Interview: I WAY TO ÄL - Äl Jawala
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Germany’s premier Balkan-jazz-funk-afrobeat-dub-reggae-Arabic-klezmer-folk-electro band Äl Jawala are not known for being easily categorised. Their esoteric back catalogue makes them a curious case, so we decided to sit down with percussionist Markus Schumacher and saxophonist Steffi Schimmer to find out what Äl Jawala are really about.
“As the music travels from ear to ear, from country to country, from culture to culture, it grows it doesn’t lose anything.” – Markus Schumacher
2022 has proved to be a busy year so far for German outfit Äl Jawala. They are marking two decades since the release of their first album, Urbanâtya, with the release of a documentary film about the band, as well as releasing an anniversary album named I Way To Äl. In March they had their first screening in the picturesque town of Freiburg in south-west Germany, from where the band themselves hail. Nestled in the foothills of the Black Forest, the band had many fans, family, and friends joining them for the screening, both in person and virtually, which percussionist Markus Schumacher stated was “very, very special for us”. The film itself was initially pitched to the band by cameraman and festival videographer Erhard Oslage, who, the band told us, wanted to make it a much larger project than it ended up becoming. The film uses lots of archive footage the band had recorded that had never made the final cut for music videos or promotional material, and was therefore dismissed as being extraneous. However, as the years went by, the value of the footage blossomed in their eyes, and it formed the backbone of this celebratory film. Oslage was unable to realise his wider vision of a longer Äl Jawala film, and instead director Aljoscha Hofmann took over, completing the project in its current form.
This month saw the release of their anniversary album, which, in a similar fashion to the film, tracks the band’s journey and musical evolution over the years. The album is a melange of new songs, previously unreleased versions of older tunes, and remastered tracks, that follows a timeline of each stage of the band’s musical development. The 17-track album most notably adds two new songs to their repertoire, both of which show the band’s continued creative collaboration that remains fruitful even to the current day, despite the pandemic impeding their main musical focus – live performance. Despaircito and Sautez, in classic Äl Jawala fashion are guaranteed dancefloor fillers, both with an irresistible beat, and Sautez in particular fulfils its mission to get people jumping. It also shows their international tastes, as the former displays their ongoing love affair with the music of the Balkans, whereas the latter takes inspiration from afrobeats, dub, and jazz, even going so far as to sing in French.
The turn of the millennium symbolised a wide-eyed new dawn, filled to the brim with hope and optimism for a better world, free of the anxieties and tensions that dominated the 20th Century. It was in these times that Äl Jawala was formed. Atop a breezy hillside on a summer night, gathered around bonfire at a “hippy, freaky, outdoor hangout”, armed with instruments and enthusiasm, the band’s constituent members met each other as a group for the first time. It was at this point, and before the release of Urbanâtya in 2002 that the group got to learn about themselves and each other musically. The band’s saxophonist, Steffi Schimmer, did not start playing her instrument at a very young age. “I am a very coincidental saxophone player”, she told us, as her background was not focussed on music at all, instead singing and playing the guitar and piano just for pleasure. It was only at age 20 when she first picked up a sax, teaching herself how to play. It was a natural fit, stating that “it worked out so well. I found my instrument”. Schimmer honed her craft when she left her native Germany for the French Riviera, where she would busk every day in the glamourous Côte d'Azur with her boyfriend at the time. She exclaimed, “we did a lot of street music busking where the rich British are with their yachts in Antibes… you could make a shitload of money back in the days!” It was upon her return to Germany when she attended that fateful fireplace gathering. Schimmer told us that forming the band inspired her to “go through jazz studies.” It was there that she encountered a primal connection to her instrument of choice. “To have a connection with your own breath and operating an instrument creating sound through your own air was, is still, a very stunning thing for me.”
Schumacher also told us of his own musical development before he joined the band. As a young boy he learned the piano, and as his teacher was also an organist, he even performed music in churches. He then took one of many left-field choices in his career, as at the age of 14 he began performing in a thrash metal band. It was here that Schimmer piped up to tell us that he performed, not as a drummer or a pianist, but as a growling metal singer. Bemused, we asked Schumacher what prompted the change from angelic performances in religious settings to seemingly unholy thrash metal snarling. “I think puberty!” he wisecracked.
