What do you get when you take one ukulele and a Persian hammered dulcimer—played by a former heavy metal drummer—and add that to an acoustic Turkish take of the hip hop classic “Apache?” The latest album by 17 Hippies. It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. The 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; Lüül found a misplaced banjo; 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 (Allegro Distribution), and by the band’s own label Hipster Records through CD Baby, in conjunction with a March tour that hits New York City, Morgantown, WV, Lafayette, LA, and Austin's SXSW Festival.
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.” As of this writing, there are 13 band members in 17 Hippies. And they also play 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 ’70s, 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” (whatever that is). “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).