“In a society that has become ever more individualistic, music communities provide a necessary antidote that allows for a greater understanding of our place in the world.” This is the opening sentence greeting you when opening up the double vinyl Entangled Grounds: The Sound of XJAZZ! Berlin. The album, presented by XJAZZ! in collaboration with the Analogue Foundation, aims to capture a moment in time and the sound of an ever-evolving community. 

As a birthday present to itself, XJAZZ! not only celebrates its 10 years of existence with the compilation album but returned in early May with a festival edition that once again challenges our ideas of jazz. In its contemporary form, which is rooted in Black music and global musical traditions, jazz is a fluid and improvisational genre, constantly picking up on other artistic and musical movements and in a broader sense, societal shifts overall. With both the compilation and the festival programme, XJAZZ! aims to take a snapshot of what this might mean for Berlin’s interpretation of the genre today. However, this snapshot is not intended to be the definitive of the genre nor the voice of jazz in Berlin, but rather a vibrant slice of a scene. 

“XJAZZ! is exploring jazz as a genre, but they’re also keeping in mind the social and cultural relevance of it. I think that’s the spice of all the amazing curation that’s going on right now, and having that mindset in approaching jazz allows for a greater interpretation of jazz and what it means and how it can be played, and so it creates more inclusivity within the jazz scene.” – Sera Kalo

The high quality stems not only from the performances but from the audiences who listen, participate, and join in. When I walked into Sera Kalo eX.II’s performance on the Wednesday of the festival, the sense of community was palpable. “I was really, really overwhelmed by the positive feedback I got. And I was also proud of my band, how well we played together for the first time. It was a very successful night,” the artist tells me the day after. Throughout the rest of the festival, you’d see the same faces on the stages and on the dance floors, celebrating each other’s performances.

Against the Odds

As long as humans have existed, we’ve gathered in places and spaces with people with whom we share common values. These spaces birthed communities and gave us opportunities to collaborate and to learn. Perhaps most importantly, they provided us with a sense of belonging. At a time when music culture is becoming increasingly digital, with streaming platforms and TikTok trends, physical spaces are still an important anchor for its nurturing and development. XJAZZ! is certainly a piece of the puzzle that makes up the young and thriving local jazz scene.

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Allysha Joy from Energy Exchange (Photo by Akim Karpach)

But just a few months ago the future of the festival was uncertain because the Berlin Senate cancelled its long-term funding. While the bulk of the budget comes from ticket sales, the festival in its current form requires financial support. “We book many newcomer acts. We try to keep the tickets affordable, which means that XJAZZ! is not financially viable without funding. And when the long-term funding didn’t get renewed, it left us stranded. We didn’t know what to do.” Sebastian Hecht, artistic director of XJAZZ! tells me. “We racked our brains for six months. No matter how we changed the calculations, it never worked out. Sure, there would have been a way to survive somehow. But we are not interested in organising a commercial festival with only ‘safe’ international headliners.”

Finally, the XJAZZ! team decided to go public with an open letter explaining their situation. After an outpouring of support from the entire scene, local players, and institutions, the Berlin Senate eventually confirmed renewed funding for the festival for the next two editions. This turned programming from a marathon into a sprint. The curatorial team had to complete in just a few weeks what would normally take a year to plan. Yet they still managed to put together a programme that reflects the spirit of XJAZZ!.

Without them naming any headliners, a few crowd-pullers still stood out in the programme. Shabaka is one of the driving forces in the UK jazz scene. He brought his array of flutes for a transcendental journey or a continuation of spiritual jazz. London-based producer and keys player Joe-Armon Jones effortlessly fused jazz, dub, hip-hop, soul, and even somehow threw an iconic Jai Paul tune into the mix. XJAZZ! also celebrated musical legacy with acts such as multi-disciplinary and improvisational artist Lonnie Holley and Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, who have been releasing music for over 50 years. This was complemented by emerging talents from Berlin and beyond. Many of the local talents we have already featured: douniah, Modha, Sanni Est, Sedric Perry, and K.ZIA to name a few. All rounded off by DJ sets that turned the festival into club nights, including Moses Yoofee, who is currently making the rounds with his trio performing under his producer name Yoofee, providing his own touch of broken beat bangers, or Berlin-based DJ Rafush with their rhythm-driven, African and Afro-diasporic influenced sounds.

