Are you originally from West Berlin?

No, I’m from the west of Germany close to the French border. My ancestors came from the east as my name says. According to family propaganda the number one Borkowsky was an officer of the allied army against Napoleon, made it up the Rhein valley where they had to go to the winter camp because they couldn’t cross immediately. He had a winter camp groupie, the daughter of the local Jewish wood trader and on New Year’s Eve 1813 he woke up in the bed of his winter camp groupie and looked out the window and, lo, the army had crossed the Rhein. So he pondered the situation, trying to understand with his hangover from the night before and it started to occur to him that he was a deserter now. And anyway all the boats were on the other side of the Rhein, so he took the Polish option and went back to bed. And since then my family was living on the Rhein. I’m the first one who went back east. 

And how long have you been in Berlin for?

I entered Berlin in ’67. My parents sent me to study legal affairs in Munich, but on the autobahn in the direction of Munich I decided to take the exit in direction Berlin because it looked much more exciting according to the newspapers. It was the beginning of the student riots and so I entered Berlin and since then I’ve been living here as a tourist. 

And how did you get involved in the music business?

I’m a trained anthropologist and for my PhD thesis I hung out in the Namibian desert when it was still the southwest colony of South Africa, formerly a German colony. And the most exciting part were the weekend parties. And there were these big ghetto blasters and a strange mix of Bony M, Dolly Parton, Bakanda from Soweto and other South African places and when the batteries got flat they did the music themselves. And this was a pleasure. And when I got bored with my university career – because before that I grew up on the usual sixties mix of same shit as everybody else, listened to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Doors and either you were left or right. Either you were a student rebel or you were a bomber pilot in Vietnam. Everybody listened to the same shit and this was something like an eye-opener when I came to Africa – that there was another kind of music. In the first period I financed activities of a group of people, friends including myself, did this and that. But when it became more serious I had to decide that either you do it straight forward, which means have a company, pay taxes etc. or disappear from this circuit. I decided to leave the university, I was bored and I thought that there was something out there that would be more fun. That was in the eighties and that was the first mistake I made. So here I am. 

When did you start Piranha?

I think Piranha was established in ’87, during a decade of underground activities. As individuals we tried to avoid official structures. 

And what was the first album that you put out?

We started on the live side. One of the first activities was a road festival financed by the youth of the German trade union against apartheid rule in South Africa. It was called “Beat Apartheid”. The concept was to have artists from this part of the world. So the soundtrack of resistance. First we tried to convince majors, then independent labels to release this shit and nobody was interested, so we did it ourselves. And this was the first album, called “Beat Apartheid”. And at that time it was still easy to sell albums. It was still vinyl. So we thought, “Oh, this is easy.” It was somehow an alternative punk education. We were completely naïve about what we were doing and just tried things out. And if you have ever released a record you know that you have to pay a lot of money to Gema, and if the artists were not part of this copyright protecting society system you just pay and nothing is coming back. And the next step is establishing a publishing company as well, so as to get the money back from this part as well. So we developed step by step.

Piranha was always focused on World Music?

As they call it. 

What do you think about the term “World Music”?

I think it’s somehow become a four letter word, although it has five letters. It was a very successful marketing campaign of independent labels in London who started this whole thing. And the purpose was just to give the shops a new category of these records they were releasing. I think the whole investment of this campaign was four or five thousand pounds sterling at the time. And it was done by the New Music Express and it became a fashion very fast. There were some number one hits in this period…Ofra Haza…So everyone thought this was the next fashion. But it turned out very quickly that it became the fashion of yesterday. On the other hand, it’s a reality. The world is bigger than the West so the musical world is bigger than Western music. I think there are a lot of exciting movements out there. The problem is that World Music is always the music of the rest of the world wherever you are. I always enjoy to go to record shops when I’m traveling. So when you go to a record shop in Brazil and look for the category World Music you find this kind of new age music from the United States in this category. When I went to Tokyo and looked for the category of World Music I found Shakira. So everyone has a different understanding of what World Music actually is. What’s amazing is that it became a category which is quite controversial. At the same time, you can say it’s the same thing as world literature, world film, world art etc., but at the same time you always feel that there is some distance in the media. And so I always try to avoid it. Because it doesn’t represent, say, hip-hop from South Africa. We are now releasing Magnifico. You know Magnifico?

