for sauerkraut, the only distinct memory I have of my German roots is my mother’s uncanny ability to swear in what sounded like “German” to me. I should add that my mother was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and (to my knowledge) has never traveled outside of the United States. As a writer, not only do I get to go where my mother has never been, but more importantly, I can now redefine what blackness is for me, one that’s informed by a global perspective.
The swift-paced entry through customs paled in comparison to the nine-hour-long direct flight into Berlin from New York City. It was my good fortune to get picked up, upon arrival, by an Uber driver named Ousainou Alieu Kah, or “Ous” to his friends. Ous was not only delighted to learn of my work as a music journalist, but also of my love for African culture. A young man from Gambia, Ous mainly works with ECCO Gambia, an NGO that brings West African arts and culture to students in the US and Europe, serving as “modern-day griots,” if you will. During the 30-minute-long drive to the Ellington Hotel, Ous and I had an engaging discussion on our own feelings of displacement, as blacks living in foreign countries, and how it is expected of us to share our cultural gifts with the entire world, only to get nothing back for it in return. The irony that this is my very first experience after arriving in Germany does not escape me.
Neither does the fact that I arrive on the morning of Halloween, marking the first day of this year’s JazzFest Berlin. Now in its 55th installment, under the artistic direction of Nadin Deventer, this innovative festival has always served as a platform for individuals who challenge the boundaries of the music and in turn, help redefine what was possible in the surrounding culture that informed it. Case in point, in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked to deliver the opening address for the festival’s inaugural year. In that speech, he says, “[The Blues] take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”
The coldest night of the late fall weekend, Halloween was a fitting introduction to the vibrancy of Berlin nightlife. Dropped off at Potsdamer Platz, it’s hard to imagine this a once desolate area, pre-reunification, as it now stands as a bustling intersection for tourists and locals alike. While remnants of the infamous Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz and Stresemannstraße were torn down more than a decade ago, six sections have since been erected, just outside of the entrance to Potsdamer Plaza train station. This would mark the first of my many encounters with the Wall, highlighting graffiti tags that collectively called for peace and hope. Surrounded by commuters, pedestrians, even cyclists brave enough to pedal through those unusually harsh winds, as a native New Yorker, I immediately felt like I was home.
Another familiar aspect of life in a metropolis is the plethora of food options. In addition to local delicacies, which I would explore well into the weekend, there was an abundance of global cuisine readily accessible at my fingertips. That night, it was off to Southeast Asia, by way of Vietbowl. While I’m not one to rave about a franchise, this instead felt like one of those tucked-away gems you want to keep hidden and completely for yourself to indulge in. While enjoying a cup of soothing, fresh ginger tea, an adequately massive dish of Pho Soja mit Entenbrust, or Lang thuong style pho noodles with duck breast, was placed before me. The noise of the crowded room soon dissipated as all I could hear were the sounds of guttural ecstasy that erupted from my own lips, in between actual chewing. A harmonious blend of rice noodles with fresh sprouts, cilantro, celery, sesame and peanuts in a soy shallot dressing, with medium-well cooked duck breast placed on top. It was an utterly brilliant note to what would become a memorable first night in Berlin. Not only did the entire meal (including tax and tip) come to just under $16, but as I eventually left my new urban oasis, I soon discovered the actual location of the restaurant: Marlene-Dietrich-Platz 1!
Just a ten-minute stroll away, I arrived at the renowned Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic). As a kid, I harbored a deep-seated anger against now landmark venues in NYC like Lincoln Center and The Met because I felt that these were out of my reach, especially as a welfare kid growing up in Bed-Stuy. While there is still a level of elitism and classicism practiced at such venues, one of the chief reasons I chose this profession was to break through those barriers and, in my own way, fight for inclusion and a much deserved “seat at the table.”
Founded in 1882, this grand concert hall, again, felt familiar to me, as your typical city kid, but was nonetheless spectacular. Though a massive venue, the design of the Philharmonic places all the essentials within reach: a gift shop with concert recordings and books in original German, multiple coat check stations and restrooms, and a swanky bar with handsome servers where I enjoyed a dry white wine before the bell summoned us all to take our seats in the concert hall, directly above the lobby. To hear the great conductor Zubin Mehta adeptly navigate his orchestra through Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote” and, my personal favorite, Beethoven’s “Eroica (Symphony No. 3),” I somehow began to finally quell that resentment I felt from being excluded from such venues.
After a quick hot chocolate at Espresso House, with Potsdamer Platz at the center of it all, and a 15-minute walk, I finally arrived at the exquisite arthouse Martin-Gropius-Bau and wandered into Night 1 of JazzFest Berlin, kicked off by this year’s artist-in-residence Anthony Braxton. One of the chief progenitors of the Free Jazz Movement that grew out of his native Chicago, this multi-instrumentalist and composer was a fitting choice for this festival, as Braxton has always been an artist who simply cannot be confined to a genre or medium.
