Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Open Mic and Dragon Ships

Cold nips my hands and cheeks as I walk to the cafe this morning. The promised air from Scandinavia has dropped south, as if aboard dragon-prowed ships to chasten those who still remember summer. It will get much colder, this is just the first taste.

To be honest, I expected worse with the drum-rolled announcements of Scandinavian cold. A geranium with dark purple flowers still hangs on in the street across from the door to my building. The frost has not arrived, although there is a cafe down the street with the name Snow Wife and Rose Red.
Cafes typify whimsy here. Their names and their decor shout personality and color. Another one, in the neighborhood across Danziger Str. is named Immer Gern, which can roughly be translated as Always Cool. And it is. One of the baristas there is Spanish. I overheard him talking with another man who was leaving the cafe, who called him “carnal”, or brother, a sure sign the speaker was from Mexico.
I imagine that as the days shorten and dark reigns ever more, except when snow falls, that fun and color will be ever more necessary. Already the tables, benches and chairs seem lonely and huddled against the cold, as everyone crowds inside. Last night at A Sunday in August, the smoking room was filled with clouds of conversation and smoke, while the non-smoking room near the bar was similarly full. The sole barista was running crazy trying to get everyone’s orders and fill them, since there the people sit first and the barista goes to them, as if in a restaurant.
A high table by the swinging door to the smoking room was the only place open and so I took it and wrote, while the door fanned every time the barista made a run, always with a platter of drinks or empties in his hand, and seemingly desperate with the crowd that filled his place. I stayed for an hour and just as I was putting my stuff away he finally came to take my order. Too late. Oh well. I will go back.
But my laptop and my coat smell of tobacco smoke. That would be fine if I were not mildly allergic. I can still smell it even this morning. It reminds me of “back in the day”, to borrow a phrase from a different generation than mine, when cafes and restaurants were always smoky. The light never had that crystal, clean sense that designers now try to modify by changing the features of the light. Non-smokers were just SOL if they did not like it. Back then, despite allergy, I always stank after a night out. But so did everyone else.
In summer, Berlin moves outdoors I am told. I know that when I arrived people were still outside all the time. Even last weekend the side walk cafes were full when the sun shone and the rain held back. In winter, like at home, things move inside. At home people escape to the mountains and their ski slopes, here the slopes are far away in a place where to quote a woman I was speaking with the other day “The dialect is very different. People do not speak Hoch Deutsch (High German, or in this case standard German); they only speak their dialect and I cannot understand it.”
I know about dialects. They are rich in the United States, with all its diversity. I know the experience of not really understanding other Americans very well because of how they speak, even though we all used to share the same mass culture. In Latin America, every time you get off your plane in different cities, you can expect the language to be noticeably different. Sometimes you understand and they understand you, but often not. Sometime Portuguese is clearer and easier.
Thursday night I went to a cafe in Kreuzberg with the Spanish name Mano. I had read online that there was an open mic there that evening, so I went. Supposedly it was bilingual, both German and English, since open mic is more a phenomenon that belongs to the English-speaking world I gather.
The part of Kreuzberg near the cafe, which is only one subway stop from the river and the remaining section of the wall called “The Eastern Gallery” is mostly Turkish and Middle Eastern. If I remember what I read right, this was a part of West Berlin--the infamous Check Point Charlie is nearby--that was poorer and remote, huddled against the wall and the east, removed from the centers of life that mobilized the Allied Zone, and so became an area of cheap rents and drew immigrant workers.
The wall came down two-decades ago and Kreuzberg and the neighboring area of Neuköln throb to the sounds of Middle Eastern immigrants. It is its own ethnoscape, neither Turkey nor elsewhere, but distinctive in Berlin.
As a result, Kreuzberg has also become an area that draws artists and intellectuals, including expats. Young Americans, Europeans, Australians, and New Zealanders throng there. I imagine the Spanish speaking and French speaking young, adventurous artists are also there, but I have not entered those worlds yet.
