Public Eye's Brian Montopoli is writing weekly dispatches for CBSNews.com while living and working in Berlin as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program. He will return to Public Eye in October.
Mention reggae music, and it's safe to assume those within earshot will not immediately think of Germany. Jamaica? Sure. Africa? Maybe. But Germany? The land many Americans associate with lederhosen and precision automotive engineering? Please.
So here's a surprise for you: There's reggae coming out of Deutschland. And here's another: It's not bad. Berlin's Seeed, an 11-member collective formed in 1998, first hit big with an ode to their hometown called "Dickes B." You can see the video, which is full of Berlin landmarks, here, and their video for "Music Monks" here. (And here's their MySpace page.)
Seeed may not be known in America, but the band is huge here – they recently headlined a show in front of 120,000 people. I met some of Seeed's rabid fans on Wednesday, when I attended a screening of the band's new live DVD. It was an invitation-only event, and as I waited to enter, 18-year-old Carla Stadtmuller approached me. At her side was a friend clad in a Seeed tank-top.
Carla had an in – she'd won a contest allowing her entry to the screening, at which the band would be present – and she'd driven six and a half hours, and cut school, for the occasion. But there was a boy in the parking lot – see, he was the biggest Seeed fan around, besides her anyway, and he absolutely had to get in, and was there any way I might smuggle him in with me?
Yes, I said. Of course. And so in we went: Me, Carla, Carla's friend, and young Steffen, the parking-lot refugee, a local in a baseball cap, white sweatshirt, and dark t-shirt with Berlin written across the front. When he isn't listening to Seeed, Steffen told me in broken English, he listens to hip-hop. But he's usually listening to Seeed.
The DVD came on, loud, and there it was: Seeed's live show, the music beat-heavy, the performance a spectacle, choreographed backup dancers in tight blue outfits, band members in red suits and hats, horns gleaming, lights flashing, fans screaming lyrics.
"They're one of the best live bands you'll ever see," said Jakob Kranz, a DJ with Berlin's Radio Fritz. Kranz used to work with one of Seeed's singers, Pierre Baigorry, in a Berlin record store. "Seeed is one of those rare groups that has a knowledge about this music, about reggae and Blue Beat and rock steady and ska. The band is real."
After the screening, I sat outside, in the grass, with two members of Seeed: Singer Frank Delle, aka Eased, and Mo Delgado, who plays horns. There were empty bottles scattered around us, cola, water, beer.
"We want to break the cliché that Germans don't have rhythm," said Delle, an easygoing, dreadlocked half-German, half-Ghanaian. ("He's our favorite," Carla told me, staring back, when Delle walked into the screening room.) "Anyone just needs to see one Seeed show to know it's not true."
Seeed sometimes performs in English and Jamaican Patois, but most often they sing in German, a language that young people did not always embrace in their music.
We talked about the challenges of breaking Seeed in America, where it's extremely rare for a band that sings in a language other than English to become a success. The other popular German reggae act, Gentleman, has played a few shows in America, but Seeed has yet to release an album stateside.
"The proof to me that people could deal with a Seeed song in German is that no American can understand Patois," said Delle, referring to the Jamaican dialect in which reggae is often performed. "They love it because of the flow and the image. Quality always gets through."
Despite its success in Europe, however, the band isn't an easy sell to record companies based in English-speaking countries. In 2005, Seeed played at the Glastonbury festival in England, where they are relative unknowns. They attracted enthusiastic fans to their two performances. But there was no subsequent cry from the British or American recording industry to sign the band. "We're a German reggae band – their first reaction is, 'we don't know who would buy it,'" said Delle. "It's hard to convince a record company to invest in us. But I think it's a matter of time."
I asked if they would be willing to release a single in America that was performed entirely in German. The band recently put out a version of their last record, "Next," in which all of the songs were performed in English, with the exception of "Dickes B."
"I would think you have to do a chorus in English, maybe do one verse in English – start with an English verse and put the second verse in German," said Delle. "If it sounds good and the flow is good maybe some of the people will take a dictionary and try to figure out what you're saying."
"You can't take someone to Africa and go to the village straight away," Delle continued. "You have to take them to the capital city and go to the beach, and then maybe you can go to the village."
Delgado, the horn player, said he simply wants people to hear the band's music with no preconceptions. "If they just hear the track without all the prejudice that it's a German reggae band," he said, "it could be a German track, could be an English track, doesn't matter if it's good."
By Brian Montopoli