Yes, of course. I like him a lot. In fact I saw him live in Sarajevo just recently. Apparently he’s quite popular in Italy.

Yes, he had a big hit in Italy. I think it’s already three or four years ago. 

But he’s unknown here in Germany. I know he will be performing at Lido at Robert Soko’s party. But nobody knows him here in Germany, as far as I know. 

No, not yet. And we wonder how we can market him. Because he is very far away from what is the core audience for world music. He is more like an authentic Borat from the Balkans. If you look at his video clips they are very ironic. But if you don’t understand the irony you can easily feel disgusted. 

And how did you get interested in Magnifico?

You know a little bit about our Balkan roster. We first got in contact with Magnifico by a common friend in Italy. He thought immediately that he was the missing link in our Balkan repertoire. On the one hand we have traditional brass bands. We have this kind of new music, maybe a little bit in the jazz direction, like Boris Kovač and other stuff. But nothing like Magnifico. So we thought this is a great addition to our catalogue. Darko Rundek is different again. Because we always like to do what is not expected from us. Magnifico and Piranha are strange companions for our core audience. 

Will there be at some point a Germany tour?

He had a very successful show at the Rudolfstadt festival last year. There were ten thousand people in front of the stage. And in Roskilde as well. So we are now looking for means and ways to introduce him to the marketplace. And one idea it to combine him with the Balkan Beats platform Soko is creating. He already had a title song on two of his compilations. And let’s see from there. We are doing a Balkan Beats road show in summer with Soko, Magnifico and a third artist who is better known to the audience. 

Which one is that?

Not confirmed yet. There are different options. 

One of the things I like about Magnifico is the way he messes up the English language. Sort of like Eugene Hütz from Gogol Bordello. 

Maybe this was before your time, but in the eighties we started with 3 Mustaphas 3 and a lot of developments came from that. They are nearly forgotten now. So I recognize in his irony a lot of the things I liked in the 3 Mustaphas 3. 

And tell me how you guys got involved in Balkan music? What was the inspiration for moving into this direction?

It was not planned. It was not planned. It just happened. The starting point was this collaboration with Asphalt Tango and Fanfare Ciocărlia. It became quite successful and then there was a lot of pressure from our friends Asphalt Tango to do more in this direction, but we said, no we don’t want to become a Balkan label because we had a lot of other ideas. So we established with them a fifty-fifty partnership. And it grew up very quickly. And we let it go and it’s now in complete control of the Asphalt Tango people. But we were hooked, too. And if you have one successful release in one direction you get immediately on the radar of the artists and the agents. So even with the establishment of Asphalt Tango the pressure didn’t let up with us because people said, “Oh, they are so successful with Fanfare Ciocărlia, they should release our band.” So when we decided to go separate ways Boban Marković came into the picture and he was taken over by another old friend of ours, Bojan Djordjević from Belgrade. And we thought if there was another brass band out there that would really suit Piranha then it was Boban Marković. So we started with him and then other artists came in the picture. And we always said, try to say no. But sometimes this is not successful because the artists are so good. And I think the Balkans at the moment is still one of the interesting places for a lot of good new music, and surprisingly the Balkan wave is still not subsiding, not yet. We expect it each season because everything has its time. As we know from Salomon and the Old Testament. But if you go to Robert’s parties it is really extraordinary how many people are coming and how many young people are coming who are not the traditional world music core audience. Hey, here we are.

And there are ever more Balkan parties in Berlin, more and more Balkan DJs.

You see, that is the bad thing about the free market economy. When something is going up there will be more and more offers. And at a certain point it’s going over the top. The audience is getting tired. And I think there is quite an extraordinary roster in Balkan affairs and let’s see how far we are going with it. 

What do you think about the new Balkan Grooves CD from Eastblok? I take it they want to make an alternative to Robert’s Balkan compilations and seem to feel that Balkan electro with experimental sounds is the new direction in Balkan music. I also see that you work together with Dunkelbunt, who also works in this vein. 

