Being asked to visit Berlin to interview several of my favourite musicians, watch some sensational performances and wander around a wonderfully eccentric city, was a surreal experience from start to finish. After winning the German prize for ‘Festival of the Year’ in 2022, XJAZZ! appeared to be a thriving event within Europe, one which I wished to experience for myself. Since its inception in 2014, the festival has been known to cause a stir. It became popular through questioning genre boundaries and expanding the definition of jazz. From modern classical to the electronic sounds that have dominated Berlin’s nightlife over the last 30 years, XJAZZ! invites both high-profile and lesser-known musicians to perform in various venues around Kreuzberg.
I am a musician as well, quite eclectic. I play jazz, I play classical, and some electronic. Ten years ago, there was not much structure for that; jazz was very established, and nobody could imagine having electronic arts playing on a jazz festival stage. Berlin was always known for its electronic music and crossovers, so we decided to launch a new, young festival which was more casual, and party-centred. We first planned it more like a family event for our musical community and friends, and as we all were established musicians, we were able to network and grow support for the festival. It immediately became huge. Even the first year it was fifty concerts and ten thousand people in the audience, it was massive.
The festival represents the diversity of the genre. We are on a mission to embrace everything; we have a lot of acts playing that are influenced by jazz. If someone does improvised rap, it’s connected. Berlin is so big and there are so many different scenes, it’s impossible to make a festival saying, ‘This is jazz in Berlin’… For me there is only good music and bad music and the more things that are mixed together the more interesting I find it. I adore the heritage of this music, but what is jazz today? Who am I to tell what is jazz? I think everyone has a different view and we should embrace this.
This record I’d say is spiritual jazz with ethereal, meditative tones. The music holds vulnerable messages and messages to empower people, affirmative words to send power to people… Like a spell. Learning the harp felt very natural to me because I’m also interested in music therapy. From observing Alice Coltrane, I felt like the harp really sends something to the soul… I would also say my music is very experimental at points… Very unique.
Afrobeat jazz group KOKOROKO also addressed the significance of heritage and musical authenticity and how they tie all these features together through compositional fusion and exploration.
Our music is all part of a journey. I wouldn’t put us in a specific box. It’s really exciting because we have a lot of scope to do what we want and explore. Definitely the core of it is afrobeat and highlife, and the message of it is honouring those that came before us. Along with trying to find our own voice and showcase who we are as individuals and what we sound like when we come together as a group.
With this overarching message of acceptance, XJAZZ! felt like a welcoming space for all artists and music enthusiasts. Natalie Greffel, the festival curator, emphasised how positive the festival has become for black musicians and members of the black community living in Berlin.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people saying that this is the best version of the festival so far in terms of just line-up. I think for me, it really speaks to the black communities here. I don’t want to say that this festival is doing everything really great, there are a lot of things that do need to change structurally, in terms of how we view jazz. But because there are more black artists, the black communities see this festival more right now… I’m excited about it.
On Saturday evening, I visited the Festaal Kreuzberg to enjoy an evening of performances and revel in the festival spirit. On the Open Stage, the ‘Afro Groove Queen’ Manou Gallo gave an unforgettable performance; her sensational technicality along with her incredible stage presence was electric. This electricity flowed towards the Main Stage and into the thousands of bodies that surrounded it. Here, Alfa Mist and his band captured the audience immediately with their dynamic chemistry.
I then walked over to the Emmauskirche to watch Pakistani-American singer Arooj Aftab perform with Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily, debuting her 2023 album Love in Exile. The trio created an ambient soundscape which extended to every corner of the church. The power of Aftab’s voice to command the room into a meditative silence was striking. Looking around, crowds sat cross-legged, eyes closed, taken by the beautiful music that hung in the air. To have such a powerful impact on an audience through music never fails to amaze me.
Through their Music in Exile program, XJAZZ! is providing a platform for musicians from war-torn countries, including Ukraine, Belarus, Syria, and Iran. This is being done in the form of concerts, panel discussions, and networking opportunities, amplifying the work, voices, and experiences of these artists. The festival hosted a panel on Sunday morning, featuring Milad Khawam, Anastasiia Pokaz and Dhanesh Jayaselan. This discussion brought many important topics to the surface: how music can be used to deal with trauma and also how difficult it can be to build on a musical future with a painful past. The panel guests went on to discuss how generational storytelling through music can reconnect individuals with their origins after voluntary or involuntary migration, and how vital this is for the art form as a whole. One of the guests spoke about their struggle to reconnect with their music after having to leave their home.
After I left, fled, I couldn’t connect my soul with music at all… My perception of everything changed. Nobody will feel what we have experienced, I guess music can be used to provoke those feelings in others. For me now, creating art is always going through trauma… I’m still not rebuilt from this.
The Artists in Exile program really stuck out to me as a necessary response to the problems facing many displaced creatives. The value of music in such instances is not to be underestimated. To be given the space to share and listen to the stories of these musicians, is such a crucial step towards better awareness and understanding.
It was clear to see that the actions taken by XJAZZ! are helping lead the way to a more diverse and accepting jazz world. Their recognition of all music and musicians is wonderful and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Photo provided by XJAZZ!
Last modified: June 7, 2023