I ate dinner in an Egyptian restaurant and then crossed to the cafe in an old, somewhat rundown building, before the open mic was to begin. The cafe was already full and I was definitely the oldest person in the house. I found a place up against the platform with its mic-stand and speakers, my back against the wall and to the side of the speakers. The cafe opened before me.
A German couple was making out passionately on a couch against the side wall, by the bathroom door. They hardly seemed to notice as person, after person, mostly male, swung the door to enter and relieve themselves.
Other pairs of people were scattered around. A dark skinned, frail young man was speaking intensely with a blond, young women next to me. I could easily overhear their conversation and, though it was in German, understand much of it. So I tried not to listen, because of the intimacy their stances implied. They had claimed a three chaired table, with overstuffed chairs, their feet on the third chair.
About fifteen minutes or so before the open-mic was to begin a twenty-five-ish young man, guitar case in hand, walked up to them, interrupted their conversation, and said in English “is that chair taken.” It was more a statement that a question, grammar be damned, as he pushed their legs from the chair and claimed the space before the couple could speak.
A trio of young English women, early twenties, sat in two chairs and on the side of the stage before me. One was ethnically South Asian and they conversed about a friend who was intensely involved, though badly, with someone whose gender or nature I never caught. But then I tried not to listen in on their conversation, either.
Occasionally people would enter and walk up on the stage. One woman un-cased a portable harp with a plug jack, and placed it on the stage, then a guy with lamb-chop sideburns that only left the cleft in his chin and his cheek-bones uncovered strode up, took his guitar from his case and set it to the side. Another guy followed. he had released his keyboard from its case in the audience and brought the board up.
One of the English women--I am so tempted since I am decades older to write “girl” but shall restrain myself, turned around in her chair and spoke to me. “ Do you think it will be uncomfortable to be right up here against the stage. Everyone will be looking at us and it will probably be too loud. Just then three women left chairs against the other wall from the amorous couple, below a couch on which a blond guy in a Cusqueña beer t-shirt stretched out, his jean-clad legs hanging off the side. The English women asked the guy if the chairs were taken, he said nothing, and so they moved there, away from the stage.
Not long after, a painfully thin guy, with a slightly sallow complexion came into the cafe and walked to the stage. he took the mic, introduced himself as the host for The New Word Order open mic and said if he wasn’t his normally animated self it was understandable, because he was just recovering from swine flu. He then read a poem about his home town, Dayton, Ohio, from an edited volume of poems.
The open mic began. Although there had been a sign-up sheet which he laid on the stage by me, he did not follow it. He went and sat in a chair by the English women and said “I don’t feel well tonight, he said, so just get up and perform if you want. You have five minutes or so. If no one stands up then I will pick up the list and name names. Otherwise the time is yours. I guess, if no one stands up it will be a very short evening. That is fine with me, because I should be home in bed.”
We sat for a minute in silence as the atmosphere became thick with tension. Finally two people stood up simultaneously. “Ok” said the host whose name was Mike. “Our first performer will be Talcott Parsons.”
Oh my gosh. How surreal for me. The first person to the stage had taken the name of a very famous American sociologist, now deceased, who had been a student of the great German sociologist Max Weber and perhaps the foremost of those who brought his thought to the United States and the English speaking world at the same time he built his own system of structural functionalism that had just ceased dominating the world when I entered graduate school.
Talcott Parsons was the guy who had pushed the legs aside. He grabbed his guitar, strode to the stage his pants sagging off his rather ample behind exposing painfully white shorts, sat and introduced himself in slightly accented English. “Hello. I am Talcott Parsons, and I am from Argentina.”
For me this was cognitive dissonance. I spent many hours in Argentina with people playing guitars and singing as I had with Argentines in other countries. Argentina, song, and guitars is almost a synonymous as Argentina and football. But the style is generally different. I saw him completely different and did not know what to expect as he strummed his guitar and announced he would performa a song he had only recently written and whose name he had not yet decided on. He started with a rock strum, that brought Charlie García, the Argentine rocker to mind, probably wrongly, and sang a very coherent and intriguing ballad with some lovely musical complexity. He was good.
