Stefan Hantel, a.k.a. Shantel, started out as an electronic DJ in Frankfurt. In the 1990s, he visited his German-Jewish-Romanian parents’ home in the Bucovina region of Romania, where he was inspired by the local multi-ethnic sound. By the later part of the decade, his Bucovina Club nights were legendary: he was spinning Gypsy remixes for ecstatic crowds.
Since then, a Shantel compilation won the BBC Award for World Music (in 2006) and the DJ has remixed songs for the Borat film. He also formed his own “Orkestar”, with whom he has produced two CDs on his label Essay Recordings and struck club gold with the hit “Disco Partizani”. Shantel played a set at Lido on April 10, alongside Robert Soko.
How did you get involved with Borat?
Sacha Baron Cohen visited my Bucovina Club parties in Tel Aviv. I didn’t know him at the time, but when he was there, he smelled what was going on. So for Borat, he just licensed a couple of my productions. When the movie was up for release in Germany, the distributor asked me if I could go on a little tour to some places in Germany. And Sacha came to three shows. We did a kind of spontaneous thing: I was performing a song, I was just singing and we showed a few clips from the movie. No big deal.
Your first Bucovina parties must have been a shock to the Frankfurt crowd.
I was just able to do what I want – I only played this sound. No compromise. No drum ‘n’ bass crossover in the middle. And it immediately became a kind of fashion, in a way, among people who were not connected, cultural-wise, to the music. People who used to go to house parties or listen to hip hop or whatever. And, of course, some groups of second or third generation immigrants from ex-Yugoslavia, or Romania – they were all born in Germany, but they have a link, culture-wise, to the sound. For them, it was also a kind of event because it was the first time that they discovered that they had roots which were a big part of their identity.
You were mainstreaming Gypsy culture.
I don’t think that there is a genre called ‘Gypsy music’, but I would say that all the things that are happening in urban places, like in Paris, Berlin and Frankfurt – all these little parties with music from Eastern Europe are not representing the original sound of Romania, for example. No, no. It’s a sound that has a strong influence from – has its roots in – music from south-eastern Europe, but it’s happening on a new level: it’s something new. We have, besides Bucovina Club, Balkan Beats, Russendisko… Russendisko is more Russian music, but it’s the same attitude. It’s like romance and anarchy, together. It started here in Frankfurt. Frankfurt is the most international city in Germany: we are 30 percent immigrants, many more than in Berlin, and we have an international airport. So Frankfurt is, let’s say, Germany’s central station. And, anyway, Germany is on the border to western Europe, and eastern Europe was the first place where these parties really happened – now it’s Paris, London. I see it like this: after the Berlin Wall came down, the young generation discovered eastern Europe. Before it was always the evil Communists. But then it became a funny, sentimental, romantic thing.
Yes, right. There was a kind of stereotype, a cliché. People liked to party with it because it was something new. But the next step was pop culture and dance culture: there was so much lounge-y stuff that techno became, like, rock ‘n’ roll mainstream. Electronic music went into so many different genres that nobody really understood it anymore. ‘Okay, is this minimal house, progressive or darkstep drum’n’bass?’ And, with this eastern European thing, there was suddenly a sound that immediately brought emotion. It’s music that comes from the body. And it’s dynamic: it starts, then it goes fast, then it goes slower, then fast again. And nobody complains. And the party is alive. It’s boiling. It’s really an explosion.
Tell me a bit about the Bucovina, where your grandparents come from.
Well, I remember it from my childhood… My mother’s side are born in Czernowitz, which was the capital of Bucovina. Bucovina was a self-controlled state; it’s between Romania and the Ukraine. And this particular region was well known before the Second World War as a very cosmo-political, multi-ethnic melting pot. And Czernowitz had very strong cultural scene – theater, music, whatever. So this area created a special kind of, let’s say, shmeh. This is more of an Austrian word – it means character. It’s a type of person who contains a lot of elements, ideas, philosophies.
When did you make it down there first?
It was, like, 1995 to 96… We drove down from Kiev. It was really an adventure. Like a Borat cliché. We took little streets. I found the house of my grandparents. It was a very intense thing. But when I came back to Germany, my whole kind of feeling… I was totally shaken, you know. But I recognized immediately that you cannot rebuild this. Or you cannot, let’s say, make a sentimental story out of it. It’s finished. You have to find your own way to deal with this – or you leave it, you keep it as a memory. Very quickly, I started to do research. I had old records from my grandparents and I took a lot of mine with me when I came back. And I felt that the sound was an old sound. It wasn’t really happening anymore. That kind of music is not so popular in Romania, Ukraine or Balkan countries anymore. Maybe there are some little villages where you can find some great musicians. But it’s not like the [filmmaker Emir] Kusturica stereotype: that is a fantasy. And what I thought I would do is, well – I liked the mythos of the Bucovina as an idea, but I also wanted to be a part of the pop or rock’n’roll circus.
What was the initial response to Bucovina Club?
My DJ colleagues said, “Stefan, what are you doing? You were successful. You are making money. What are you doing with this noisy folklore?” They couldn’t understand it. In the beginning, I had to invest money from my own pocket. I started my own label. I took a complete risk. But I had to take that risk.