Rory MacLean meets Shantel

7683342-standard‘I’m a German musician,’ the trailblazing musical wunderkind Shantel told me at Berlin’s Admiralspalast theatre. ‘My music is an expression of a lifetime’s feeling. It’s a part of the new German culture.’

Shantel is a 21st century phenomena. His single Disko Partizani!, with over ten million hits on youtube, shot to the top of the pop charts in Germany and Turkey. His Bucovina Club helped to enflame worldwide enthusiasm for the Balkan beat. His effervescent energy and euphoric, self-spoofing irony has electrified audiences across Europe. No pop video has made me laugh so much as Disko Boy. Yet for years most of Germany’s cultural elite ignored his work, considering it to be peculiarly foreign.

Shantel was born Stefan Hantel in Frankfurt. After the war his grandparents had escaped from Czernovitz, the old capital of Bucovina, a land now split between Romania and the Ukraine. His mother had been born in an Austrian refugee camp. At school in Germany local children had looked into her beautiful dark eyes – eyes which her son would later inherit – and said, ‘You are either Italian or a Jew but you’re not German.’

7683347-standard‘My grandparents’ Frankfurt house was like something out of a Fellini movie; an ex-territorial outpost full of books and music and people screaming in Romanian, Russian, Yiddish, in a hybrid bastard language. It was a place that kept alive the spirit of old cosmopolitan Czernovitz. There was something very warm about it, as well as something very worrying,’ Shantel told me.

He never planned to become a musician. His father was a graphic designer, after a spell as a drummer in a top 40 Sixties cover band, and Shantel intended to follow him into the fine arts. To pay his tuition fees he rented a large apartment in Frankfurt’s red light district and DJ’d a party there every other week.

‘That was my initiation,’ he said. ‘From the start I was interested in combining different flavours, mixing 70s funk with rare grooves, James Brown with dub reggae, Sade with Style Council, playing a few of my grandmother’s old vinyls. I discovered the British band 3 Mustaphas 3 and north African Raï music and loved its southern European flavour but suddenly it vanished away.’

While still at university Shantel built a small home studio and began to cut CDs, slipping into the free-style, electronic music scene. He started touring on the international circuit, establishing himself as a downtempo impresario. ‘I enjoyed the life but to be honest I felt a bit lost. I wasn’t into techno or house which for me were too Teutonic, whatever that means. I was searching for something more … soulful.’

Then in 1996 he visited Moscow. As soon as the aircraft touched down he started thinking of his grandparents, who had died 15 years earlier. He travelled to Czernovitz and found their original home. ‘I was really touched by the experience,’ he told me. ‘I walked into the old house, smelt familiar smells, the winter apples and samovar-made tea, and was reminded of my past. I went into the garden and rang my mother, in tears. Then a neighbour shouted that I was in the wrong garden. I stopped crying, walked next door, then started wailing all over again.’

Shantel realised he couldn’t continue working as ‘a photocopy DJ for Anglo-American pop culture’. In Czernovitz he had discovered a missing part of his identity. He also understood that the rich cosmopolitan culture of old Bucovina had been destroyed by the tragic years of Nazis occupation and communist dictatorship.

‘I had to find my story,’ he confessed. ‘That’s where the idea to create a Bucovina Club began, resurrecting the spirit of a society which was strong because it was mixed, that prospered because people felt free to choose the best from each other’s cultures.’

7683351-standardAt the Frankfurt Schauspielhaus, Shantel conceived his seminal Bucovina spectacular, introducing a wild ex-Yugoslav gypsy brass band into a traditional German theatre, transforming the auditorium into a mock-Turkish bordello. ‘At first it was total chaos,’ he laughed. ‘The band wasn’t even used to playing on a steady beat. But I realised that something very special was emerging from the synthesis.’

Shantel took traditional Balkan melodies and rhythms – some of which dated back to Byzantine times – and rejuvenated them. With a diverse troop of remarkable musicians – among them Serbian singer Vesna Petkovic, Bulgarian clarinettist Filip Simeonov, Manu Chau’s trumpeter, the Canadian singer Brenna MacCrimmon and Ruth Maria Renner, a Berlin-based Romanian R’n’B vocalist – Shantel coaxed and teased and originated a new musical language.

In 2004 during the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, Shantel – by then hugely popular in Germany – returned to Czernovitz. Alongside the city’s Jewish Orchestra and the Mahala Rai Banda, he performed to a crowd of ten thousand young people.

‘The concert was like closing the circle for me. The audience couldn’t believe that I – a Western musician – was celebrating their songs. Their song, my songs; it was a mixture of everything. Afterwards they said to me, “But we had been told that our old music was stinky and Communist. Now we see it has value.”’

Shantel’s interpretation of the music wasn’t historically ‘authentic’.

‘As I said, I am a German musician with a mixed-up family,’ he explained. ‘Bucovinans have always combined Turkish melodies with rhythm from Viennese waltzes, melding all the cultures which had formed the country. So the absence of “historical authenticity” isn’t important. What mattered is creating good music, from one’s passion, from the heart.’

Shantel paused, stood and stretched then took a sip of water. ‘Alongside my insignificant musical adventure I recognised the real daily problems in Bukovina: rampant HIV infection, drug abuse, homeless children. I did – and do – what I can to help, for example supporting a couple of orphanages.’

Shantel, and his Essay label, have won a BBC World Music Award. His score for Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven helped the picture to earn a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His remix of Mahala Raï Banda’s Mahalageasca featured in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. He created his own music publishing company, his own management. ‘A lot of things are possible in Germany but you have to do them yourself,’ he said.

His latest release, a collaboration with the curator of Vienna’s Jewish Museum, Oz Almog, is Kosher Nostra, a remarkable compilation of Jewish ‘gangster hits’ from early twentieth-century America. ‘It’s also a story of immigration,’ he told me, ‘of parallel societies living side-by-side and how the incomers influence the host society.’

His next CD Anarchy and Romance will be released later this summer.

‘My music is a kind of a patchwork,’ he explained. ‘In creating it I try to find a balance between acoustic, analogue and digital elements, combining them to create something soulful. One can’t programme music out of a computer. It needs an emotional touch. But there’s definitely no masterplan, no recipe. For this new album I started most of the songs alone with my guitar. I always start from zero, and that’s what makes this job so thrilling.’

7683354-standardOn stage Shantel is boyish and irreverent, thrilling his audiences with playful Balkan brass, dynamic electronica, wild stage-dives, hip-hopping belly-dancers and unadulterated fun. His music – as he says – ‘goes immediately into your body, into your system, into your heart, into your stomach; it moves you and puts you into the situation where you have to show your emotions. This is the secret of the sound. It turns you inside out.’

But off-stage he is thoughtful, reflective and inquiring. ‘I never wanted to make something that was “correct”,’ he told me. ‘I want to put this music into a genre equal to pop culture.’

Through his remarkably vital music Shantel is creating the sound of a new Europe, and helping to redefine what it means to be German.

‘Of course it helps that I am also a funky chicken,’ he added with a wink. ‘Humour has always been a good survival strategy in my family.’

Rory MacLean
June 2011