The pair’s musical evolution, though differing in their origins and distinct in their development, had one key point of convergence: their mutual adoration and appreciation for world music, and Balkan music in particular. Schimmer’s taste in music looked further afield than the typical Anglosphere pop that dominated the radio waves, as she always had a penchant for Jamaican music, going back to when she was a teenager and heard Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Babylon by Bus for the first time, which then expanded into a wider passion for dancehall.
According to Schumacher, “there was no world music scene in Freiburg” at the time, but he notes that “the World Music Network series released a lot of stuff in this time and we sucked it all up!” He says it was this, alongside listening to monsters of rock like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, that inspired him to pick up the djembe. He also noted that for Germans, “the whole music scene is so different because most of the world hits we hear, they are in English, and it’s not our mother tongue, so for us as children, most of the songs are just about fantasy, what is it about?” Schimmer concurred, adding that the soundtracks to Emir Kusturica films also opened their eyes to Balkan music, as well as taking advantage of what was available in the local library. She joked that Schumacher was a “flat-rate customer” there. “Every week he’d stock his bag full of new CDs, listen through them, copy them, maybe, and bring them back.”
Though their compatriots Daniel ‘Pelle’ Pellegrini and Krischan Lukanow could not join us for the interview, Schimmer and Schumacher were able to give us a brief summary of their musical credentials. Pellegrini is noted for his didgeridoo skills, as well as his abilities on the drums and keyboards, while Lukanow plays alto and tenor saxophone. It was Schimmer who told us that Pellegrini’s parents were classical musicians, and as such he had a “typical musician’s childhood, which he hated”. While his siblings became noted musicians in their fields, one being a cellist and the other a singer, Pellegrini rebelled against the classical orthodoxy within his family, he picked up the didgeridoo and never looked back. Bored by typical ways of playing instruments, according to Schimmer he aimed to use the didgeridoo “as a rhythm instrument,” going against the popular mid-90s Goa trance sound that the majority of didgeridoo players were emulating. “He always has to go grooving on a didgeridoo,” Schimmer grinned. Pellegrini’s role in the band is somewhat similar to Schumacher’s, as both percussionists have a passion for production.
Lukanow’s upbringing was starkly different from the regimented lifestyle of the classical child prodigy Pellegrini. Schimmer informed us that by age 11 he was already a wild child, having been expelled from several schools. In a rather picaresque turn of events, he was taken under the wing of a local jazz saxophonist named Werner Englert, who was renowned in the community named. A friend of Lukanow’s father, Englert was encouraged to help the young boy find some purpose in his life and to, in Schimmer’s words, “get this boy off the street otherwise he [will] do a serious bullshit in [his] early years”. Schumacher told us that during this period, Lukanow managed to develop his musical skills to such an extent that “he took over the music school of this teacher that taught him.” Then, Schumacher proudly announced, “now he is the teacher!” Schimmer speaks similarly highly of Lukanow’s talents, proclaiming him to be a “full-on genius [with a] very super music brain”.
Each of the band members has a distinct past that led them to where they are today. As such, the sound of the band is eclectic, borrowing magpie-like from genres all over the world. The band themselves acknowledge this, and Schumacher even said in a down-playing fashion that their earlier years were full of “shameless copying”. Their proclivity towards interweaving music styles from across the world has also had the seemingly undesirable effect of making the band hard to market. Schimmer and Schumacher readily accepted this, and pointed to several moments in their career where it was an apparent hindrance. Schumacher was quick to point out that “it is easier to promote a band like AC/DC where it is clear this is heavy metal or rock”, and that for them, it was not easy because even during the period where Balkan music was quite popular, specifically “in 2005 – 2013 with lots of partying and stuff”, they were always the odd ones out. “Maybe [we were] too much Arabic, too much reggae, too much electronic or maybe too eclectic overall.”