For his next song he sang another of his compositions that touched me. He called “Happy Birthday Me and explained he wrote it one year when he was all alone on his birthday. I expect that will be my fate this year, as a consequence of my choices to travel. I don’t know how I feel about that and had not thought of it until I heard Talcott sing.
Gauchos, sociology, and song. Melancholy. Lots of nostalgic melancholy. That may well have been the only identifiable way of verifying he was Argentine and made the rest of the performance and his persona a believable whole. People exploded in applause.
I do not remember all the performances from that evening, and I did not keep notes. That is probably good because otherwise I would write too much. But I do remember some. It was a stand-out evening for me, as far as the performances and all go. It was one of the best open mic nights I have ever been to.
A woman from New Zealand and many other places, thin and pale stood at the mic and explained that her hair hurt. She had just made it blond and it hurt. With some laughs and back and forth with the audience, in her Kiwi English with its distinctively different vowels, she began and read a poem. I do not remember the details. She finished though with a memorable performance. It was not fluid or professional, but it seemed to me to open some performative ground and to have lots of promise.
She began by rapping her knuckles on her forehead. “If by the end of this piece my forehead is not bright red than I will not have done a good job. Lately I have been really intrigued with the Italian Commedia dell’arte so I want to borrow from their style.”
She began to wail in a faux-operatic style, as if half aria and half sprechstimme, or speech voice in an almost chanting style about “How do I know? How am I supposed to react to you? What does it matter? I do not know.” Striking her forehead over and over.
Periodically she would lose the thread, break frame, and half to look at her script. Then she would return. The performance was funny, though also painful, because of the theme, the self-violence, that was strangely enhanced by the breaks in her stage presence. However, it worked. The audience seemed not to know how to react, though they laughed heartily at times, and their weak applause showed that.
For me, the intriguing thing was her chutzpa in borrowing from melodramatic, comedic form quasi operatic, to perform something painfully intimate and self-destructive. There is artistic promise in that borrowing.
Afterwards Mike spoke “who is next. Who wants to follow?” Two people stood simultaneously, the mutton-chop guy and the harpist. “Yeah” Mike said, “you guys can go”. “No!”, the harpist scolded. “We are not together”.
She claimed the stage and asked if she could plug in her harp and use the microphone, as she placed a stool in the right place for her to perform. “Looks like there is only one plug. You will have to choose, harp or voice.” “I choose voice. The Harp will be ok.”
She sat and strummed a few bars, before announcing her name and saying she was from Philadelphia. She is making a tour of Europe and Asia. She has no gig scheduled for Berlin, although she does elsewhere in Germany. She also had cd’s available for purchase, if people wanted.
She looked Irish with her rusty-blond hair and blue-eyes and I half expected her to do something celtic-harpish. But she started playing and she was doing jazz with rich syncopation. Then she sang. Oh my gosh. She had a stellar voice and was a professional. I do not remember the words of her songs, but I do remember the way her fingers on the strings supported her voice and provoked it as if she were singing against a whole band. It was amazing. She sang three songs, filling more than the five minutes and people seemed to want more. Their applause pounded the walls of the room over and over and over.
Mike pushed us on as the woman sat in the front,when she finished, on one of the chairs that the English women had vacated in concern for being too close.
It was almost impossible for anyone to follow that. A rather beefy guy from the UK did with his very well done poems of troubled romance. His poems were well-wrought with slick polish.
The next performer was MC Jabber a very slight and brooding guy, also painfully thin with dark bags under his eyes, from Huddersfield in the UK. With a distinctively cockney accent slumped to the stage and said “I have to sit down” as he found the stool and sank onto it, pulling the mic off the stand and down to him.
Later I found out he is a multiple, international slam poetry winner. But that night I did not know. I only listened as he began a rhythm with rhyme and meter and kept it going over line after line after line, until suddenly it would change for a bit, and then begin again, like a finely-tuned high-performance car racing down the highway at a steady speed. It was hypnotic. So much so that i do not remember the subject, though it was very well elaborated. MC is a master. Very-different from Marc Smith, the founder of slam. But a master nonetheless. In that is some of slam’s variety.
