Don’t let your fancy tourist mobile app or your ‘Lonely Planet’ guide fool you: Berlin-Mitte is not a cool district. I always found the place around the Torstraße quite weird whenever I happen to end up in that part of the city. I understand that it’s natural for tourists to head for the centre of a city and the district might have once been a vital place for sub-culture and the city’s infamous non-conformance. That time was probably around the change of century and if you stroll through that area now you might still sense it every now and then but all in all gentrification clearly shook up the place. These days you got fancy restaurants, expensive clothing stores, galleries, even more fancy restaurants and rents that seem to be impossible to paid. The hip creative minds of these former times remained there, started families and are now the main inhabitant of that environment. Okay, I just realised that this could sound like bitterness from my side but it’s simply my observation, especially as I don’t visit this neighbourhood that often.
Why am I starting an article about a music festival in that area with a diss of its environment? Well, simply because it makes the work of the Torstraßen Festival even more important in the often oversaturated event landscape of the German capital. Hailing from the ACUD Macht Neu, one of the district’s long-lasting fortresses of sub-culture, the eighth edition of the constantly growing event is fighting to keep the underground around the area between the U-Bahn stations Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and well… Oranienburger Tor by now. From sticky bars like Kaffee Burger and Z-Bar to the iconic Ballhaus Berlin – the team behind the Torstraßen Festival seeks for special places in the posh neighbourhood and fills them with a carefully curated programme that aims directly for those who’d like to discover new music, odd genres and songs beyond the usual sing-a-longs. Torstraßen Festival can be a challenge for the visitor – and that doesn’t even include the switching between the venues in this often crowded area.
Over the past years the event extended its radius and schedule, adding additional events to the main day; Saturday. And while Friday and Sunday now provide additional talks, parties, an independent label market as well as a big final performance in Berlin’s Volksbühne (this year by beloved showman Alex Cameron) it’s the second day that provides the majority of the musical programme, the heart and soul of the event. 18 Euro are a fair price for it and the really great hot summer day was another argument to get on the bike and switch between the cosy venues. The fact that some of them were air-conditioned surely wasn’t the worst thing to happen. It’s interesting to see Torstraßen Festival‘s experimental line-up in these places and under these conditions. Ja, Panik singer Andreas Spechtl performs the experimental loops of last year’s LP Thinking About Tomorrow, And How To Built It at 2 p.m. in the afternoon which you wouldn’t normally consider a time for this sound. Same goes for drummer Andrea Belfi who performs at the same place a few hours later, delivering a hypnotic and captivating mixture of jazz, electronica and krautrock-infected beats. Again, not the sort of sound you usually listen to on a hot summer day but it works and forces the listener to … well, actually listen.
Personal highlights of the Torstraßen Festival 2018 included the flamboyant performance of up and coming queer icon MIKEY who performs the highly emotional sounds of his freshly released debut EP Paths with all the confidence and charm this distinctive gentleman could provide. Theatrical pomp clashes with fragile acoustic songwriter moments the listener wouldn’t expect in the first place. At least I didn’t. Berlin-based artist DENA also succeeded with her gentle and catchy retro soul pop. Her musical mentor Erlend Øye also attended the gig and witnessed how the material off her yet untitled second album sees the young lady further shaping her own specific sound. And it sounds very promising. Singer/songwriter Saba Lou also made a great impression although her charming and chilled songs would have fit better in the yard of the ACUD on this sunny afternoon than in the sticky and tiny indoor club of the place.
Not everything works in the line-up but with a focus on odd and unusual sounds it’s pretty much impossible to please everybody anyway. For instance, I didn’t get the humour (?) or vibe (??) of Austrian rap duo Clitclique who appeared to be too bad technically to not label it as satire although I didn’t get the irony either. But some people enjoyed it and smiled. You can’t deny a certain fascination for trash. Maybe it was art all along. Other bands like Leoprrrds and Soft As Snow really weren’t my cup of tea after all while ambient/drone artist André Uhl simply felt a bit out of place in the backroom of Kulturhaus KuLe in the early evening. Like I said: it’s a challenge to get into this sort of sound when you are halfway out the door already. But then again, not knowing the artists can be a benefit when you get surprised. I didn’t know who Daniel Freitag was but the beautiful reduced vibe of his cinematic songwriting became a pleasant and very fulfilling surprise on that day.
Other people I spoke to later had a total different impression. They loved Leoprrds; they enjoyed Nisanthasi Primary School pretty much but didn’t get what Andreas Spechtl was doing, for example. And it was apparently a huge mistake to skip Candice Gordon. Isn’t it wonderful how subjective music is in the end? If you give this music its time and don’t look for any popular names the Torstraßen Festival can be a very rewarding experience. It ‘forces’ you to discover unfamiliar territory, unusual musical forms of expression. And yes, sometimes you get disappointed but despite personal beliefs and taste the artists you are witnessing remain special and unique. So, even the ‘grumpy gentrification hater’ in me ended up walking through the side roads of the Torstraße, drinking a beer on the sideway, discovering new spots in the city and realizing that there’s sill a life beyond the fancy Italian gourmet food store. And that’s what Torstraßen Festival is capable of – it shows adventurous alternatives despite all the troubles the changing city is facing. For that and the great curation I can’t thank these guys enough and highly recommend everybody to pay a visit in the next years.
All Photos by Maria Louceiro
CC BY-SA 2.0