3 Mustaphas 3: Fez Fair!

2005 note: Collapse of post-comm Balkans into internecine war hinted at, kinda. Well, only if you read WAY between the lines I think. Another submerged manifesto, for the kind of thing I wanted Wire to do. The ‘Other Voices’ section was invented purely to get a piece about Ut into NME (which, when it ran, wasn’t very good). It was, like all narrowcasting, a fairly bad idea.

AT TWO O’CLOCK in the morning in the Club Habana bar of the Metropol Hotel in Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin, while his cousins Hijaz Mustapha and Sabah Habas are arguing the merits of a creme caramel, Daoudi Mustapha turns to me and remarks:

“The thing you must understand, Mark, is that you are travelling with learned men.”

After a week with them, I can no longer argue with such a claim. Here in Berlin, which is as close to a home as these cheerfully rootless music-exiles have ever had, in the climactic last week of the ‘Heimat Klange’ Festival, 3Mustapha3 have suddenly made sense in a way they never did in London.

‘Heimat Klange’ (which translates, I suppose, as something like ‘Homeland Noise’ or ‘Roots Clangour’) has been an astonishingly successful event. A seven week free festival, funded by the West German Government, and staged in the Tempodrome (a part-time circus), it’s attracted audiences far more sizeable and diverse than expected, from Blixa-clones and autonome-punks through to gastarbeitern and grandparents.

The Mustaphas are appearing for a week, along with Duvacki Orkestar Jove Stojiljkovica, a Serbian Gypsy Brass Band. Constantly dismissed in England as a novelty or a comedy band, the Mustaphas are clearly something rather more remarkable.

LOCAL MUSIC – FROM THE WORLD

For West Berliners, the Mustaphas represent the perfect stranger/guest dropped in to spread delight. After all, if there’s one thing that’s unique to them, it’s that wherever they go, they’re not about themselves. Berliners aren’t sure where they come from, but it’s obviously not Berlin and that’s all that matters. Unlike any other group, what they do and say doesn’t matter at all. Their names are not their names and they have no history.

They’re ciphers of permanent foreign-ness. They come from everywhere and nowhere, wherever they are. They are always of and for the Outside World. Their Balkan/Moorish/ Judaic/Gypsy rootless roots can be feted by a people whose grandparents tried 50 years ago to wipe all trace of such cultures from the face of humanity.

In the Eastern Jewish tradition with a deep tie-up between Mediterranean Jazz and the European Gypsy-Blues, Lavra’s singing turns the music – whether it’s African soukous or Latin merengue – into something immediate. Daoudi’s frenetic dervish-scream clarinet rips through the chunky surface to do battle beside her. This is a very modern music, complex, rich and not what it first seems.

Don’t forget, the Mustapha Orchestra backing Ofra Haza managed to offend several Israeli Ofra-fanatics just by singing ‘Linda Linda’ – the words are perfectly non-descript, except that half of them are in Hebrew. And the other half in Arabic…

BORN IN THE EEC

The day I arrive, Expensive Mustapha whisks me off to the studio – in the shadow of the Wall – where the Serbians are cutting tracks for Globestyle Records. Their bright, bitter scrawl will be hard to reproduce accurately – Berlin Radio engineers are baffled two days later – because so much of it comes down to unwritten intuition. This is also a very modern music, a mad Balkan jazz bursting out of rural isolation to confuse the Hi-tech world.

Accompanying them in the studio are Duvacki Orkestar Jove Stojiljkovica who come from Golemo Selo near Vranje in the south of Yugoslavia. Ten compact, dark, proud men, unable to speak a word of English or German, but magnificent musicians all, whose collective sound is a raw surge of scribbled power across a classic brass sound, they’ve been together – they all come from the same village – for 13 years.

They’re shepherded round this crumbling consumer paradise by an architect called Zoran, who’s come with them as a tourist-translator (but they make such demands on his time that he gets one morning off in a whole week). Cheek by jowl with them in a hotel that should only house half our number, the difference between genuine Central Europeans and the Mustapha-construct is obvious, but no one’s unhappy.

