17 Hippies’ history parallels the progression of Berlin’s music scene since the 1980s; beginning with acoustic unplugged concerts and changing lineups of up to 20 musicians, and maturing into a vibrant 13-piece band: double bass, banjo, ukulele and guitar for a rhythmic base and violins, cello, accordion, clarinet, trumpet and trombone for the melodies.
Though actually only 13 band mates, nor hippies, 17 Hippies still mix traditional music from Eastern Europe, French chanson and American folk music with their own Berlin background to form their own traditions.
he Berlin-based group emerged after the Berlin Wall fell. “It was like someone had opened a hidden door,” explains vocalist and lyricist Kiki Sauer. “New and exciting music from Eastern Europe flooded into town with new grooves. All we could do was listen, learn, and try to find our own musical connections.”
“The band started with a simple concept,” says vocalist and musical mastermind Christopher Blenkinsop. “We said, “OK, so you play an instrument” Well, don’t bring it!”“ Christopher picked up the ukulele (after playing bass in rock bands); Kiki, who had been trained on classical piano, took up accordion; Dirk, the heavy metal drummer, had always wanted to play guitar; Antje switched to clarinet, after classical flute training; and off they went creating their own sound.
Twelve years and 1200 concerts later, this renegade acoustic sound is captured on Heimlich, released in North America by Buda Musique, and by the band’s own label Hipster Records through CD Baby.
From the beginning, the number of musicians was constantly changing. “In Berlin you’d call a person trying to do something in a nice way, but only half succeeding, a hippie,” Kiki explains. “So with their tongue in their cheek, people were referring to us as the five hippies, 24 hippies, or whatever amount of musicians that happened to be on stage.”
One day when in a trio format, the band opened for a friend’s British punk band. “The English lead singer asked for our band name, as he wanted to announce our appearance,” says Christopher. “On a lark, one of us said 17 Hippies, and since then it stuck. In German, “17” is pronounced zieb-t-zeen, and has a nice sound to it. It also has a somewhat magical appeal. It could never have been 16 or 18.” A the time of this writing, there were 13 band members in 17 Hippies. And they also played the Jew’s harp, the Indian tanpura, the Irish bouzouki, and assorted other string, brass, and wind instruments. Just what you would expect from 17 Hippies, regardless of how many of them are on stage.
“In Germany, and only in Germany, people tend to count musicians on stage,” chuckles Kiki, “and sometimes they say, “Why, there aren’t 17 of you!” One or two have wanted their money back! Same thing happens about the hippie thing: ‘Why, you’re not hippies’ we tell them, Well, the Rolling Stones aren’t exactly stones.”
Preparing for the new album Heimlich, Kiki was writing very personal lyrics, revolving around the feeling of losing what you thought was secure. One of the texts was Heimlich, a deep German word, meaning something like the secret way or top secret. The title song tells what happens when a strong feeling should be kept a secret, so as to keep that feeling alive and strong; whereas blaring it out would destroy it. “To keep the song from sounding too singer-songwriter-ish we started adding different sounds. One day Carsten, Dirk, Christopher, and I all coincidentally turned up with kalimbas [African thumb pianos]. We played” and it was just right!”
“When we started, our friends were organizing the Techno-heavy, musical-political celebration Love Parade,” says Christopher. “Techno was the thing everybody was into, while we were going acoustic. We had all grown up on Chuck Berry and the Beatles, and maybe Beethoven, and that ever since the 1970s, when David Bowie and Iggy moved here, the scene considered itself to be Europe’s rock city. There was no such thing as German folk, or world music, or whatever you might call it. When we started, everyone here thought we had gone mad.”
17 Hippies continues to use traditional tunes, and instruments, but rarely playing them the right way. “Our audience in Berlin learned about these new, old sounds by listening to us,” says Kiki. “The traddies hated us. After a while, people started referring to the way we played as a style. Now in other parts of Europe they call it Berlin style.”
At the same time, the rock and roll aesthetic is carried one step further with the 17 Hippies Real Book idea, which gets their tunes out to people so that everybody can play along. “Folk music in the sense of: music for folks!” says Kiki. The band has released two books with scores (17 Hippies Realbook I & II).
Rock’n’roll 13 (Rent a Poet, 1997)
Texas Radio (Rent a Poet, 1998)
Wer ist das? (Rent a Poet, 1999)
Sirba (Buda Musique, 2002)
Halbe Treppe soundtrack (Rent a Poet, 2002):
17 Hippies play Sexy Ambient Hippies (Rent a Poet, 2003)
Ifni (Rent a Poet, 2004)
17 Hippies Play Guitar (Hipster Records, 2006)
Live in Berlin (Hipster Records, 2006)
Heimlich (Hipster Records, 2007)
El Dorado (Hipster Records, 2009)
Phantom Songs (Hipster Records, 2011)
17 Hippies chantent en français (Buda Musique, 2013)
17 Hippies für Kinder – Titus träumt (Rent a Poet, 2013)
Biester (Hipster Records, 2014)
Anatomy (Rent a Poet, 2016)
Metamorphosis (Rent a Poet, 2016)
Live in Berlin (Rent a Poet, 2005)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.