Shantel (Stefan Hantel) is a German DJ, producer and Band leader who was instrumental in the renaissance of Eastern/Gypsy music as a popular form in Europe and globally in the 90's and early 2000's. He is bringing his live band ‘Shantel & The Bucovina Club Orkestar’ to WOMAD NZ in March. I caught up with Stefan from his Frankfurt home for a chat about his music, his roots, culture, art, politics and finding meaning in identity and the common ground of humanity.
Like his music, Stefan’s background is very ethnically mixed - he is a German of the Eastern European diaspora. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Stefan is a third generation immigrant of Romanian Jewish ‘Bukovina German’ descent on his Mother’s side and Greek and German on this Father’s. However, Stefan is a deep thinking guy and he prefers to call himself a ‘European musician’. I really like that as it acknowledges that Europe has always been a melting pot and a land of mixing and geographical flows of humans, music and ideas beyond the nation state and the fictional borders it creates.
The name ‘Bucovina’ in his artistic projects comes from his Maternal family's ‘Bukovina German’ heritage. This was a label used to describe a German ethnic group (or more accurately mix of ethnic groups) which had a noteworthy demographic presence (spanning from c. 1780 to 1940) in the historic Eastern European region of Bukovina, which is nowadays divided between Northeastern Romania and Western Ukraine.
Growing up as a normal German kid in 80’s and 90’s Frankfurt, Stefan only learnt about this Bukovina history by talking to his grandparents and reading books. His youth was your average Western one musically. Stefan was into Anglo-American rock and pop culture, along with the ever present early German dance music scene. After school he went on to study Art in Frankfurt and this different perspective on identity, symbols and cultural meaning got him more interested in his own identity and family roots.
“I had always had this huge question mark about my roots, my family, my identity, and the story of where we came from”
Around this time Stefan travelled to Czernowitz, the historic capital of Bukovina, and former hometown of his Mother’s family which was a very formative experience. This pilgrimage back to his roots helped Stefan in his quest of finding meaning and understanding the significance of this fascinating history. He describes the differences between the utopian Czernowitz of his imagination and today’s reality.
“It was historically a very Cosmopolitan city and one of the main cultural melting pots in South Eastern Europe, with people from all Cultures peacefully living together and benefiting each other. In a sense it was a kind of utopia, as places like that don’t really exist anymore. I mean, it is still
a beautiful place with nice scenery and very idyllic, but the culture is just not there anymore, it has been wiped out by things like Nationalism, World Wars, Stalinism, and all that bullshit. In fact all the same things that are hitting the scene again now with right-wing populism, closed borders, intolerance and that sort of thing.”
Stefan describes how for him Bukovina is a symbol through which to explore, reimagine and remix this rich and diverse heritage of his roots and indeed all Europeans:
“I take Bukovina as a symbol, I'm a musician, not a politician, but I like to use these possibilities to create crossover. It is not about searching for some sort of authenticity or lost Cultural identity but about looking for the beauty and the similarities that exist and we still benefit from that. I think it’s best not to get stuck on stereotypes, such as ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Balkan’ music, but rather to try to work out this common ground. Art and music has this amazing ability to share and cross over influences like East and West or analog and electronic. It's about thinking cosmopolitan and acting international and keeping it real.”
On his breakthrough
Stefan laughs about the fact that this all started out as an art school project in the early 90’s, then very soon he had launched this whole new career as a bedroom producer, He started organising underground parties in Frankfurt and Berlin where he would electronically tweak and remix this diverse music he had collected to appeal to club audiences. This included Romani, Balkan and Middle Eastern music, but even things like Tropical Bass from Latin America. Seemingly, before he knew it he was as he says “a Fancy-pantsy underground DJ”. Stefan could not have imagined at the time how much Shantel’s music would resonate with European audiences hungry for something different. But it did, and before long Bucovina Club was a household name across the continent and beyond. He toured and travelled extensively and later went on to create the Bucovina Club Orkestar project working under this name increasingly to mix live music with electronic sounds.
In a sense the Bucovina Club project was an innovative recipe for success that arrived in the perfect time and moment with the opening up of the East/West dialogue at the end of the Cold war. Shantel effectively took the already irresistibly dance inducing traditional Eastern European and Romani music and added a dash of the cheesy 80’s Eastern European Discotheque aesthetic. To this he added his punk/anarchist political message and vibe along with a range of contemporary sounds and production values from dance, reggae and pop to create something that crosses genres and appealed to both Eastern and Western musical and cultural aesthetics at the time. For Stefan, his music is not about a specific geographic identity, rather it is about third generation immigrants of a diaspora rediscovering all of these many musical influences and connections and doing something new with it all.
“We basically tried to create a highly dangerous cocktail of these influences, which became a kind of soundtrack for this cultural revolution.”
And succeeded, I add, Shantel hits like Disko Partizani, and Disko Boy and a remix of Mahala Raï Banda’s Mahalageasca (also known as the Borat movie theme song) became staple hits on the dancefloors of Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, London. Shantel is even famous in Istanbul, after Partizani became a chart topper there, and is well known now as far afield as Japan….and New Zealand.