In the spirit of Sun Ra’s Space Is This Place, Braxton’s six-hour-long SONIC GENOME was equal parts commendable attempt and bold manifesto to simply go where no artist has ever gone before—soaring along the outskirts of freedom and reckless abandonment, arriving in a realm sans superimposed chords and syncopation. It was total and utter freedom among 60 international musicians: strings, roaring monstrous tubas, reeds, kazoos, even an oboe is invited to this kinky reggae party—come one, come all. Perhaps one of my favorite moments came when first encountering the work of yet another Chicago artist, Rashid Johnson’s “Antoine’s Organ, 2016,” a freestanding ecological sculpture with a large grand piano built inside of it for playing. Johnson’s work directly challenges not only how music can be contained, but also how it can be both presented and heard by an audience.
SONIC GENOME initially startles, but in time, it grows inviting and familiar. No stone is left unturned, as there are clusters of sounds permeating throughout the entire art venue. And nothing sounds like anything you heard before. The notion of musicians, of varying ages and backgrounds, performing together challenges not only the homogeneity that often exists within the culture of jazz, but also confronts the larger battle—to live and coexist in an actual world where we can exchange different ideas and all be truly heard.
First Day of November
Took much of the day to recoup after the sensory overload of an epic Halloween night (perhaps ever). Night Two, as I expected, would help me come back down to Earth again. Just a ten-minute walk away from the hotel, I soon arrived at my other home for the remainder of the festival weekend, The Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Easily accessible by the U-Bahn transit line, renting a bike or taking a short taxi ride, walking is preferable for me, as someone who wants to become better acquainted with a new neighborhood and keep an eye out for local shops and restaurants.
With some leisure time before Night Two of the festival, I stopped in for yet another hot tea and quick read at the quaint and inviting Bookinista, just around the corner from Berliner Festspiele. Directly across the street starts an unending path of restaurants, bistros and bars to choose from. As the rain started to intensify, I settled on the very first place after crossing to the other side, Meet You – China Restaurant. Very similar to the now closed Charlie Mom in the West Village, one of the few places left that remained authentically itself, even with the threat of gentrification looming in the mist. I’m sure that must be a concern for a great many of these global eateries throughout Germany (perhaps something that warrants deeper exploration in a different article).
As soon as I sat down at Meet You, I felt a lot of stares from a couple of other tables, consisting of who I assumed were Germans. But that didn’t stop me. As long as the establishment didn’t hold any similar prejudice and the food was decent, I was good to go. When the table to my right ordered a whole duck, fried rice and several Cokes, they immediately asked for all the chopsticks to be taken away and requested additional forks. That brought a smile to my face, assuring my ego of my mastery of using chopsticks. After starting with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and Shrimp Wonton Soup with Seaweed, I ordered a Grilled Dorade with Vegetables. Aggressively salted and seasoned, much like my “foodgasm” at Vietbowl, I relished every single bite, allowing myself to have a decadent and robust meal without judgment. It wasn’t just about the food, it was a statement, I think, to the judgemental stares that have long since faded; that I deserved to be there and enjoy my meal thoroughly, and with chopsticks.
I walked back over to the Kassenhalle at Berliner Festspiele, awaiting the arrival of Angel Bat Dawid and The Brothahood. Our first encounter happened at the top of this year, via phone, during what became one of the more memorable artist interviews of my career. Aside from becoming more of a Sun Ra devotee, I’m also developing a greater appreciation for what Chicago has brought to the abundant richness and freedom of this music. Dawid not only is a child of music, but as most Gen Xers, she is a child of all that came before her, but possesses the insight and vision to draw from those lessons, rooted in race and spirituality, to guide her musical vision ahead. As she and The Brothahood entered the space, we all were immediately transported into a spiritual realm, much like the many tent revivals I attended sporadically as a child in Brooklyn.
Performing selections from her debut release The Oracle, this performance marked the beginning of Dawid’s first multi-city European tour. Shouting violently at the overpacked crowd, in that moment, Dawid made everyone experience the anguish that often comes from living a black existence. Somehow, she was able to verbalize the unspeakable anger that I felt, and perhaps that she, too, felt; the kind of prejudice that we face so incessantly, great or small, that you begin to train yourself to swallow it and simply ignore that it ever happened. Instead, Dawid brought that anger to the forefront and used it to ultimately arouse, inspire and compel.
Now armed with my Berlin WelcomeCard (and GPS), I was ready to take in as many different points of interest as I could for my last two days here. The warmest day of the weekend, it was one of the best fall Saturdays I’ve had that I can remember. While I didn’t catch The David Hasselhoff Museum, I did manage to grab a handful of bus schedules featuring a large picture of his handsome mug on the cover (as souvenirs, of course) and figured that I could squeeze the “Hoff” in during another visit.
