donderdag 4 februari 2016

Die Grenzgänger: Und weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist


After a fiercely acclaimed and lauded CD with songs from the First World War, Die Grenzgänger are back with a CD with... songs from the concentration camps. Die Grenzgänger already have a good track record in terms of illustrating German history with historical songs. They go through the archives, looking for original songs that reflect the spirit of the time and the experiences of the people.

Earlier CDs had themes like songs of migrants who left for the United States, songs of the revolutionary poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the March Revolution of 1920, and - as already mentioned - the First World War. They already let themselves in with the theme ‘songs from the concentration camps’. They contributed six songs to the compilation ‘O bittre Zeit’, perhaps the most complete and (quasi-)academic collection on this theme, which contains a total of 81 songs and two accompanying booklets totaling 126 pages of lyrics and context.

The songs on ‘und Weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist’ (as long as man is a man) largely overlap with the songs from ‘O bittre Zeit’, though this album is more coherent than the collection which consists of a multiplicity of artists and performances, from original a cappella recordings to avant-garde electronic renderings.



On ‘und weil der Mensch...’, you will find 15 songs which were sung in prisons and concentration camps of the Third Reich. The CD begins with what may well be the most famous and first song in the genre: ‘Die Moorsoldaten’. It originated in 1933 in the camp of Börgermoor, the first concentration camp to be established by the Nazis to imprison political opponents.

We note in passing that the intention in 1933 was mainly to imprison political opponents: Communists, trade unionists, social democrats ... Many of them were of Jewish descent. It was not until 1941, when World War II had already broken out, that they began with the systematic eradication of unwanted populations: jews, gypsies, gay people...

Many of the songs are linked to a camp or prison. Titles like ‘Auschwitzlied’, ‘Neuengammer Lagerlied’, ‘Im Walde von Sachsenhausen’ or ‘Buchenwaldlied’ speak for themselves. But also
Die Moorsoldaten’ or ‘Auf des Heubergs rauhen Höhen’ refer to specific camps.

Not all the songs are from the concentration camps. The title track ‘und weil der Mensch...’ - also known as the ‘Einheitsfrontlied’ - is a composition of Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler. Both had already fled to safer places soon after the seizure of power by the Nazis, but their songs were sung - and sometimes adapted - in the camps and prisons.

Another song that wasn’t written in the camps, but is tragically connected to them, is ‘Mein Vater wird gesucht’, a song about a communist who was killed by the SA. Obviously, this is a tribute to Zupfgeigenhansel, one of the first German groups who ventured into this kind of historical works after World War II, and included this very song in their oeuvre. The original song was written by Hans Drach and was put to music by Gerda Kohlmey. Both fled abroad after the seizure of power by the Nazis, and wrote socially engaged theatre plays. Drach worked in the Soviet Union, but was - as many Germans, no matter how fervent communists they were - put in prison because of espionage. After the Stalin-Hitler Pact, he was handed over to the Gestapo and committed suicide in 1941 in a German concentration camp.

Some very interesting songs refer to the Bundische Jugend, the youth movements in Germany in the interwar period. ‘Graue Kollonen ziehen ins Moor’ is a camp song based on a song that was popular among the working class youth, and was originally sung by the Wandervogel and even the Hitler Youth, but later on became an opposition song. ‘Schliess Aug und Ohr für eine Weil’ was popular in to the German youth movements and was even one of the favorite songs of the White Rose opposition group around Hans and Sophie Scholl, both of whom were sentenced to death for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets.

While the CD is about one of the darkest pages in the history, the music is often hopeful. Hope dies last, as you may known, and in almost every song lies a passage that speaks about hope for better times: ‘The winter can’t last forever’, ‘head up high, it will not be long’, ‘shining freedom will come for you’, ‘the day will come, then we are free’...

Sometimes the songs are downright cheerful. ‘Wir zahlen keine Miete mehr’ (we do not pay rent anymore) - a new text on a hit from the Weimar Republic - mocks the poor living conditions in the camp of Lichtenburg: ‘and if the cell had a good straw pack (...), we would never go away.’

But where this song is sarcasm and irony, the closing song ‘Den Spaten geschultert’ - a song that spread from camp Aschendorfer Moor to the different concentration camps - is quite optimistic: ‘We wait with hope for freedom (... ) we are not eternally caught, they will soon open the doors, because we know that after this emergency, the radiant dawn will shine for us’. Because the song was so joyous in regard to the rest of the CD, Die Grenzgänger have inserted a moment of silence before the song.

If you do not realize it yet, ‘und Weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist’ is essential for anyone interested in the topic. These songs give a much needed other dimension to the historical books which will give the chronology of the German concentration camps. They tell about the everyday suffering of the prisoners, of the hope that remains alive despite the miserable conditions, give you an insight into the life circumstances… And this CD includes detailed explanation on the songs and the people who have written them.

And while man is a man
He does not like boots in the face
He wants to see no slaves under him
And no lord above him




Xavier Kruth

Die Grenzgänger

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17 Pygmies: Isabel II: Abaddon Rising


Should we laud this work for its literary qualities, or its musical merits? Well, we have to do both, and all the more because the beautiful story of Jackson Del Rey fits extremely well with the wonderful music of 17 Pygmies.

17 Pygmies saw the light in 1982, as a side project of Savage Republic Member Jackson Del Rey with a few other musicians. Savage Republic played industrial post-punk played, but 17 Pygmies went more towards cold wave with psychedelic and intercultural influences. The critics were full of praise, but to break the group break through. They split in 1990.

In 2007 the thread was picked up again, with a more literary concept. 17 Pygmies currently works with trilogies. After the 'Celestina' triptych, they are now working on a series called ‘Isabel’, which is actually a continuation of the first trilogy. This ‘Isabel II: Abaddon Rising’ is - as you might have guessed - the second part of the trilogy.

In the short story that accompanies the CD, you can read the underlying tale. Isabel is a woman who fled from Centre and has found shelter in an underground necropolis where displaced scientists have built up their own society. With her stories about Celestina, Isabel knows how to captivate and touch the people in this city. Abaddon is a computer or android that was developed in Centre to teach people to hate and to prepare them as a weapon in the war. However, Abaddon has got software from opponents of His Holiness - the Pope who presides over the Centre - that makes him turn against his boss. Abaddon tries to teach Celestina to hate in order to launch an attack against Centre...

I can not get all the references, since the story regularly refers to characters from previous 17 Pygmies records, but I can emphasize that Jackson Del Rey is a great writing talent, who interweaves his great stories with surrealistic scenes and philosophical considerations.

Musically, ‘Isabel II’ holds midway between the magical atmosphere of the beautiful Russian group Caprice and the melancholic beauty of This Mortal Coil. The strings of Jean Sudbury take an important place in the mix, just like the beautiful voice of Meg Maryatt. The atmosphere throughout the whole CD is quiet and dreamy, and so this is excellent background music while reading the short story by Del Rey. Literature and music mix perfectly on thes work.

Xavier Kruth
17 Pygmies