Watcha Clan is another band of ours working this territory as well. I didn’t listen to the new Eastblok compilation. It is like in football. Sometimes the football clubs want to get rid of their players. Sometimes the players want to move on. And I think the love relation between Eastblok and Soko came at the end at a certain point. And so Soko approached us and it looks like we can follow up with the successes of his first three releases with Eastblok. And definitely the old football club has to look for a substitute. Their most successful attacker, I think it was the most successful release of Eastblok, the Balkan Beats albums. So they are DJ-ing themselves. It is just natural that they are starting something new in this direction and are doing it more to their taste. Let’s see how far they are getting. 

And the new Robert Soko compilation, is it doing well?

It was released at the end of last year and I just saw the figures. It was only released for six weeks in the last year, so the figures are quite astonishing for me. I expected less because the market is shrinking all the time. And it’s not only touching the majors; it’s touching the independents too. So I expected we would have success, but I didn’t expect it that it would be so successful. Still we have no clue how to combine the parties with selling the records because the people who are going to the parties are not interested in buying the records. They enjoy it on location. And it seems a part of them are buying it later in the shops.

Is he offering the CD for sale now at his parties?

We made some experiments how to do it, but it didn’t work. So traditionally he was this concept of merchandising with his artists touring, but it looks different with the parties. 

And is Boban Marković a seller as well?

It is. But definitely we have to say it is still selling good. But the market is shrinking. And I think on Piranha we now have five releases. But we always have to slow down the artist. He would like to release a record each year. But the market is limited. There are a lot of brass bands out on the market. And the Boban Marković Orchestra is definitely artist steered while Fanfare Ciocărlia are producers steered. It’s mostly a producer’s effort. So it’s a little bit different. What we can do is give advice to the artists about how to create brass recordings more suitable for the Western markets, but this advice is listened to but never followed by Boban. And in the case of Fanfare, they are mostly session musicians and in the end the producer is making the decisions what is recorded and how it is mixed and produced. And so I think that Fanfare’s releases still sell better than Boban releases. I think in the long run we establish an extraordinary repertoire so far with Boban which survives fashion. 

Right now Balkan music is very popular in Germany and the German speaking realm; Austria, Switzerland. But England hasn’t really caught on in the whole thing. 

England seems to be a little bit of a problem. There is the colleague of yours…

Garth Cartwright.

Yes, who is trying to not only to write but to promote shows, etc. But the market is limited. With Soko we always have surprises. We had him in Cape Town last year and it was a big success. We had him in Brazil last year and the people went crazy. But for live artists it’s not that easy. 

One of the articles I wanted to write was about Berlin as a place for East European music. Not only are there the parties: Balkan Beats and Russendisko. There are a lot of Russian bands and there are the labels: Eastblok, Asphalt Tango and you guys.

Oriental is doing a little bit. Essay in Frankfurt. And I think Rotfront with Yuriy, the colleague of Kaminer had a slow start, but now is getting more and more successful. And they are starting to tour a lot. It looks like this becomes the most successful Eastern European – not Balkan – but Eastern artists from Berlin. There are a lot of others out there but not on that level of success yet. 

What do you think about Berlin as a market and as a cultural center for Eastern European music? Because when I spoke to Alex from Eastblok he used the analogy of Miami for South America for Berlin for Eastern Europe.

Interesting vision, but definitely Berlin is a different kind of set-up than Miami. Miami is really a Latin town. It is the center of the Latin music industry. I think we are in Berlin not that far. If you look at these handful of labels who are releasing, like Eastblok, Asphalt Tango, Oriental a little bit and us, Essay, who somehow have a foot in Berlin we are small independent labels. I didn’t see any major movement in this field yet. And I don’t see any major successes. Maybe Shantel got further than anyone else. So, we all know that Berlin is Berlin. It is a nice place to live. You can meet a lot of interesting people, but it is not a very profit-oriented culture. So, we are all somehow a little bit underground here. And yes, there are a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe. But you live in Charlottenburg. I live in Charlottenburg. There are a lot of Russians hanging out there, but they have a different taste. As a Balkan wave there are certain parts, but minority parts of the community who are interested in this shit. But it is mostly something that is happening for the German audience or a western audience. You can see people from the ex-Yugoslavia at Soko’s parties, but they are a very small minority. So, I think this is a great vision of Alex, but we have to accept that there is a different reality over here, which has its advantage and disadvantage, like everything. It’s quite comfortable to live in Berlin, all of us. It’s difficult really to get to a higher level. 

