Portrait ǀ “children are wonderfully anarchic audience”

Photo: SCHMOTT Photographers for Friday

An old dance hall, dark, with a lot of patina, the spring sun falls through the windows. Children are sitting on the floorboards, blankets and pillows have been spread out, cuddly toys have been brought along. And lots of plastic boxes filled with pre-cut apples and carrots.

Fredrik Vahle, the snow-white hair tied in a braid, corduroy trousers in beige, a wide red shirt, runs through the rows and gently moves his "ringing". A boy reaches for the wind chime, pulls on it, cheers – and Vahle smiles. The local association of the German Communist Party (DKP) in Reinheim im Odenwald invited to the children’s concert. On the wall are landscape pictures in golden frames, old black and white photographs and a copy of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous altarpiece The cross in the mountains.

On stage Vahle, 76 years old, starts one of his most famous songs, The hare Augustin. A percussionist and a bass player support him. Dietlind Grabe-Bolz, mayor of Gießen, sings with him. You know each other through a university seminar. Since then she has accompanied Vahle at concerts, performances in daycare centers and schools. In the audience are mainly parents around 40 and Silverager – grandparents who came with their grandchildren – who sing Vahles songs out loud. When they heard the pieces for the first time, they were still children themselves.

About cowboys and beets

1973 is The carrot appeared, Vahles first album with children’s songs, which he had recorded with his then partner Christiane Knauf. The record was an affront. No one had ever sung for children like Vahle and Knauf: the songs with their clear political messages, published on the left music label, were about usury and environmental protection, against armament or the fear of “guest workers”.

Christiane & Fredrik: That was the march of the sixties into the children’s room. It was anti-authoritarian education on vinyl. The album was a success, the pieces on it, The cowboy Jim from Texas, The saber emperor, The carrot and the Brecht song from Fisch Fasch, became classics of West German children’s music. To date, Vahles concerts are almost always sold out.

"Come in," says Vahle, who is one of those people who don’t like to be sieged. He also prefers to speak to everyone with "you". His house is at the very end of the village, beyond which the fields begin. The moss grows on the garden wall, the trees are bare at the end of March. Vahle has lived here in Salzboden since the 1970s, less than 20 kilometers from Gießen, where he studied linguistics, taught German and politics, and later also taught at the university. Occasionally he gives seminars in linguistics there as a lecturer.

Vahle had founded a flat share with friends from Gießen in Salzboden. He and his partner, a painter, now live in pairs. Each of them has “their own realm”, their retreat in the house. Vahle lives on the upper floor. If you step up to the large glass windows, you have a wide view of the Lahn Valley.

He brewed green tea, placed a bowl of cashew nuts and one with prunes on the table with the mosaics. “I’m going to start at the very beginning,” he says, and he’ll do that more often in the course of our conversation. Then he pulls out, tells of the trips that took him to Greece, Nicaragua or Paraguay, to other musicians or social revolutionaries.

He talks about the bums on Luisenplatz in Darmstadt with their guitars, which attracted him so magically in his youth, or about his parents, who were artists, Inge and Fritz Vahle. In 1956 they moved with him from Stendal in the GDR to West Germany in order to be able to work more freely in their art in the hope of making a career there. Vahle points to a picture hanging next to the window at the dining table. "I was four when I was four, painted by my mother," he says. He has a calm, calming voice.

On a flat wooden table in the other corner of the kitchen there are instruments, precisely arranged: singing bowls, ukulele, flutes, a handful of wooden clappers. "As a child, I was not a musical talent, I came to music in the back," says Vahle. His grandfather played the piano at home, a nanny taught him the first songs: hits, murders, old pieces from the Lüneburg Heath, songs "about soldiers who had both legs shot down and things like that". As strange as these songs were, they cast a spell over the boy. "The need to sing for others was there very early."

Provocation with 150 watts

He founded his first band with a friend. They were both fascinated by American singer / songwriters like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, but were also interested in the Greek singer Mikis Theodorakis, in music from Latin America, Spain. In Athens, at the time of the military dictatorship, they almost ended up in prison. They had heard of an acquaintance from a bar where they could play, but the supposed performance location turned out to be a brothel. The owner chased the musicians away.

Frustrated, they moved to Omonia Square, where they played Donovan’s anti-war anthem Universal soldier chanted. Secret police soon appeared, who took the two away. On the way to the area, a man who spoke German whispered to them: "Open up to folklore, pretend you don’t know what the song means." "That saved us," says Fredrik Vahle.

With his friend Ulrich Freise, he was also involved in a group called the Action Group for Disbanded Song Culture. She belonged to the Gießen branch of the SDS, the Socialist German Student Union, and her music was about provocation. "I shouted texts by Erich Fried into the microphone, Ulli had connected his forest zither to a 150 watt system," Vahle recalls. "It was infernal noise, a mixture of agitprop with delicate and lyrical passages." He and Christiane Knauf played the first children’s songs on a trip to Italy, that was in the early 1970s.