Hopping on and off a couple of different buses became the mode of my day. But I just had to spend some time walking through the lush Grober Tiergarten Park, one of the largest urban gardens just over 500 acres in size. Much of the day was also spent on foot, walking along the sprawling thoroughfare Leipziger Straße that led me to some of the essential sites.
First up, Brandenburg Gate, an 18th-century monument that commemorates both the division and reunification of Germany. In fact, many of the sites throughout the day would possess the duality of a troublesome and disturbing past, and hope for peace and calm in the future to perhaps be enjoyed by the next generation. As this day marked exactly one week prior to the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was fitting to take in and uncover perhaps just some of the pain that went into making such a rich and storied city. Right around the corner is the Reichstag building, which served as a meeting place for Germany’s parliament. While it, too, faced much distress, especially during World War II, the official reunification ceremony took place here in October 1990. The landscape and the surrounding water of the Reichstag building tempt you to spend the day taking it all in. But then you realize, you have so much more to see.
Another ten-minute walk along Ebertstraße brings you to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (“The Holocaust Memorial”). First inaugurated in 2005, it is located on an intersection that honors two historic figures: German philosopher Hannah Arendt and Jewish economist and victim of Nazi regime Cora Berliner. The rows of steel slabs, at varying heights and levels, simulated actual unmarked graves. This was one of the more sobering moments of my trek thus far, as the underground “Place of Information” lists the approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims. With this year’s landmark 1619 Project, placing an official marker for the 12.5 million Africans brought over through the transatlantic slave trade, it is my sincere hope to see that realized in a more lasting tribute, in a similar vein to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Walking through the Ministry of Finance and Mall of Berlin, I arrived at yet another sobering moment, the Topography of Terrors. Located on Niederkirchnerstraße, this indoor and outdoor museum sits on a cluster of buildings that once served as the headquarters for officials serving under the Nazi regime (1933-1945). It was a place of persecution and unspeakable torture of prisoners captured under their dictatorship. Overwhelmed with emotion from the last few sites, a quick five-minute walk over to Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, I arrived at the now-infamous Checkpoint Charlie, the Wall’s best-known crossing point named for by Western allies. Perhaps the most kitschy of sites in comparison to the day’s other attractions, this now popular destination was perhaps just the break needed to cap off the first round of sightseeing before heading back to the festival.
Ambrose Akinmusire shared the bill for Night 3 on Berliner Festspiele’s main stage. Marking the German premiere of the provocative Origami Harvest, this work marked a significant point in the trumpeter’s career where introspection and political incisiveness converged organically into one, something quite frankly lacking in some of more socially-aware releases from his contemporaries this past year. Much like Dawid’s uninhibited performance, the emotion grows ethereal and palpable as Akinmusire’s trumpet soars alongside The Mivos Quartet. When juxtaposed against a rhythmic backdrop, thanks, in part, to DC-based rapper Koyaki, this keeps Akinmusire grounded, rooted in the present-day reality of racial tension and injustice.
Heading over to the legendary Quasimodo, it felt the most like “old New York,” where the lines between seedy and chic began to blur, especially in the wee hours of the morning. While billed as part of the festival’s main stage program, the late hour coupled with the drastic venue change, from state-of-the-art venue to that of a more traditional dive bar, this perhaps made me feel most at home than any of the other venues so far.
This also marked my first encounter with musicians I’ve admired for years—namely reedist James Brandon Lewis, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup III—and discovered new talents like electric guitarist Ava Mendoza. Led by Lewis, he rounded out his Unruly Quintet with trumpeter Jaimie Branch. Performing selections from Lewis’s latest effort An Unruly Manifesto, their band’s overall synergy, happily, equaled their unbridled energy as they ferociously attacked each and every song of their nearly two-hour-long set.
Determined to see more of Berlin on my last day, after grabbing a healthier bite at the organic franchise dean&david, conveniently located across from the Ellington Hotel, I discovered another great feature of the WelcomeCard. In addition to serving as my transport pass for buses, trains, and trams alike, it also provided me with unparalleled access (discounted and free) into several of the city’s renowned arts and cultural institutions throughout the weekend. With just one afternoon left to spend in this enchanted city, I decided to spend much of my Sunday afternoon, at, gulp, “church.”
The plan was to spend the entire afternoon at Museum Island, a cluster of five museums that sits along the northern half of an island on the Spree river. A UNESCO World Heritage site, each museum celebrates art from a distinctive culture and period (Ancient Greece, Byzantine, Egypt), all housed in buildings that honor classical architectural landscape. However, after visiting the breathtaking Berlin Cathedral, for what was supposed to be a short pitstop, soon turned into a nearly hour-long excursion, as the visitors were unexpectedly treated to a Classical period-inspired choir rehearsal with a live orchestra pit. Yet another reminder of how Berlin fully embraces its past to define its present moment. One can only hope that a growing diversity and more inclusion will become part of its narrative in the near future.