But it’s amazing what’s happening with this Shantel hype. And to think it was something that started at the bottom with these underground parties in Frankfurt and worked itself to the top to the point that, although you can’t really call it mainstream, it’s taking on some mainstream qualities. And it wasn’t something that was created artificially by a bunch of PR people.

No definitely not. 

And maybe that’s why it’s so long living and is not dying away yet from one season to the next. You never know when it’s dying away. Each wave has its peak and then it’s going down. This Balkan mode has already been going on for quite a time. I remember when we started with Fanfare Ciocărlia. I think this was ’97. So it is already close to double the period you can expect for a wave. According to our estimate, a wave is around seven years. 

But it still hasn’t worked its way into the mainstream media; fashion magazines, music press, radio. It’s not really recognized. 

Some guy comes along, this guy, his project is called Beirut, then it becomes like a little hype and then its recognized by writers who normally ignore the kind of music we are releasing. 

Why is it that magazines like Spex don’t really take any recognition of this music?

You see, Spex even cancelled all of its record releases now. They don’t do any reviews anymore on record releases. So there is a different trend. But Spex was always something like the red flag of the indie culture. In Germany you have this strange attitude of tribalism and then this leads back to if something is labeled as “World” they don’t listen to it. 

In terms of world music where is the action right now?

Maybe you know, maybe you don’t know, we created this marketplace called Womex. And this is a quite successful marketplace. Now three thousand professionals coming together from one hundred countries worldwide and I’m asked this question each season. And my answer is always there is no particular trend. The trend is globalization with all of its advantages and disadvantages. On a positive side there is a chance to discover more and more music from different parts of the world. And how things are happening I have no clue. I can say that I have a personal story why I got sucked into for example Balkan music. And other people are sucked in other music and they try to create a market for this and an audience for their artists and it looks like some artists are more successful than others. There’s always the tip of the iceberg. And we had quite a long wave for Cuban music, which is now disappearing. Brazilian music was always there and will always be there. This is another interesting place where music is created. A lot of extraordinary mixtures are coming to us. And West Africa is a very interesting place. And that is how far I can see it. West Africa, Brazil and Balkans. I see other people trying to create success for southern African music but it doesn’t get off. 

But just to go back to Eastern European music, it is interesting that a lot of the big festivals in Europe feature Eastern bands. Fusion, Szeget and Exit for example. 

If you look at Exit the main stage is more Western oriented rock acts. In Szeget the second biggest stage is what you could call a world stage. And they are in the area so they are a platform for music from this area. It works. For example Boban i Marko are very popular in Szeget. But the whole festival development is a different development because there is a generation of top acts which are old ones because the record industry is shrinking there is not a new generation of top acts because there is not the marketing power anymore. There aren’t the rock or pop or electronic acts so the festivals can’t present the old dinosaurs. They have to look for alternative strategies. I think the most successful one is Fusion in not announcing their program. And it’s already sold out. 

So that’s good for people like you.

Yes, it’s good and it has its advantages and disadvantages because it’s difficult to use these platforms to really promote artists because everyone is equal in this platform. No artists are especially featured etc. The audience is there just to have a good weekend, some good drugs and some good music, but there is not really a career platform for artists. So, festivals have a problem to program because the few dinosaurs who are still there or who are revived cost too much money because they can fill the stadiums themselves. So, they don’t need the festivals anymore. They have to look for alternative programming strategies, which is good for artists like ours, but has its limitations because the marketing power is not there. It’s a very confusion picture and a mixed picture. We are doing a lot of different activities to survive. Some of them are closer to our heart than others. But definitely the records we are releasing are very close to our heart… can see that with artists like Boban i Marko they are on a never-ending tour and this is quite successful but it’s not reflecting in the record sales anymore. And even Shantel is no selling as many records as he should in relation to the crowds he is getting. People make decisions about who to do with the limited money in their pockets. And it’s not like when I was young when the new record by The Animals or The Doors was the one you had to buy and the one who bought it first was the king in the class. Everything is very tribalized. Everyone has their own tastes and in case of doubt the young people are preferring to buy a game or to copy it from friends or download it for free. How can I complain? I copy records myself. Like everyone else. We just have to find our way through this strange economy, which always reminds me of Cuba after the breakdown of the Soviet block. And a vision always helps. And it seems that Alex has it. But I’m afraid the reality check gives you some bitter economic realities. Piranha is a quite successful company, but because of our diversity of activities there are about three dozen people on my payroll. And even in our record department there are more people working than in the label offices of our colleagues. It just means we have to work harder to somehow keep the level by diversification like trying to get inroads in advertising, in the film industry, doing a lot of licensing out etc.

