Shantel about party music as a political phenomenon, South East Europe’s contribution to the EU and his roots in Cernăuți

Stefan Shantel, a German musician with Bukovina Jewish and Greek roots, became famous in Romania due to the two very successful sets he performed at Balkanik 2014 and 2015. He is something close to a global underground celebrity – whatever that may mean – due to ‘Disko Partizani’, a hit he launched in 2007, combining electro with Balkan music. In September this year, he released ‘Viva Diaspora’, an album more related to his Greek roots, conceived as a road movie, ‘cinema for the ears’, in Athens, with contributions from renowned local musicians such as Areth Ketime or Imam Baildi.

I’ve interviewed Shantel by telephone, prior to his September 13 performance at Balkanik, for ‘Șapte seri’ – the Romanian version was already published. Here’s the first part of the conversation as it took place originally, in English.

You are probably the most seminal artist for the Balkan music trend which originated in Frankfurt several years ago and is a mix of Balkan, DJ-electro stuff and other influences. Can you tell us a little bit about how it all started?

Listen, first of all I would like to clarify a little bit this misunderstanding. I never considered myself a spokesman or representative of Balkan music. That was never the idea. Totally not. Second, I started somehow my work because I’m an artist from continental Europe and I am born and raised in Germany, but I come from a very cosmopolitical family. My mother’s family was Romanian Jewish and my father’s family is half Greek, half German. The main idea, when I started putting out my albums in the late nineties, early 2000’s, was that I wanted to create let’s say a kind of hybrid music cross-over between roots music from continental Europe and, of course, the initial idea is to create a pluralistic, cosmopolitical sound cross-over, which, of course, has a strong direction to the South-Eastern part of Europe. As a matter of fact, I’ve grown up with this kind of music like the music that my grandparents were playing to me. You know, when I was a child, going with my grandfather to Greece, to listen to those kinds of music… I had this idea after let’s say ’91, after the big events that somehow created a new cultural idea of continental Europe, when the so-called communist era was finished. It was a signal, to the rest of Europe, to the Western and North-Western part, to create a new unique style. So that was the main idea. OK, as a matter of fact, I’ve used very pretentious sound files, Byzantine melodies, more like the Eastern style. For me, it’s a very natural thing. I’ve grown up with this and I was about to attack the pop-techno culture, the Anglo-American rock stars. It was time for a change, Europe is different. That’s how I started and this is still my main intention, I would say.

You’ve destroyed our preconceptions in Romania, which is good. May I say this kind of approach is more or less political? How does this relate to party music – because there is some kind of party element in what you do?

The truth is, as a musician it’s always very easy to turn yourself into this kind of political spokesperson. I think I’m basically very aware of politics, but I don’t want to be very political. I’m an internationally touring and performing artist and my band is very mixed, like – we have musicians from Serbia, we have musicians from Turkey, we have a guy from Paris, a guy coming from Berlin, we have a good guitar player coming from Greece, etcetera, etcetera. We are always confronted with political issues while traveling, like we have to take care of all the visa stuff upfront, we spend a lot of time to have all the papers done. We can’t really tour United States for example, because it’s so hard for us to get all these visas and work permit bullshit and so on. This year, we were touring United Kingdom and they gave us a really hard time – and I’m talking about Europe, about the European Union! And I see countries like United Kingdom changing everything upside down, while the main idea was creating this political and economical union.

So, of course I have a very strong political point and approach, because I’m getting confronted by this everyday. But coming back to your question, I’ve never worked with major record companies, I never wanted to be a major, mainstream musician, this major record company thing, which I think is completely dead, is killing creativity. I started my musical career organizing illegal parties in Berlin and Frankfurt. The party phenomenon – and I’m not talking about the techno bullshit or something like that, I was never a techno fanatic – the freestyle subcultural party movement was and still is the most democratic way to put your work, your music, your sound into the market, without any kind of marketing campaign, without investing here or there, and doing this or that. Of course, club culture, dance floor, electronic music, party things were for me the strongest independent way to put my stuff into the scene without compromising. It was not about ‘oh, happy-clappy party, let’s drink another bottle of vodka, let’s get stoned, la, la, la’. These channels still operate without any kind of manipulation. So if you are into the party thing and into the movement and you have those audiences, and we did this a lot, you put the track and it works or it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work, you have to work out something else. So I found it a very democratic and a very practical way to communicate art.

