In activism, music plays a crucial role in disturbing oppressive spaces, actors, and institutions. Activists credit the communicative function of music to create solidarity among different people at demonstrations1. Music has a specific value in this space. On the one hand, music makes possible pleasurable bodily experiences. On the other hand, the tapestry of music and chants in the activist setting enable the formation of an imagined stage that can be elevated or on street level. From that stage, the desired political encounter can take place, can be seen, and experienced together. The stage is crucial in the activist dramaturgy. As part of that, music helps create a scene in which the political struggle can come into existence visibly and audibly. The musical coulisse sets in motion a dialogue between audience and performers. This dialogue is felt bodily, but the method in which the dialogue is staged also reveals that there is a political function assigned to music. Music is supposed to encourage and enable the audience to recognize ways in which injustices can be called attention to and unmasked creatively and collectively. This way of using music shows the audience how injustices work to sustain themselves. Music serves to unveil the theatricality of the phenomenological world, and with that seeks to encourage action from the audience. Jacques Rancière’s has discussed this method of unveiling as the “method of scene”2. This paper investigates such methods through the example of musically assisted anti-right-wing activism that has been taking place in the city of Dresden, Germany via the work of the brass collective Banda Comunale. The methods of scene that musicians use in this protest setting are the focus of this paper and specific attention will be paid to the role that transcultural engagement takes. Banda Comunale has been active in musical street activism since 2001 but became the prominent opponent to the right-wing-movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) that took hold of the city of Dresden in 2015. When thousands of Pegida supporters marched the city’s streets, calling for anti-immigration policies and a removal of supportive measures for migrants from Syria, Banda Comunale played international brass classics to recode the city’s sonic tapestry and sonically drown out right-wing chants. The function of the music was to use the cultural heritage with which the band associated the newly settled residents to demonstrate that the people from Syria and other places in the Global South had a right to establish a home in Dresden. Banda Comunale’s music in the streets and on stages throughout the city came to symbolize the possibility of arriving and making a life for oneself in the city despite strong and growing resistance from right-wing groups. My contribution draws on my 2017-20 ethnographic study of the ensemble that revealed Banda Comunale deeply engaged in aesthetic debates on multiculturalism and transnational connections in music to fuel the band’s visibility as a blueprint for social integration through music and music as a pathway to the right to belong. In this paper, I argue that understanding Banda Comunale’s musical aesthetic through looking at the band’s dramaturgy in protest encounters reveals how the band’s music unveils right-wing propaganda, and how it stages transcultural music to give migrants and refugees the opportunity to be seen and heard in political terms. Along with this critical reflection, I provide narrative map via Sound of Heimat that tracks the transformative process of Banda Comunale’s music in relation to the ever-changing political landscape in Dresden.
The city of Dresden, which is the capital of the state of Saxony in the eastern part of Germany, has become known as a center for hostility and anti-immigrant sentiment. With a migrant population of 13.8% in 2021, the city is growing into a diverse cosmopolis. However, Dresden is not famous for its cosmopolitan solidarity with migrants, but instead for homing growing support for right-wing conservatism and ethnopluralism of the New Right movements. In the 2018 theater production “Das Blaue Wunder” (the blue wonder, author’s translation), Volker Lösch, Thomas Freyer, and Ulf Schmidt present the gruesome image of what could happen if political leadership uncompromisingly allows the implementation of right-wing extremism in politics indefinitely. The setting of the artistic experiment is the city of Dresden. Historically, Dresden has been an important site for witnessing right-wing groups grooming supporters. Annual neo-Nazi marches and the 2015-emergence of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), a group of the New Right that protests the German government and its pro-immigration politics, are evidence for that. The play reflects real-life developments and projects that the support for right-wing groups will turn the city into a growingly hostile environment. In the play, an “alternative”, which mirrors the German right-wing party “Alternative for Germany” (AFD), has taken over the reins and declares a new beginning for the city. Enraged citizens are the protagonists who cry out for change and freedom on stage. With guidance of the so-called “Blaue Buch” (blue book, author’s translation), a metaphor for the AFD party book, the protagonists try to construct a new beginning of “true” German leadership in which the voices of “non-Germans” become silenced.
The play, however, is more than just an allegory of Dresden’s political developments. The play also highlights another aspect of Dresden’s urban culture. The audience’s gaze is dissociated from the radical New Right when civic actors who make up the local resistance movement step onto the stage. Interrupting the course of the play, real citizens of Dresden stand to the left and to the right side of the curtain. These activists, anti-fascists, and musicians address the audience directly. One by one, they report their experience of right-wing violence in the city and speak about the kind of anti-right-wing activism that they have been engaging. Their accounts of street protest and violence are shocking reminders that what is presented on the stage as fiction is not that far from reality. They remind the audience that the play and reality in the city are deeply entwined. Their message is that the grotesque image of a future under fascism in Dresden is not just a fictitious display but a dreaded reality if resistance to right-wing extremism in the city is silenced.