And the very last question. Techno has been around in Berlin for twenty years. Do you see signs of anything taking the place of techno in Berlin?

Techno is – I’m working quite close with Dimitri who is in the Tresor and part of our activities was that we did a techno Tresor presentation in Belgrade last autumn. We are involved in the Tresor plans to open a Tresor in Bejing and Shanghai. But techno is over. While the wave is winding down the image is still growing. Berlin visitors are still looking for techno spots like the Tresor, but it is not an authentic local movement anymore. You go to the Tresor today and it’s mostly tourists. 

Do you know a guy called Joe Jackson? He’s an acquaintance of mine and there was an interview with him in a magazine I write for called The Exberliner in which they asked him, “Joe, you spent some time in New York and while you were there you were very inspired by the sound of the city, which in your opinion was Latino music, and this music worked its way into your music. Now you’re in Berlin. In your opinion what is the sound of Berlin?” And he answered that it was Balkan music. He’s also a regular at Soko’s parties.

Soko is a curator. He’s not a producer. He’s not making his own mixes. And I find it very honest from him that he sticks to that. He is not trying to be a bad producer like many others, but he’s doing this curating job, introducing all the time new music to his young audience. But you have to be very clear that ninety-five percent of the music is imported. It is not coming out of Berlin. 

Russian bands in Berlin…

For the Russians it takes a new generation. Most of the Russians are still living in the context of back home with shitty pop. 

But there are a lot of young Russians who came over here as kids and are now going back to the roots music of the East. Like Skazka.

So maybe Alex’s vision will be fulfilled. But I don’t think we will see something like techno as a Berlin brand coming out of Berlin very soon. Berlin had with techno its five minutes in world musical history. It will take some time till something new comes up.

As I told you, we were part of this pioneer generation, but with a particular German viewpoint to look into these traditions which were fought by our fascist fathers as entartete Musik. Jewish music, Gypsy music, black music. And that was the leitmotif when we started the contribution we wanted to make and we have to remember that was before the time that everyone started to live, think, talk globalization. This was in the late eighties. There was no internet, no emails, no mobile phones. And you still had to travel a lot to find out what was going on in the rest of the world which was so far out of the radar of the Western pop industry. And that was the starting point. And from there we developed in different directions. And we changed our focus according to how things were developing. In the beginning before we were a label and a music publisher we started with road festivals like “SOS Rasismus” and “Beat Apartheid”.  But then we found out there is no record releases to these artists. We tried to present it in this road festivals, looking for not established artists who were saying “yes we are against racism, yes we are against apartheid too,” but looking for artists who live and represent this particular sound. The sound from South Africa or to migrant communities connected to the SOS Rasismus road festival we produced on behalf of the German trade union. But then we found out there were no records and then we tried to speak to record labels which are independent ones and they were not interested. So we started on our own in a punky way how to make a label. And when you start a label you find out about the miracles of copyright and you start to wonder, “Oh, I have to pay money to Gema for each record press. But where does it go?” These artists have no music publishers in the international circuit. So, then you try to learn what is music publishing and how you can deal with this. So, the whole label developed out of live activities. So then we had these artists and no agents were picking them up to tour them. So we started to be a tour agent. But we always learned while we were doing it. And then the next thing was there were no festivals in this direction. So then we started to develop festivals. The most established one in Berlin was the Heimatklänge. And then these days we established a platform for professionals called Womex, which is now the biggest marketplace for this kind of music world-wide. And we moved away from promoting Gypsy, Jewish and black artists and these days it is more about finding artists who have already developed a career in a local market and trying to bring them to an international audience. There are around three dozen people working on the different activities. 

Christoph, thank you for this interview.

Thank you.