Following him, the mutton-chop guy came to the stage, opened his guitar case, and pulled out his guitar. He tugged at the flowing hair over his forehead as he said in an Irish brogue with a wry smile, “I think I am completely out of my depth here. But I will go ahead anyway.
He started with a punkish strum and began singing in a low voice, well below the pitch of his accompaniment. It seemed almost deliberately out of tune, but it was not. It was just stretched and deliberately raw. Then he moved his voice above the guitar and began singing loudly as he pulled away from the microphone.
He sang two songs, the second of which had no name though he ironically said people told him to name it “yawning”. it was anything but boring as it screamed about how he was a black-hole for women’s emotions.
I looked out and the harpist was eating it up, though the musicality was not at her level. But the air seemed hormonally thick as he sang. Despite his disclaimer, he was very good, if raw. But the rawness went with his persona, the sparkle in his eyes, and the intensity of his guitar and his feeling. His nostrils would flare to mark particularly intense moments.
Several other people performed, who I do not remember, unfortunately. The final performance of the round was a woman from Northern Ireland who had come to Berlin, expenses paid, to participate in a slam competition. She had an understated but potent stage presence, in her midriff exposed, tight-jean stance. She began by telling about how she was just from Northern Ireland and never expected to come to Berlin, certainly not expenses paid, for a slam competition. Berlin, she said, had an amazing slam scene.
The she said she wanted to perform a “poem about an Irish stereotype. Are the any people from Ireland here. Raise you hands. Mr. Mutton-chops raised his hand, as did several other people. “What is the stereotype of the Irish? It is irritating and not always true but you find it everywhere. Where do people think you will always find the Irish? What do they say the Irish always do?”
Mutton-chops spoke out. He was now sitting next to the harpist, on the couch where the German couple had been making out and she kept looking at him. “They say we are always drinking” as he raised his beer in the air.
“Yeah. That’s it. The stereotype is the Irish are always drinking. Well I grew up in a religious family in Northern Ireland and I took a pledge when I was fourteen that I would not drink. I went to the clubs with my friends but I would not drink. That is what my poem is about.”
And it was, about her ironic existence as she noticed the dark and negative effect alcohol had on those around her, while she would not drink. At the end of the poem, she told about beginning to drink and ended.
While she performed, Mutton-Chops and Ms. Harp’s hands found each other and they stroked each other’s fingers as she performed.
Her second poem was a powerful argument about women having to have an anti-conceptive shot in their arm, since there is no abortion in Ireland, and about the irresponsibility of men who will not use condoms, despite the risk of pregnancy and even more the fear of STDs. Her poem was bleak, like a scene of trash-filled urban space, covered with graffiti where people gather to share a sense of living with each other.
No one could follow. Mike stood and said he needed to get home. Almost two hours had passed and though there should be a break and another round, he would not be there, they would have to take care of themselves.
Mutton-Chop claimed the opening and yelled “five minute break. In five minutes we begin again.”
I chose the time to leave; the quality of the performances made me want to stay for another round, as did the flourishing hook-up between Harpist and guitarist. I further would have enjoyed talking with Talcott Parsons, but I worried about making my way home in late-night Berlin, so I left, taking with me an announcement for Mike’s presentation of his new chap-book at a local bookstore, and an announcement about a poetry series of local, Berlin English speaking poets that Mike is “curating” at the English Theatre of Berlin.
Soon I had returned to Turkish and German speaking streets as I walked past the gold-domed, six story mosque that had claimed and reworked an old apartment building or two and entered the Subway station to go home. My mind stirred with the varieties of English and the quality of art among expats and travelers in this city that should be far from the English speaking world, were it not that two of the victors in the big war who claimed parts of Berlin were the UK and the US, both English-speaking, though differently so. English, in its complexity, seems to have found a place in Berlin’s inner spaces.

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