Schimmer further elaborated that in this digital age where the algorithm dominates our lives, while it has opened up their work to many who perhaps would not have found their music otherwise, it still poses challenge when trying to get included in suitable Spotify playlists. “If you go with the latest, Sautez, musically speaking the rhythm is afrobeat, but if you put that in an afrobeat playlist, any typical afrobeat listener who wants that mellow… well, nice, easy mixed sound will definitely not be content,” the saxophonist opined. “So, it is still a big problem to find the suitable drawer where you can put Äl Jawala as a whole, maybe individually on songs you can say ‘that’s more Balkan, that’s more roots, that’s more didgeridoo feature’, but [it’s] not easy.” However, Schimmer does not believe that overall, these marketing issues to get them booked or on playlists were due to “the style mix”, but rather due to the fact that she believes Äl Jawala to be “a 2000% live band”. She elucidated that “the major problem is that through the years we never managed to transport what the actual Äl Jawala energy is through what we manage to release as an audio file, not the style variety itself.” Whatever the case may be, it is certainly true that due to their uncategorisable sound they have won a dedicated fanbase, and it is arguably what draws many people into exploring their work. Conforming to the norm, as Schumacher put it, “wouldn’t be a reason to change anyway, this is where we are after 22 years.”
As their sound has changed over the years, so has their outlook on music. Or has it? Schimmer and Schumacher were vague on this topic, with Schimmer cryptically stating that “it changed a lot and it didn’t change at all,” before continuing that “I think [for] all four of us, nobody feels like playing music we don’t really feel; a song will never come to a point even if just three of us love it”. As such, the guiding philosophy of the band where the live feel of a song trumps all remains a constant. She did however concede that due to the departure of bandmember Daniel Verdier, who played the six-string bass, their attitude to music has naturally shifted without his passion for things like “weird chord arpeggio structures.”
This bleeds into their view on how they make their music. Schumacher told us that when they started, they did a lot of cover songs, which helped them find their feet. Soon after, they began the potentially daunting prospect of writing original songs. Schimmer stated that only on particular occasions did they feel that “certain magic”, knowing that a song they were formulating privately was going to be a hit. However, most songs they write go through a so-called “ripening process” that requires the feedback of an audience in a form of “public mirroring.” Schumacher concurred, and added that, for the band, “jamming together and letting the ideas flow” was the best way for them to make music, even in private. He told us of their friend who owns a hotel by the soaring peak of Feldberg who often allows the band to come to the hotel during the off-season to come and practice away from the hubbub of urban life, which the band find to be a helpful occurrence.
Freedom is a word that comes up often when speaking about Äl Jawala. One of the overriding concepts that permeates their process is that very loose and receptive manner in which they work, rejecting structures and tried-and-tested methods of working. We wondered if this impacted their view on their own identity as Germans. Whilst the land of Kraftwerk and Hans Zimmer is their birthplace, a sense of global citizenship is felt too. Schumacher joked that he considers himself an “earthling”, while Schimmer laughed that “the whole planet is mine, don’t you know?” She sagely continued that “I think your happiness don’t result from the place you stay… it’s something from within and basically carry it with you.” This theme is even reflected in their band name. When the band became more consolidated, they approached a friend who is partially of Egyptian origin, to give them an Arabic name meaning people on the move. He told them of the phrase ‘Äl Muta Djaualiin’, meaning the travellers. The band enthusiastically lapped it up, before realising the name was hard for the average European to spell or remember. As such, they shortened it to Äl Jawala.
This openness is something that many modern Germans pride themselves on. After the fall of the Third Reich, Germany was forced to have a reckoning of sorts. In the last two decades or so, Germany has been at the forefront of accepting refugees, particularly from Syria and now Ukraine, and has generally pursued policies of openness and tolerance. However, to homogenise Germany as one thing is a dangerous game to play, as like every nation, its people hold differing opinions on all manner of topics, from politics, to culture and social issues. Whilst images of Germans welcoming asylum seekers with open arms and helping them integrate into society may often be what we hear about outside of Germany, it is undeniable that in many regions this is far from true, most notably in Saxony, where there is particularly vocal anti-immigrant and racist sentiment. With this in mind, we wondered whether the band would lock heads with the denizens of such places due to both their Arabic name and embrace of non-Germanic culture.