THE MAINSTREAM MUSIC BULLSHIT

Still, what is bad, or dead, or bullshit about the mainstream labels and marketing?

I would say – and don’t get me wrong here – the music business, as it was, does not work anymore. There are many reasons. We have the Internet, and mp3’s, and stuff like that, so the value of the music went dramatically down, because people just download music. I’m not judging. I was always copying music and I was always into this sampling, and searching, and whatever thing. You cannot put everything on hold. I’m an independent artist, I have my own record company, my own publishing company and I do my own booking for live shows. We do everything by ourselves, we have our little work community. There are no complaints, the system works. We work very hard and we play more than 250 live shows every years, we tour internationally, and sometimes we are suffering. But, basically, we have a very solid state of putting everything on one table and it’s okay. We’re getting around and I think I’m part of a very healthy system. I mean, the mainstream industry works completely different. If they put an artist out and it’s not successful, the artist is banned out. They gave them four weeks, or two months, or three months, and if it’s not happening, you are dead and you are out of the market, out of business, you don’t even have space on iTunes. Luckily, we are not part of this, because we just do what we want, and for us it’s cool, it’s healthy. This is what it is all about, to find a healthy situation to get your creativity out to the world.

So in addition to practical reasons, staying out of the mainstream music business is related to artistic freedom.

The issue is, if you want to work on your own idea – and no artist is just inventing the state of the art -, it’s about experimenting, it’s about trying new things, new directions. So it’s very healthy to have the chance to improve your skills. As a young artist, you don’t really have the chance to experiment, to find out what your direction is. Music has changed totally. These days, it’s a very conceptual form of art, more linked to television, talent shows, all that bullshit. It’s a pre-formatted way of performing and showing your specialties, but it’s very correct, very skeptical, very conceptual and there is no space for experiment and for cross-over.

More or less like a circus act.

They are not telling something about our daily lives, about our cultural diversities, it’s just repeating a formula of success, whatever that means. And this is is something which is killing creativity, I think.

There is a trend in Romania, I suppose you are aware of it. Manele – they call it turbo-folk in Serbia, chalga in Bulgaria –, which are a mix of Balkan, Roma and party music. In which way does this relate to what you do?

Ha ha ha. Well, I have a very practical approach to it. I don’t really judge all those styles and phenomena. I know in South-East Europe you have all this kind of easy-cheesy ‘le-le-le’ stuff. I must say there are songs which are really great, which I really love. You always find something which is like: ‘Wow! This is something, this has a certain sexiness, a melody, whatever.’ And I’m going with this, I say: ‘No problem, why not?’ Of course, there’s also a lot of crap, but is part of the deal. So 98 per cent maybe sucks but 2 per cent is brilliant – so I go for the 2 per cent and I’m enjoying this. Besides of that, I don’t have a moralistic or political point of view on this, if it’s good or bad. I don’t care, I don’t judge, I don’t comment. It’s great that it’s happening. And you know, it’s something pure, and you know, every week you have 10 new songs in the pipeline, which is funny.

I must tell you about another phenomenon. Many of the songs I’ve released over the years went to a kind of, like pirate remix. There is always a pirate Shantel remix version of some chalga guys from Bulgaria or manele guys in Romania, or the Turkish kind of easy-cheesy stuff. You will find a lot of Shantel samples in this crazy genre, putting some additional vocals… for me it’s funny. It’s really funny. I say – wow, it’s like an import-export culture. I love it.

SHANTEL’S ROOTS. HOW HIS JEWISH GRANDPARENTS RUN FROM CZERNOWITZ TO ROMANIA DURING WWII

To get back a little bit to your origins, your Jewish Bukovina part and your Greek part. Was it a musical family? Because I understand you’ve listened to a lot of things via your parents or grand-parents.

I came from a family with a strong migration background and my mother’s family had a strong refugee background. In my family, music was something which was also a technique to keep the cultural identity still alive. So music was a big issue always in my family. My grandparents weren’t musicians, but they loved music, they were singing the songs, they were playing the songs, I still have a huge collection of old vinyls from my grandmother. My father used to be a drummer in the sixties, but with a totally different sound. I would say the general acceptance of music in my family was great. There was a fountain of music and helped me a lot.

Tell me a little bit about the refugee background – what happened to your mother’s family.

