Saturday, September 6, 2008

As German as Apple Pie

Note: If you click here you can view some of my pictures as an album. They are mostly from last weekend. Another album is here and contains images from the Medieval Fair and my first few days in Germany.

The world loves American Pop-Culture, but it's always slightly surreal to hear distinctively American sights and sounds juxtaposed with a foreign culture that I am struggling to understand. Particularly memorable/strange moments include hearing "My Heart Will Go On" in an Egyptian hotel, surrounded by Chinese tourists, seeing a banner for a Jay-Z concert at the Carnivore Restaurant suspended above the National Museum in Nairobi, and hearing a bunch of old Greeks warble "Hey Jude" in a restaurant in Athens (I realize the Beatles are actually part of British culture, but they made most of their money off the Americans so I partially claim them).

A few weeks ago I noticed a Jazz club called Caveta on one of the streets leading up to the Oberstadt. I know Jazz is everywhere, but I was curious to hear a distinctively American sound interpreted by the Germans. Walking back from class, I heard two of my fellow students were planning to check it out on Monday. They'd learned from a nice, slightly crazy Marburger in their Capeoria class that the club had open jam sessions starting at 9 on Monday nights.

So Monday night the three of us traipsed up to the Oberstadt to investigate. Marty, an Applied Physicist and Saxophonist from Oregon brought his Alto Sax and Johanna, a Classically trained vocalist from Baltimore was ready to bust out the standards, I brought my ears and a regret that I didn't maintain my trumpet chops in any way after high school.

As we approached the door I heard the sound of pure brass smashing against the glass. When we swung the door open, the energetic sound of Big Band Jazz blasted into the street. We all grinned and entered. The club looked a little like the dungeon bar with a side room that was clearly a wine cellar at some distant historical point. Now it's the stage and provides an echo chamber for the music so people can sit in the room by the bar and still hear each other speak. We didn't want to speak. We wanted to hear the music.

The band was huge with three trumpets, three trombonists, four saxes, the drummer, the bassist and the pianist all lead by a conductor who vaguely reminded me of my band director in high school. The band probably doubled the number of people in the club. They were all clearly German and ranged from around fifteen to sixty-five years old and they had a big sound. I wondered if the younger people were in bands in school. I'm not even sure they have such extracurriculars in Germany. Maybe the young guys are learning the tricks of the trade from the older guys in the group. I wanted to ask, but my vocabulary only contains about a hundred words and most of them related to classroom objects.

The second group was a lot smaller, but included the director of the previous group on trumpet, a tenor sax, a pianist, a drummer and a dude on upright bass. I like to think I'm a connoisseur of bass-playing characters and this guy is a new favorite. He looked like a less-hip Jerry Garcia with his full grey beard, jovial countenance and pocket-protector in his untucked plumb Polo. Their final song, a kind of slow waltz, left me in a kind of musical daze. It was wonderful. The only problem with listening to swing, waltz and jazz in a tiny cellar is there was no room to dance. My feet were itching to move and my hands were keeping the beat, but there was nothing to do with that energy and my favorite dance partner is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

As another band got set up, we realized the crazy Capeorian was a bit off about the whole jam session thing, but Johanna decided it was worth asking if she could get up an sing with one of the groups. The pianist had to run around and ask a bunch of different people about this American who wanted to join a group, but finally she had her chance to jump up on the stage and plug in a mic - after a group that thought playing Jazz meant giving every member of the group very long repetitive solos.

As soon as Johanna started warming up, the entire house snapped to attention. "This could be interesting. This person looks like she actually has soul." I should say that Johanna is African-American and at that moment was probably the only black person in the Oberstadt. It was tough to tell if she had soul at that moment. She was a bit nervous as she discussed the song she wanted to sing with the group and how the intro and solos would work. But as soon as she sang the opening notes, "My funny valentine..." the room was convinced. She blew the roof off the place - and it's a medieval cellar, so the roof is as solid as they come - with improvised vocal lines and wonderful harmonization with the band. If the other performers were skeptical about inviting an unknown musician into their ranks, after belting the final note they were begging Johanna to stick around for the rest of the set. Just because a culture creates something, it doesn't mean that culture necessarily gets it. The English invented cricket, but the Indians are best at it. Hollywood invented the western but the Italians perfected it. But in Marburg Johanna proved that Jazz came from the U.S. and Americans can still command the club. That's not to imply the Germans don't understand Jazz, it's just the States still has fantastic musicians.

