In 2001 Ulf Lindemann, who goes by the nom de plume of Dunkelbunt, moved from Hamburg to Vienna. That was his first journey eastward – his first Morgenlandfahrt, as it were. Over the course of the next twenty years he would make countless musical and physical journeys east. The Orient would become his modus operandi.
I first got to know Ulf in 2007, in Berlin, where he was guest DJ-ing at Robert Soko’s Balkan Beats party, back when Soko was putting on his Balkan show twice a month in a grotty coal cellar in east Berlin with the doors to the toilet hanging off their hinges and damp dripping from the ceiling.
Soko had visions of creating a Balkan DJ collective with people like Ulf on board. At that time Ulf was making a name for himself as an up-and-coming Balkan DJ. He claimed to have been turned on to the Balkans in Vienna, where one day he was listening to the radio when a brass number belonging to Serbian trumpet maestro Boban Marković came on the air. Ulf was totally blown away and demanded to know who was this crazy Mexican mariachi band (sic).
Inspired by the music of the Balkans, which was then filtering through Vienna’s diasporic communities Ulf got on his bike, packed with tent, sleeping bag and recording devices and embarked on what he describes as his “Morgenlandfahrt” – a journey to the East, from Vienna through the Balkans to Istanbul, making sound recordings along the way, which he then worked into his first Orient-inspired album, “Morgenlandfahrt” published in 2007.
The trip was above all musical. He recorded Balkan sounds – the tinkling of sheep bells, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the cry of fishmongers in Istanbul’s fish bazaar – with Balkan tracks from Amsterdam Klezmer Band, to Boban Marković and Baba Zula.
All together, since arriving in Vienna, Ulf has brought out nine albums, either remixes of known Balkan, klezmer or swing music, or his own compositions inspired by these genres and performed with a loose and eclectic collection of Viennese musicians he periodically takes with on tour.
My personal favorite of Ulf’s protégés, is a Kenyan rapper by the name of Cloud Tissa, whose vocal prowess is demonstrated in a handful of Dunkelbunt’s tracks, most notably in Kebab Connection, where Cloud Tissa raps wittily and in heavily accented English to a klezmer-reggae beat.
Cloud Tissa also makes an appearance in Ulf’s latest project Vienna Tapes, in an auto-tuned track called Mia Kwa Mia.
Having toured all over the world, Ulf, who is now 40 and has three children, has became more settled in his ways.
Rather than travel to the four corners of the globe, as he did earlier, either on journeys of inspiration, or on tour, Ulf has stayed at home in Vienna for Vienna Tapes, assembling a wide variety of local talent to record a highly eclectic batch of songs that take off in diverse directions be it Middle Eastern, African, or even Chinese.
“Things are cooking here,” say Ulf. “And I’m concentrating on what is happening here in Vienna, not living out of a suitcase somewhere. It just feels right. I feel it in my stomach and I feel it in my heart. I’ve become more grounded. To see the people with whom I make music. Not to send emails to people and send music through data files. No, we play music, and look at each other in the eyes. This at a time where everything is done with technology over long distances, and therefore has more of a value.”
After years of seeking his inspiration abroad – in the Balkans, Turkey, America, Israel and the Far East, Ulf has now turned his attention to Vienna, which he says is currently undergoing an interesting phase as the city shakes off it’s dusty mantel of faded Austro-Hungarian glory and embraces a multi-cultural future.
Instead of wallowing in its past, Vienna today, according to Ulf, is reaping the benefit of new immigrant arrivals, creating interesting musical constellations and parallel societies in the city, making Vienna the only German-speaking city that can really vie with Berlin in terms of multicultural flair.
Vienna has always been famous for its special cultural and ethnic “mélange”, blending German with East European and Jewish influences. After the Second World War, beginning in the fifties and sixties, when “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) from the Balkans and Turkey arrived in Vienna, the city seemed again poised to became a place of exchange where East meets West. And Ulf is currently plays a leading role in the Balkanization and Orientalization of Vienna, tapping into the eastern soul of the city.
Altogether I have met and interviewed Ulf four times, in Vienna and Berlin. I found his excitement for new music infectious. In our first meeting, he spoke enthusiastically about the East-West bridge-building capacity of Balkan music. Later he would disassociate himself from this musical direction, as it seemed to have become stale, hackneyed, exhausted.
Ulf had also played around with electro swing, and his best selling single to date is an infectious swing number called Cinnamon Girl.
As a metaphor for what he is tying to do musically, Ulf uses the example of spice-mixing, which is actually one his hobbies – coming up with enticing concoctions from flavors around the world. How he mixes spices is how he makes music.
Now and then Ulf strikes gold. There is however, no recipe for Ulf’s brand of success. The danger is sometimes Ulf gets too eclectic, throwing together guitars, bouzoukis, Chinese instruments, Native American drums, and all this mixed together with nature sounds, like the sound of birds singing.
“Why shouldn’t one have in a jazz ensemble, a Chinese playing the erhu, a Turk on kanun etc.?” says Ulf. “There is just going to be more of this sort of thing, and our uneasiness is just a temporary phase.
“No limits. I don’t want to limit myself one bit.”