“I think we are different from other festivals where only one person curates the programme. That’s not our style,” Sebastian tells me about their curatorial approach. Beyond their in-house team, they invite other players to program and host festival stages. This year, they have teamed up with local collectives Swim Good and Cassette Head, the label Oshu Records, Zig Zag Jazz Club, and JAZZ KONTAKT in collaboration with Music Export Ukraine.

“Community is really important to us. We try to involve as many people as possible. Usually, the most interesting things come out of these collaborations.” – Sebastian Hecht

Capturing the Moment

And all of that manifested into one album, rooted in the spirit and community built over the last 10 years. Sebastian tells me that the idea for a compilation has been around for quite a while. During last year’s festival, the moment felt right to move forward: “We saw some artists who played both last year and the year before that, but who did such extremely different things from one year to the next and performed in completely different constellations. We realised that certain artists from the scene really came together, yet there is always change. And that was the basic idea, we just wanted to take a snapshot of these developments, capture this current sound.”

Making plans is one thing; executing them is another. “We decided to record 8 tracks in 4 days, which is extremely ambitious,” Sebastian shares. “When I communicated these 4 days with the artists we had spoken to in advance, and set all the dates within a day. It’s pretty incredible because the bands are on tour, they’re in the studio, and it’s usually really difficult to coordinate, but it all fell into place. The planning was magical.”

Entangled Grounds

The album’s ten tracks feature an extensive list of local talent, too many to name. They range from Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange‘s electric “Lady in Scarlet”, which could find its way onto many a dancefloor, to douniah’s soulful breather “In the middle of the night”, the airy and spacious collaboration “Still Waiting” by Moses Yoofee and Zuza Jasiknka, and “Can’t Uproot me”, a captivating blend of diasporic influences by Sonic Interventions. Sera Kalo’s song “Afeni” adds a powerful narrative layer. The song is dedicated to the political activist, Black Panther Party member, and important figure in laying the groundwork for Black liberation in the US. “I chose to write about Afeni Shakur because she is truly inspirational. We all know who Tupac is but not all of us know who his mother is. I wanted to celebrate her, highlight her,” the artist tells me, adding:

“I really resonated with Afeni Shakur as a dark-skinned femme person. Often Black femmes and Black women are forgotten. So I wanted to take a moment to worship her, acknowledging her struggle and her successes.” – Sera Kalo

While delivering the message, Sera Kalo showcases the incredible range of her voice and her talent for improvisation. It all culminates in the fifteen-minute track “The Brewery Suite”. The song begins quirky and distorted, then evolves into a rich sonic spectacle featuring orchestral layers from a string ensemble, the mesmerising vocals of Monica Mussungo and soothing harmonies from members of A Song For You.  

Despite the wide stylistic spectrum, there’s a sense of spontaneity that ties the album together. “Each act had only 4 hours to record their song, with at least an hour spent setting up,” Sebastian explains. “That’s why the album has such a raw, live character to it. Aside from the tight schedule, the only requirement was that the recordings be made on analogue tape, limiting post-production possibilities and further enhancing the live feel of the album. “This compilation is a true reflection of the community that XJAZZ! has built,” Sera adds.

“It’s incredible to see that community now represented sonically. This is what happens when you bring together love, trust, and passion – this album is the sound of that coming together.”

Photo from the Entangled Grounds recording session

Photo from the Entangled Grounds recording session

The Entangled Grounds compilation will be released on 31 May via XJAZZ! Music. You can pre-save the record here.