They met a free theater group there who invited them to a festival in Berlin. The gig became her first big concert. Soon afterwards came the request from the label Plans, who wanted to produce a record with them.

He was thrilled that in his songs he was social and political with the world of poetry that can combine myths and fairy tales. The tight working-class songs that many of his comrades of the time considered the only true form of the protest song were not his thing. "My political engagement came from the ethical, the literary and the spirit: That was shaped by Bert Brecht, Heinrich Heine and Federico García Lorca."

With his songs, Vahle was always an alternative to Rolf Zuckowski, the other successful West German children’s songwriter. With Zuckowski, whose most famous song is probably the catchy tune In the Christmas bakery and later for Peter Maffay the pieces for the musical Tabaluga wrote, the world appears colorful, light, like a pleasure. Fredrik Vahle also sings from the dark side, from unemployment, poverty, racism or from authoritarian parents. "Songs that call things by name have a harder time," he says. Nevertheless, his followers were always large, he was able to release new albums year after year. It certainly helped that his songs are so catchy. Melodic, with choruses that everyone wants to sing along to. Over time, the songs have become gentler and more playful, less provocative.

Even his sympathy for the DKP has never harmed Vahle’s popularity. "I don’t have to regret anything," he says. "I was never a member of the party and, because of my own history alone, I never shared the GDR enthusiasm."

It was the commitment to environmental protection that took it for the Communists. "The DKP were the Greens when the Greens didn’t exist," he says. Vahle stands by his commitment – and he wants a more confident left. "We should be more oriented towards the American Democrats," he says. "For example, something great like the Green New Deal by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: We’re not talking about that enough here."

Vahle has given his concerts for more than 45 years. Have the kids changed since he started? Is there anything in all the stories about the overly cautious helicopter parents? "It is actually the case that children grow up much more sheltered today, the socializing thumb has become more noticeable," says Vahle. “Strangely enough, upbringing was more strict and moral at the time, and also political in the GDR. Nevertheless, we had a lot more freedom than the children today. ”But when he stands in front of them and plays his songs, does his movement exercises with them, the children are still as stubborn, curious and carried away as in the early days of his career. "Children are a wonderfully anarchic audience," says Vahle. "They don’t care about applause rituals, they just act the way they feel." When they respond to his music – be it with a loud cry – the performance is successful for him. "I have never said to the children at a concert: Be quiet."

Vahle himself has no children. "That irritates many," he says. "Most think I am someone who has at least four of their own children." For his work as a musician that is even a good thing, he is convinced. "I also never lost touch with the children because I didn’t have to go through the often tiring parental upbringing phases," he says. At mid 70’s he still finds fun at concerts. "I didn’t set a limit on when I would stop doing it." At the end of his performance in the Reinheim dance hall, he played the song by Ayşe and Jan, that was created in 1981. At that time, children from a daycare center in Salzboden sang the choir.

A girl, probably under three years old, stands up in the middle of the song, rocking her body back and forth. The children in the room are spellbound, the whispering has long since stopped. The play is about a German boy and a girl whose family comes from Turkey. They get to know each other, observe each other and soon play together, become friends. But parents and siblings face each other. Ayşe and Jan hold together against the resistance, can break down the prejudices. Even Jan’s father realizes in the end that he is wrong in rejecting the immigrant family.

"You can learn something from children, that’s how the story ends," is the last stanza of the song. It is still his message.

A broken military plane adorns the cover of the debut album The carrot by Fredrik Vahle. "You could build three schools for the price of such shit," comments a teacher in a gray suit and with a red tie on the drawing. Provocation! Fredrik Vahle once received a “feminist shitstorm” for the song Cat paws dance: "The cat came to the cat, licked her paw very lovingly / caresses her and kisses her gently, and she has already taken part." Vahle was accused of depicting macho and getting started in children’s songs. The song, however, became a permanent hit the Show with the mouse (the children’s book of the same name has more than 20 editions). Fredrik Vahle has released more than 40 albums throughout his career. Many of his pieces (such as Anne coffee pot) belong to the canon of the West German children’s song.

Vahles songs of movement are still on the program in many daycare centers. The musician appears at demonstrations and rallies, most recently in Gießen at a concert against the AfD.
The recently released album shows that Fredrik Vahle, born in 1942, was and is an important influence for many musicians encore (Argon audiobook). His songs include soul singer Max Mutzke, the rappers from your friends, cabaret artist Maren Kroymann or the former clay-stone-shard musicians Kai Sichtermann and Funky K. Götzner. His autobiography will be published in October Weird songs, beautiful tones – memories and thinking trips between Anne Kaffeekanne and Cowboy Jim (Gütersloher publishing house).


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Christina Cherry
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