There’s a door in Kreuzberg across from a kebab shop. With a filthy flickering lamp above it illuminating the number 133. There’s no doorman, no signs, no feeling of sound being bolted in behind the door. But if you open that non-descript whitewash door and climb six flights of stairs, you walk into a dimly lit room with an exposed ceiling that leaves wires and insulation dangling precariously overhead. The floors aren’t sanded down, there are a couple of rickety benches lining the otherwise bare room, and their version of a bar is a girl selling beer for two euros a bottle. This place is West Germany.
We used to talk a lot in Sydney about venues. How the tiny ones were constantly under threat of or were being shut down. How the big ones were only able to sustain themselves by booking the most crowd-pleasing and mundane of modern music. The feeling that there are too many talented people not getting enough time on stage because the right sized stage or the right audience doesn’t exist.
In Berlin the attitude is, if it doesn’t exist, make it yourself. Why not take over a dingy room six floors above a shopfront, across the street from a seedy train station, throw some rugs on the floor in one of the rooms, call that the stage and name yourself West Germany? That’s where Justice Yeldham was found on a Wednesday night. A packed room crowded around him in a tight circle as he pressed glass to his face to contort and coax sounds from it. The lighting wasn’t great but the sound was. You could barely see a thing if you weren’t standing an inch from his face but you could feel the energy building in the room as Yeldham pushed himself further, teetering on the line between entertainment and physical pain.
Nearing midnight on the street below, drunk teens stumbled down to the restaurants and bars on main strip Oranienstraße and local punks leaned against the U-Bahn staircases, pounding down forties. Some might have been on their way to the concert venue three doors down, Festsaal Kreuzberg, that hosts local and international bands with a modicum of success to their names.
This little room though, this small, cramped, aesthetically unimpressive room may have been claustrophobic, sweaty and smoke-filled, but it was genuine. The feeling of comradery, that we, this secret society of 100-odd people had stumbled across something so very rare, was palpable. The occasional Australian accent would strike my ear but it wasn’t an entirely expat crowd. While a 20-something tried to angle in shots with his DSLR camera during the set, a man in his mid-forties quietly nodded his head in appreciation of Yeldham’s sonic manipulations. There was nothing to really tie us all together, besides a need to be in this tiny tucked away place, in the middle of the night.
Berlin revels in sound. The plethora of sound art, noisemakers and general sonic miscreants is admirable. Whether in a warehouse, a stadium or someone’s apartment, they find the room to share that noise. And there’s always an audience. Recently the Botanical Gardens hosted a series of performances, interpreting John Cage works. The sound artists used the natural fauna in the cactus conservatory, hooking it up to mics and samplers, to create lush, enigmatic soundscapes. On a bright Sunday morning, there were families filing in to witness it. They brought their toddlers who patiently watched, awed into silence. It was a family outing. There’s no scene, no clique, no feeling of exclusion, merely appreciation. For something different and challenging, that knocks you off the norm and into another realm. It doesn’t have to be in a dungeon late at night or in a brand new venue, it just needs to be. And it just needs an audience.
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Sevana Ohandjanian is a writer from Sydney who recently moved to Berlin. She will be sending dispatches to Skydreams, sharing her movements through the city and its music scene.
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