“An undiscovered revolution” is how Berlin’s pioneer of the Balkan Wave, the Bulgarian musician/filmmaker Ivana Stancheva, describes herself.
Her films document Balkan musicians in Berlin, life in Bulgaria and the precarious existence of Gypsies in Balkan mahalas or ghettos. Before there was even a single Balkan party in this town, she was already spreading her “volkswellness” and “bioklänge” (words she has coined to describe her songs) across Berlin.
Ivana is the last of Berlin’s diehard communists. Born in Bulgaria, she moved to GRD-era Leipzig in the mid 1980s to study genetics and then became involved in East Germany’s government-sponsored take on multikulti life. Now, she devotes herself to cinema and music, activities she sees as an antidote to “Coca-Cola capitalism”. Her film Jerevna is being screened on May 15 at Malena Bar, with live music by Ivana herself.
What was life in the GDR like?
It wasn’t perfect in socialist times. But it was good to have another system of values. Back then, you didn’t have to worry about money and daily survival – no. You didn’t have to freeze and go hungry like now, or worry about finding a roof or something to eat. That was the foundation that every person had.
While a student in the GDR, you became a member of something called the Ensemble Solidarität. What was it?
The ensemble, which had its headquarters in Leipzig, consisted of 250 artists, singers and performers from over 30 countries. There were Vietnamese, Indonesians, Angolans and Tanzanians, Chileans, Nicaraguans, East Europeans, Palestinians. They put on concerts in public places, dressed in the costumes of their respective countries. There were Vietnamese dances, African rumbas, Bulgarian kolos. Together, we sang Berthold Brecht’s “Die Gedanken sind frei”, “Guantanamera” and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, the hymn of South Africa. And at the end of the concert, we sang our anthem, “Das Solidaritätslied”: “Vorwärts und nicht vergessen, worin unsere Stärke besteht” - “onwards and never forget the source of our strength”.
It wasn’t multikulti as it’s understood today - exotic banana or what have you. It was really the first multikulti in the world.
Today it is commonly held that in the GDR, the public was forced to attend cultural events.
That is not true. You could see that people enjoyed themselves. They enjoyedthe show. As a member of the Ensemble Solidarität, you studied German at the Herder Institute [the GDR’s language institute for foreigners] and lived in an international dormitory. For organizing its cultural activities, I got DM 800. I went straight to my friends and took them to an exclusive shop – in the GDR, you had these special shops where you could buy hard-to-get items. We had liver, caviar! I spent all the money on eating and drinking. I also bought nice shoes.
What did you love so much about the GDR?
The GDR was my Heimat! Really. Everything that I know about Germany is thanks to the GDR. They taught me about German history. I learned “Die Gedanken sind frei” - Brecht. I even know Neruda from these people.
How did you experience the Wende?
The African trumpet player Welcome and I went to play at the Brandenburg Gate. We had a gig. I didn’t even want to go there - I was so sad. He was sad, too. For us, this reunification was not welcome. We knew what was coming afterwards.
What came afterwards?
They destroyed everything in our dormitory. Everything we had there! We had it so good. Every student could go down and rehearse in a sound studio with sound insulation. Every room had insulation and a piano. Heating. Everything: €10 a month, sheets. Do you understand? It was made for the people. When “Coca-Cola” [western capitalism] came, they threw everything out the windows. Wardrobes, everything. Then they made small apartments and pushed up the rent to €300. Now everyone watches television, alone. That’s your duty, instead of being with the community.
After the fall of the Wall, East Germany was swept by a wave of xenophobic violence: asylum homes were burned in Rostock and neo-Nazis went on the march. Was the GDR really the multikulti paradise you’ve just described?
This xenophobia was only to divert attention. It was instrumentalized by the media – to divert people from their real problems. And the real problems are unemployment, lack of direction. Brandenburg – the whole of the former East Germany – is full of unemployed people. The youth are left on the street, with no future. When you go to areas where the people are poor and hungry, then it doesn’t matter. Ausländer-mausländer. And you must not forget that this rightwing movement is supported by rightwing parties whose bases are in the west. The NPD doesn’t come from the east. All the support comes from Wessieland.
Xenophobia is nonetheless a big problem in the neue Bundesländer, especially against gypsies…That’s something you got involved with.
When the Gypsy asylum seekers’ homes started to burn and the people went on hunger strike in the early 1990s, people like us were necessary, not only because of our knowledge of two languages, but because of our familiarity with the mentality of the two peoples. Gypsies came here in masses. And the Germans had a lot of problems dealing with them. It was a big mess. So I went around Brandenburg meeting pupils, teachers, school directors and directors of police schools. I organized workshops, was made head of a project called “Ausländer Machen Schule” and went with them to various schools to perform songs and dances. It was also in order to bring the Germans closer to their own culture.
What do you mean?
Many Germans hate themselves. You can forget about getting them to sing a German song because they have problems with their identity.
Were you successful?
My apartment was like a cemetery, flooded with flowers and nice messages: “Dear Ivana, we’ll never forget your songs.” I was in schools everywhere. I was involved in humanitarian projects. I collected DM 400,000. And I put on 30 concerts. The money I made – it was DM 30,000 – I brought it to Bulgaria: I gave DM 2000 to Gypsy schools, DM 1000 to the Union of Invalids, another thousand to dancers at the Kulturhaus for costumes, DM 850 to the orphans, money to the hospitals, and on and on. But that was a mistake, because I’m not Jane Fonda.
JEREVNA (with live music by Ivana Stancheva), May 15, 21:00 | Malena Bar, Reuterstr. 85, Neukölln, U-Bhf Rathaus Neukölln, Tel 01520 2822 316
Ivana Stancheva’s website: www.waldstudio.de