17 Hippies at ¡Globalquerque!
Unclassifiably original band merges East and West in dance grooves galore
When you slide Heimlich, the latest CD from 17 Hippies, into the computer, the disc obligingly gives up the expected data: album name, track titles, artist, etc. It’s all pretty straightforward until you get to “genre.”
It’s not “Folk,” “Rock,” “Jazz,” “Latin,” “World” or even “Other”—all of which might apply to one degree or another.
What you get is “Unclassifiable.” An admission of defeat from Gracenote, the digital media technology company that identifies tracks for you on iTunes and other platforms.
What you get from 17 Hippies founding member Christopher Bleckinsop when you mention this to him is a yelp of laughter. “That’s neat,” he says. “I love it.”
The Berlin-based band’s music is created from an amalgam of Eastern and Western influences stretching from traditional Cajun to Anglo songwriting, French chanson to Balkan folk, Mexican dance music to Middle Eastern melodies—as well as the varied influences of its members; there’s a classically trained pianist on the accordion and a heavy metal drummer on the dulcimer. The instrumentation is equally varied, from the everyday (trombone, cello, clarinet, guitar) to the unusual and downright exotic (mouth harp, bouzouki, harmonium, kalimba, tempura).
“It’s quite surprising how Westernized music and Eastern melodies actually blend if you don’t think in a strictly traditionalistic fashion,” Bleckinsop says. “All of it was made basically for people to dance to. It’s about moving.”
So when 17 Hippies—actually, there are 13 if you’re counting, and no, they aren’t, not in the way you’re thinking—take the ¡Globalquerque! stage, you can be assured you’ve never heard anything like them before, and you will want to dance.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Berlin changed completely,” says Bleckinsop, who likens the event to a “dam breaking.”
“Suddenly, from one day to the next, my town was full of people from different towns, different music and alive,” he says. “You had all these East Germans and Russians, Poles and Romanians, and Yugoslavs and Serbs—on the street playing.” The city was also flooded with visitors from the West, drawn to the excitement and the cheap housing.
Meanwhile, he says, Germans, whose identity had been partitioned and whose folk traditions had been stigmatized by and in the wake of the Nazis, began searching for a common cultural identity.
“I meet this trombone player, and he’s from [East] Berlin, but there’s nothing we have in common. Not even the language is the same, though it’s German,” says Bleckinsop. “So you have to learn. You have to find out what is our tradition. ... It’s a natural thing. You’re looking for what you are deep inside.”
The scene spawned musical experimentation on a grand scale. For the founders of 17 Hippies, he says, “it was all about learning and listening. All these new tunes. Wow. ... We were lucky because in the band, we have East and West, we have classical-trained and rock musicians. So ... we were lucky enough not to start playing things ‘the right way.’ We had to find our way of doing it.”
A song by 17 Hippies, sung in German, French or English, might start off sounding like a Romanian folk tune. Suddenly, a short Mexican horn riff takes focus, and although it comes from a completely different tradition thousands of miles away, it fits—oddly, surprisingly and quite naturally. What sounds like a happy, almost accidental collision of styles is really the result of a songwriting process the band has devised over its 13 years.
The process might begin with a fragment picked from an ethnic folk tune heard while on tour, or perhaps with a melody written by a band member.
“And then you have all these very different personalities, and their very different ways of listening to music, playing music, and their conceptions of music and what they want to do,” says Bleckinsop. “You kind of whisper your melody or tune to your neighbor, and he or she might pick it up ... and then it kind of spreads, and if you’re lucky, when it comes back, it turns into a song. This process we call the Hippie Mill. You put it in, and something entirely different comes out the other end.”
It’s one hell of a grind.