The thing is, they came from Cernăuți, which used to be the Austrian-Hungarian Czernowitz, a very unique, cosmopolitical place. There was a strong Jewish community, and Muslim and Christian communities, people from Armenia, Poland, Russia, Ukrainians, Austrians, etcetera. As all the bullshit started in the Second World War, they managed to survive the War. At a certain point, when the Nazi invasion was hitting the spot, they managed to flee to Romania, to the South, so they were very lucky to survive the German occupation. Romania was – or still is – a very corrupted country, but for them, this was a chance. They managed to stay there as a hidden family, not getting deported to a concentration camp or whatever, like they were black paying some guys in the neighborhood like to be like hidden. That’s the positive side effect of corruption. I think without corruption they would have gone to a concentration camp immediately. Then, when the war was over, they had this idea to go to the United States. They’d had enough of Europe. So they left the country, they went first to Austria I think, and from Austria, they tried to reach the American zone of Germany, they already had three little kids. I’m talking about, like, 1947 or 1946, after the War. And they went in those camps like for displaced persons, with all the Holocaust survivors and refugees from all over Europe. And somehow they got stuck in Germany. They were told that if you want to go to the United States you have to wait for seven years for a visa, so they settled in Germany. I think the sister of my grandmother went to United States, but she had no children, my grandparents stayed in Germany. They never really got old in Germany, they died very soon and all these stories about Cernăuți and Bucovina were a strong issue in my family, even my mother talked a lot about these things. You know – mixed cultural place, and how it worked, and how they took benefit from each other, and so on. I basically believe a lot in this pluralistic idea of having different cultures in one place. For me, this discussion is still very actual. It’s still happening, it’s a very important issue today, when we have this big problem with the refugees entering the European Union and there is a big political discussion about it. People are afraid of this – I’m shocked about how Hungary reacted. I’m so shocked and I’m so pissed about the politics in Hungary, the border block they are trying to build right now, the speech of the president, there is a kind of attitude which is so dangerous in Europe. The idea is to get all the cultures together and having them benefit from each other. It’s really frightening, what is happening right now. What can I say? There is the past, and if you reflect on the future, we are still facing the same problems, the same dynamics.

Can you please tell me the name of your grandparents?

Their family name was Horowitz, and I think they’ve changed it to something like Budnîi to make it sound more Romanian – as far as I remember it’s a Moldova or Bucovina name.

Pretending to be some kind of Ukraininan or Russian ethnics in Romania, probably.

Yeah.

Have you been to Czernowitz lately?

Yes, of course. I have a very mixed opinion about it all. When I first traveled there was after ’91, and now it’s part of Ukraine. First of all, Cernăuți, Czernowitz is a beautiful city, with a beautiful landscape and some historic parts. So you get immediately the idea of some really beautiful, special, magic things happening there. I was touched by this. And when I started talking to people, about the culture and everything, I immediately became aware of this new Ukrainian nationalism, which was everywhere, like flags, and Ukraine-Ukraine-Ukraine. Whenever I was asking about the history of that part of Bukovina, everything was about Ukraine. Ukraine-Ukraine-Ukraine. For me, it’s very tricky to deal with this. I remember those parts of Europe used to be always mixed. There were a lot of different minorities. When you are in Czernowitz, you take a car and drive like 10 kilometers outside the city, you see the beautiful countryside and then enter little villages, and these villages are only Romanians. They have Ukrainian passports, but it’s like Romania 100 years ago. It’s so interesting. It’s like an enclave.

Franz Xavier Knapp: Catedrala ortodoxă din Cernăuți, 1867
Franz Xavier Knapp: The Orthodox Cathedral in Cernăuți, 1867

Some of them define themselves as ‘Moldovans’, not as ‘Romanians’.

But it’s all Romanian, with everything – the music and the traditions. They’re very interesting. But coming back to Czernowitz, I think, with the Second World War and the Stalinist period after, the culture, or everything Czernowitz was popular for is not existing anymore. All this has vanished away. And nobody is really interested to bring it somehow back on the map, or even bring the idea of it back. These days, we have this very big issue going on with Ukraine and Russia, so we’re even more focused on the Ukrainian point of view. What can I say? It’s not a time for cultural minorities and cultural diversity.

Shantel’s portrait by Matthias Hombauer.
To be continued.

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