“We have seriously dark spots in this country, and this includes the whole of the countryside… when you come to the villages, you see the level of xenophobia and just conservative narrowmindedness rising,” Schimmer told us, referencing the region of Thüringen. She recalls conversations with concert organisers from this part of the country where they would tell the band that there are “two problems, and they are called crystal meth and Nazis. And it’s a reality, and when you live in Freiburg you cannot even get the idea, but once you walk the streets and you see like groups of skinheads able to stop and sign [the heil], it can feel very different being in Germany.” However, when it comes to the band themselves performing in these areas, according to Schumacher the band have rarely faced any trouble. “I think especially for club shows, people choose to go there because they like to hear this style of music. Of course, we played before at big city places and there happened to pass people who didn’t like the music at all, and also maybe because they were Nazi-minded or something like this in the East… they started to yell at us, but it happened once in 20 years.”
Their good reception in Germany has been buoyed by the wild reactions of crowds they rocked in the Balkan region. Their only outing to the true heartlands of the Balkans was the Sea and Memories festival in Bulgaria, where the band incongruously accompanied many folkloric groups, but they have played to rapturous crowds in the outer fringes of the Balkans such as Istanbul, Moldova, and Romania. Though Schimmer joked that “if you tell a Romanian that he is from the Balkans, he will tell you that you are mad,” the truth of the matter is that the music from which they are inspired can be found from the shores of the Dardanelles all the way to the heights of the Carpathian Mountains. Äl Jawala have a habit of being invited onto bills where they don’t seem to fit, with their first invitation to Romania at Stufstock Festival being something of a surprise due to its reputation for rock and heavy metal. Though they were the only non-Romanian band, as well as the only band playing Balkan-style music, the response from the crowds was “mind-blowing”, according to Schimmer. “We were going there so anxious, like ‘we Germans, we come and we send you the reimport of your own culture’. But the reactions were amazing because nobody is doing it, and the wonderful fact of culture clash [is] that sometimes you need to see things from outside. You have to change your perspective to see something through somebody else’s eyes [so] you can see yourself differently again.” Schumacher quipped, “one guy, he described the music as ‘Germany quality, Balkan Soul’ after he listened to a concert.”
Though they have generally been received warmly, we would have been remiss not to ask the band about one of the hot-button topics of the modern day – cultural appropriation. As the band is not of Balkan heritage at all, had they been at the sharp end of any accusations of appropriating a culture that was not theirs? Schumacher was pensive on the topic, noting that it was only last year when he saw a documentary on cultural appropriation that it hit him that “what [the band] did in our early years” could have been deemed cultural appropriation. Yet, after further reflection, Schumacher has come to the conclusion that while it could be construed this way, the heart of the band is in the right place. Furthermore, the intangibility of music meant it could be a source of inspiration to anyone, and therefore does not belong to just one group of people. “As the music travels from ear to ear, from country to country, from culture to culture, it grows it doesn’t lose anything. I think if you have a crown of a King from Africa in a German museum, it is gone [from] where it belongs to, but the music it grows,” Schumacher stated.
For us, we have met the debate and dilemma surrounding cultural appropriation numerous times regarding an array of artists. When we first listened to Äl Jawala, knowing nothing about the people and only having the knowledge that they were from Germany, there were moments in which we perhaps felt curious to quash any suspicions that the band were on a mission to rob the world of its various music cultures for their own gain. Fortunately, upon speak to Schumacher and Schimmer, it became abundantly clear that, for them, playing music is something far deeper and spiritual, or instinctive, depending on one’s point of view. “You can put performance and showing yourself in the first line of what you do, or you understand yourself more,” said Schimmer. “When I feel I am on stage playing with them, it’s like I lose myself. I am not important anymore and I just feel like something going through me which is bigger than I could ever be by myself individually.” Schumacher echoes Schimmer’s sentiments, stating that their music is not an act that can be overly-intellectualised, but is rather based on impulse. Schimmer then summed up what Äl Jawala do perfectly: “If you can, as a live band, create a common energy that hits other people truly inside themselves, touches them on different emotional levels, then this is the essence of a spiritual thing happening.”