The next evening was another night at the movies. A large contingent of Fulbrighters had not seen The Dark Knight, one of my favorite movies of the summer, and it just opened in Germany. The Marburg Cinema has two showings a week in English. Someday soon I will see it in German because I want to hear how The Joker is performed by a German Actor and how the gravely Bat Voice is reproduced, but that isn't the way you should see The Dark Knight for the first time. I love experiencing movies in other countries. It's interesting to see what kind of food is offered, how loudly people laugh and where they sit.

The greatest invention by the Germans was the "Pause" halfway through the movie. We didn't expect it and the break came at a random point so we actually thought the projector had broken. Once the "Pause" cue came up on the screen, I realized this was perfect for a much needed pee break and everyone could discuss plot points they might have missed before delving into the second half. It was a little strange though to come out of a theater that felt very American, complete with stadium seating, where a quintessentially American movie about an American comic book hero (another of our inventions) was showing and hear German teenagers telling jokes while buying beer and sweet popcorn (I imagine it's something like kettle corn) at the concession stand . If I ever attain any power in the States, I will become both a vocal advocate for the mandatory bike ramp on every staircase and the "Pause" in the middle of every movie over 2.5 hours long.

My final strange run-in with American culture abroad came last night during anther visit to the dungeon bar. It was a rainy night in Marburg, so everyone was hunkered down in restaurants and bars, leaving the streets eerily empty. We, Jason, Erin, Katie and I, ate dinner at our favorite cafè, Cafè Early, where you can get a bowl of Auflauf for 4.90 Euro. A pretty good deal to start a night of exploring Marburg's night life. We then decided to return to Delirium, a place we checked out during the bar crawl. The place is a hole in the wall populated with trendy young Marburgers, but no one seemed particularly willing to chat with the Americans, so we rolled on to the Dungeon to see if the Muppet booth was finally open. It wasn't.

After a few drinks and enjoying the bachelor and bachelorette parties come in and out, we called a cab and huddled at the bottom of the stairs by the bar, waiting for our ride to take us back up the soggy hill to the dorms. The Dungeon has an interesting division. The front room, where the bar and the Muppet booth are set up, is were the real Marburgers hang out. The average age in the room before we entered was probably 50. The back room is where the young people hang out around large wooden tables each of which is equipped with a single candle.

As we waited, the sounds of John, Paul, George and Ringo faded, and the bartender gave us a cheeky grin as he loaded the next CD. We heard "A long, long time ago, I can still remember..." and automatically the four of us began to sing in unison, "how that music used to make me smile" (Play air piano here). Then all the old German men joined in at, "Oh bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry..."

All of us, the four Americans, the bartender, the waitress and about a dozen old German men, sang together for a full eight and a half minutes. The guy next to me, who sported a huge handlebar mustache and a flannel shirt, swayed with me to the music and jammed on his own air-guitar singing all the words (though he did need a little help when we got to the "Helter Skelter in the summer swelter" part). The scene was completed by an old dude in the corner sleeping on the bar, oblivious to the waitress belting, "No angel born in hell, COULD BREAK THAT SATANS SPELL!"

As the song wound down and "I met a girl who sang the blues" the bartender prepared five shots of apple liqueur, passed them out, and toasted us as everyone lost their place in the final chorus (which is always slower than everyone expects). "This'll be the day that I DIIIIIIIEEEE."

The mission of the Fulbright is to be ambassadors of the American people, not the American government and I think as four young Americans sang, entertained (I think they were shocked we knew all the words) and bonded with a bunch of old German guys we might have rebuilt a few bridges between cultures. If we didn't do that, at least we all had a great time.

I hope you had a wonderful week and have been enjoying the fruits of American pop-culture as much as I have been on the East side of the ocean.


Deutsch Heutewort: Schnurrbart - Mustache (masculine)

Wenn Ich bin 40 (fierzig) Jahre alt, Ich werde enine Schnurrbart haben genau wie Der Schnurrbart auf dem gelassen alt Mann.

When I am 40 years old, I will have a mustache just like the mustache on that cool, old man.

P.S. Don't forget to check out the album links in the first paragraph!

1 comment:

eric said...

I thought kettle corn was originally CALLED "German corn". I thought it came from Germany. Anyhoo..that's what I heard somewhere.