I suggested that in a way Stefan was like a Bob Marley of Gypsy music as he crossed both eastern and Western worlds and was able to help to modernise and re-popularise an obscured music tradition of a diverse and inclusive nature with deep roots in Europe. He humbly says he was just lucky to be there in the right time and the right place and it all came together, and adds that he hopes not to fall to cancer so early.
Stefan is acutely aware of his own position as a musician of the Eastern European diaspora and is well aware he is not trying to appropriate or copy the rich musical tradition of the ‘Romani’ bands of old. He says Bucovina Club was never trying to recreate that tradition or make a carbon copy of it but rather to create something new. In comparison he points to the fact that Tango Neuvo emerged in New York through the diaspora and then travelled back to Argentina where it is now highly popular in dance clubs. He also points out that Klezmer music was never popular historically in Eastern Europe, and only became popular in the U.S. through Jewish immigrants in 20th century before returning to Europe to influence many modern musicians including himself.
The digital age and its democratisation of music brought access to obscure ‘world’ music even more widespread at your fingertips. This democratisation was the most important thing for Stefan as all of a sudden everyone could do it, so he thought why not? Living in Germany at the time he did, Stefan had access to newly emerging technology like samplers and drum machines which he says meant you could record an album in the kitchen.
He says he was never really hysterical about the techno scene that was so popular in Germany, but using these digital production skills that came with it was a huge influence when he was at art school and started looking into this music. Stefan has a curious mind and an open mind musically. He says he has always been an avid collector, and spent many years travelling, meeting musicians, crate digging for old records, and most importantly hearing stories from people he met.
On his role in the renaissance of Eastern European music
I ask Stefan how it feels to know that his vision and music has touched so many people connected to the Eastern European diaspora ethnic group both in the West and the east and allowed them to feel simultaneously modern and future focused while also connecting with their cultural roots. He responds that he doesn’t like the word proud, but he admits he is very humbled and happy about that outcome.
“When all these changes happened in East Europe after the cold war ended, and the opening up, the young People were so focused on Western culture and there was no recognition in popular culture of Gypsy music and their cultural roots at all. They were all into Ace Of Bass, Euro Dance Pop and all that and roots was a no go commercially. It was seen as something from the communist era, and people just turned away from it. It was totally uncool.”
He believes the success of the crossover happening in West and the way they were dealing with it mixing it with digital music and different sounds really resonated with fellow diaspora members and the Eastern European youth themselves. It was all about progression and moving it forward as a living culture so it excited them and in effect made it cool again.
On Romani Culture
Stefan says the Roma and other races often labelled as ‘Gypsies’ have always had controversial presence in Europe.
“They are a cultural minority everywhere, and whether in Turkey or Greece, or in Romania or Bulgaria where the largest populations live - they have suffered a lot of racism and prejudice.
Most of the stereotypes are wrong and hysterical, but they also contain some truth. I call it Anarchy and Romance. Maybe they were the early European transmitter that played a large part in the spread and shape of European Culture. They were truly professional entertainers, almost a Caricature of the entertainer and of Eastern Europe. They were mostly very poor and had very few options other than music to make a living. They were Exotic but there is also a lot of tragedy in the story.”
On Collaborations and fame
Shantel is not caught up in fame. To him it doesn’t make a difference if someone is famous and he recounts how he once turned down a collaboration request from Madonna. He is more interested in the little moments and interactions like stories he has heard, such as people he meets in the market in Istanbul or in a village of Bukovina. In saying that I point out that it must be pretty amazing that he has collaborated with the likes of true Gypsy music legends like Fanfare Ciocărlia, Boban Marković or Mahala Raï Banda.
He admits it was great to meet them and fantastic and inspiring working in the studio with them as they can teach you a certain approach. Although he is quick to stress again he was never trying to photocopy them. He is honoured to have had the experience, but he was always thinking about how he could take what they do a step further and looking for his own direction.
For me, the beauty of Shantel’s music and the ‘Gypsy’ genre (for want of a better label) in general is the wide range of influences it incorporates; from European folk traditions of Romani, Balkan, Russian and German music, Spanish Gitano/flamenco to Turkish, North African and Klezmer. Shantel has respectfully taken this even further by adding things like Reggae, South American cumbia, punk and electronica. A genre like ‘electronic gypsy’ or ‘new gypsy’ or whatever you label it effectively has no borders, conventions or restrictions and gives Shantel a pretty broad and very rich musical canvas to work from.
In a sense Romani or Gypsy culture and its music can be viewed as a counter to the trend of globalisation with its homogenisation of linguistic and musical culture and a narrowing of cognitive diversity. This way of life is being steadily wiped out and with it some amazing traditions and ideas about living in harmony with nature, and living a life of freedom in the human spirit. Gypsy music reflects this spirit in its freedom, or chaos and romance as Shantel nicely puts it. This often heart wrenching sound of gypsy music bears all the diverse influences and the joy and pain of an open hearted semi-nomadic people who have been misunderstood and mistreated for centuries. Shantel has been instrumental in continuing this tradition of openness and diversity and moving it forward into the future with positivity and respect. That is indeed something to be proud of.
You can catch one of Shantel’s two sets with his Bucovina Club Orkestar at WOMAD in New Plymouth 15-17 March.