The struggle for communication is all-important. The Mustaphas and the Serbians need each other.

To hunt them down, Kemo Mustapha had to travel to Serbia, armed with no more than a photo of their drum-kit, asking every passer-by until someone had heard of them because the Cultural Office of their own government disclaimed all knowledge.

FORWARD IN ALL DIRECTIONS

“When the Mustaphas began, our rule was that we’d only play if it was something interesting, if it paid very well, or if no rock band had done it before,” says Hijaz now. Founder-Mustaphas have left, and new ones have joined, but that rule stays the same. They’ve missed out proper adulation by being premature globallists, of course. By the time London’s caught up, they’ve been around so long that everyone takes them for granted. But since they evolved, out of Orchestra Jazira as much as anything, the Mustaphas have always respected the value of the subjectively skewed.

Their Mustapha-names and their fez-buffoonery has always wound up a certain section of the London hip-list (City Limits once accused them tentatively of racism): as if the whole mythology was just laughing at foreigners for fun and profit, a kind of Balkan Black-and-White Minstrels.

But if it’s a deliberate stereotype of a meaningless generalisation, it’s never been mockery. They’re not excusing themselves by claiming that this is only well-meant fun – it’s not a sugar to sweeten a ‘serious world music pill’, more a shimmer that makes origins hard to focus on – a disembodying spin that confuses outsides and insides.

And their lack of history is a deliberately disorientating surrealist gesture. It makes accusations of appropriation senseless. There’s no such thing as neutral exploration, and trade affects both parties. To make the truth of the matter out (to discern the true Mustapha attitude), you have to listen. By which time it’s too late – you’re already hooked on the thing you weren’t sure about.

I LOVE YOU (AND YOUR MOUTH)

Zoran the interpreter, in a rare moment of escape from his Serbian charges, is wrestling with the final insoluble puzzle of the Mustaphas: “I don’t believe,” he says at last to Kemo Mustapha, “that you really feel these songs as we do.”

Kemo agrees with him, and then argues with him. There’s something spooky about passion for and in a culture that isn’t really yours. That’s the central strangeness of the Mustaphas. Misunderstanding is something worth celebrating – and so is knowledge. A very learned group of people. Who love the sappy fun of bad translations. And know – instinctively-that half-knowledge of eight languages is closer to the truth of tomorrow than full knowledge of one.

“What I don’t understand,” says Zoran, “is why you sing ‘Niska Banja’: this song makes me so angry!”

And of course Lavra wants to know how such a great song can make him angry.

“Because the words are so stupid! I can’t listen to them. It may be great music, but the words are so stupid: ‘Swimming baths, swimming baths, five, eight, nine, ten, nine, eight, five…’. It means nothing!”

Lavra laughs. “The last verse,” she says, “goes, ‘Us, us, us, us, You, you, you, you. I love you. And your mouth.’ What’s so stupid about that?”

OH, YOU, WIDE STEPPES!

And Berlin, with its particular history, has become a place where the politics of silenced voices resonates. The word ‘rootless’ was once a potentially fatal accusation here. The theme of the 20th Century became Extra-Territoriality and the song of the exile. Gypsies and Jews and Afro-American Blues voices all became the models for it, for marginal, displaced, despised cultures that nourished a mainstream even as it struggled to extinguish them.

This surging, unclassical, hard-to-master sound has become regarded as a threat and a thrill for centuries – an unspoken source, an alien tongue. Letting it ring out now, as part of the continued destabilisation of Western arrogance and the tough fight against cultural sterility, may be what makes the Mustaphas one of the few politically significant organisations in music. Which would be odd.

The Soviet Record Shop in East Berlin plays ‘Stars-on-45’ over the PA, although this is music unavailable on the shelves. Expensive Mustapha has found a record called ‘Oh, You, Wide Steppes!’ and Hijaz is delighted in the choice on the Guitar Greats Selection: ‘Exodus’, ‘My Yiddischer Momma’ and ‘Love Me Tender’. 3 Mustphas 3 are in their own peculiar heaven.

© Mark SinkerNew Musical Express, 10 September 1988

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