At first glance, classical European and Arabic music are quite different. Is it possible, nevertheless, to combine the two somehow, better yet in one band? That's what the founding members of the Berlin Oriental Group asked themselves nearly two years ago when they began to mix oriental rhythms with western harmonies. The members of the group come from Russia, Chile, Syria, Germany, Switzerland, Israel and Turkey. Berlin has brought them together. We met up with Alexey Kochetkov (Violin) and Cristián Felipe Varas Schuda (Guitar) over a beer in Potsdamer Platz.
Cafébabel: When did you start to perform as the Berlin Oriental Group?
Alexey: We first performed under the name Berlin Oriental Group in 2014. Back then I was totally new to Berlin and was living with an Arabic Israeli. We founded the group together to present this multicultural mixture to Berlin's concert audiences. We did that together for nine months until my flatmate dropped out. The Berlin Oriental Group ceased to exist at all for over a year after that, but was reunited in October 2015. It was simply in the air that we should carry on with it.
Cafébabel: What does this mix of East and West mean for you guys?
Alexey: We want to show that something good can come about when you mix these different cultures. In terms of music, we are trying to allow a combination of Arabic-oriental elements and modern western elements - rock, pop, dance, electro, for instance - to arise. That's to say sort of "Berlin – Babel – Aleppo" all in one song. However, we don't just want to play Arabic or oriental music, but rather also bring people from different cultures together in public. If people from all over the world, with all their cultural differences, can party together, then that's another route to peaceful coexistence.
Cafébabel: Why does your performance lineup change constantly?
Alexey: We are a permanent group that creates a stage for other musicians. Using different soloists we can demonstrate different styles and musical genres. Omar and Taha Sheikh Dieh from Wladallam are Syrian rappers who sing political lyrics for example. Or the singer Eden Cami: she's Druze, lived in Israel and sings Palestinian love songs in Arabic. We use the Berlin Oriental Group as a platform to promote different musicians and to show various musical aspects.
Cafébabel: Cristián, your grandfather fled to Chile from Syria in 1907. What's it like for you, now playing in a band with Syrians who have only recently fled their homeland?
Cristián: That's an interesting question to ask! I recognise a lot of Syrian character features that are still present in Chileans of Arabic descent. In general, I feel more like a Chilean or like a Latino here in Berlin, but I feel an affinity in terms of character, expression and appearance with the Arabs. I can't speak Arabic, as is the case with many of my generation in Chile. However, we retain our identity of origin - being Arabic without speaking Arabic. There was also the food, the music, the dancing, the extended family. It was something of a mystery, something which had to be investigated. I studied classical guitar which is naturally very stylised. Which is why I have always sought out other tones, such as the flamenco, in order to have a somewhat "grittier" sound. This has allowed me to dip into oriental music.
Cafébabel: Do you try to mix all the possible styles of music together, or does fusion also have limits?
Alexey: The main thing is that it has something to do with Arabic or oriental music. After all, we aren't the Berlin Group, but rather the Berlin Oriental Group. That's not to say that we don't differentiate between styles and genres though; two rappers who come from this culture have as much place with us on stage as a classical Arabic singer. If it's oriental and/or Arabic, involves Berlin, and we get on well with the people, then we'll do it.
Cristián: We simply make a good mix out of it and introduce our own particular flavour. When I'm using the electric guitar we do something more rocky, with a bit of distortion and a more modern, even jazzier note. When the acoustic guitar is being used, then I use a load of Latino beats, which match the Arabic ones beat for beat. Alexey also uses lots of other sources, from the Jazz or World Music scenes for example. It's not all defined by styles, it's also what we are, that's what we add.
Cafébabel: How does Berlin contribute, as a city?
Alexey: I think that Berlin belongs to the avant-garde of places where cultures really mix. Berlin is perhaps not the first city in the world to do it; it has already happened before in America and many other places. At the moment, however, Berlin is something very special.
Cristián: Do you remember the song "Do you love me"? We mixed that with techno and played it with Abdallah Rahhal (from the Syrian band Musiqana; AdR). That was fun! In Berlin people love to dance. I'd say Berlin is a dancing city, at least at night. Everything that falls between danceable and meditative is part of today's mentality.
Cafébabel: With Russia, Syria and Israel you bring together two large, geopolitical conflicts in your band. How do you approach that?
Alexey: I think a big problem nowadays is that politicians teach people to hate, without one group being able to get to know the others at all. If you live in Russia and the media there persecutes Syrians, you may immediately start to hate them without ever having met one. I can say the same about Israel, I can say the same about Syria. The problem isn't the people who live in these countries, but the politicians and those in power who influence the people's opinion in a specific way. What I find particularly great in Berlin is that you actually have the opportunity to meet other people, to sit together and speak with them. You understand each other on this level, so it doesn't matter where the other person comes from.
Cafébabel: If you had to name a solo artist that you really wanted to play with, who would it be?
Alexey: There are quite a lot of brilliant musicians from the Arabic world... I'm going to a Dhafer Yussuf concert soon. He sings, plays the oud [a stringed instrument from the Middle East; AdR] and is a wonderful musician.
Cristián: If I could ask older musicians, then obviously Um Kulthum, Sabah Fakhri or Farid Latrache!
Alexey: Creating a duet between a German and an Arabic artist - that would be a great project.