Part of the revolutionary call to change that is staged next to the curtains are musicians from Dresden’s brass ensemble Banda Comunale (henceforth Banda). Equipped with brass instruments, they speak about their unwavering support for the activists and anti-fascists in the city. They explain how the uncanny noise of right-wing groups has shaped the city’s sonic tapestry for four years, thus, requiring relentless opposition and musical resistance in street protests. Banda’s appearance on stage is also a symbolic gesture to drown out the excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Rheingold, scene 4, “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” that accompanied the play to create a sense of victoriousness for the fictitious New Right on stage until this point.
At the end of the play, Dresdeners enter the stage shouting: “Get involved! Protest! Commit! Saxony can become really cool for all!” (Mischt euch ein! Protestiert! Engagiert euch! Sachsen kann richtig geil für alle werden! [author’s translation]). Collectively, their voices call for a resistance to the transformations that the “Blaue Buch” proposes. The speakers stage a revolutionary scene by way of making the audience understand that the play portrays what is in part already reality. The presence of both fiction and reality presents the lived duality that characterizes life in Dresden for those engaged in political struggle. The seemingly marginal, the activists, the anti-fascists, and the musicians that protest right-wing groups, have something to say. They demonstrate that they are present and engaged, that they are loud and will not be silenced, and that they are an important part of the city’s story even though right-wing propaganda seeks to diminish their interventions, in particular the creative ones.
Creative forms of protest like Banda’s music the speakers on stage show are an integral part to the interventions that civil society makes in the New Right’s political fiction in Dresden. The trajectory of Banda’s work is the focus of this paper because it illuminates how music serves to unveil the theatricality of the phenomenological world in Dresden, and how the band seeks to encourage action from the audience. The discussion of Banda’s work is based on ethnographic research that I conducted with the musicians from 2017 to 2020. Besides attending 30 concerts and other musical events, I interviewed 15 musicians from the ensemble. This data was part of my doctoral research in which I examined Banda’s work for understanding the potential to appear as a citizen in Dresden by performing music in politicized spaces. From this analysis, it became clear that the collaborative music-making in which the Banda engages helps change the gaze for how citizens perceive the city, specifically how they begin to imagine it as a home for themselves despite growing hostility.
Banda’s music seeks to be transformative in Dresden. The musicians want to accomplish that the resistance becomes seen and heard. For that, they employ theatrical methods. I discuss in this paper how Banda’s multi-sited interventions in theater, in the streets, on concert stages, and on records are successful in intervening musically in the city. Both musical risk-taking and music that seeks to create a sense of identity are part of Banda’s musical activism. Banda’s work in Dresden, therefore, speaks to the ways in which subversion and identity-affirmation are both intrinsic parts of an activism that is always faced with precarity. After introducing the ensemble and its work in Dresden, I discuss the ways in which Banda employs theatrical methods and bring ethnographical observations in conversation with the concept of the “method of the scene” that Jacques Rancière proposes to discuss theatricality, aesthetics, and the chance for politics.
Coming to Music from Protest: Banda Comunale, Transculturality, and Traditions of Participatory Musical Engagement in Dresden
Banda, who is also formerly known as Banda Internationale, is a neighborhood ensemble from the district of Dresden-Neustadt. The band has long been established in anti-right-wing extremism movements in the city and originally formed under the name Banda Comunale in 2001. Instigated by tuba player Alfred Haberkorn, Banda started as a protest brass band. The purpose was to oppose annual neo-Nazi marches in Dresden that commenced during the annual commemoration ceremonies for the Dresden bombing that took place on 13 February in 1945. Since 2001, the band has undergone several transformations. For example, it became Banda Internationale when refugee musicians joined the ensemble in 2015/16. Over time, the musicians developed an international musical community in the city. That includes that Banda established itself as a key player in alternative music education through intercultural workshops. The band has since published six albums and changed its name back to Banda Comunale after the publication of the 2021 record Klein ist die Welt.
This method of creative civic engagement is not only typical for Banda. It is one among many examples for how Dresden’s citizens use the creative methods of theater to address local issues. For instance, since 2009 Dresden has been a center of citizen-led theater with the establishment of the “Bürger:Bühne” (citizen stage, author’s translation), a theater project housed in Saxony’s state theater, which brings amateur performers onto the big stages of theater in Dresden. Banda’s work also stands in the tradition of left-wing activist theater and art theater that developed as part of the model project degree program “Kulturpädagogik” (author’s translation, culture pedagogy) that started 40 years ago at the University of Hildesheim. Haberkorn received training in the program and was part of a community in which civic cultural education was reimagined to teach artistic practice, theory, and history of creative, intercultural engagement for social change. Banda’s interventions on street level are further linked to the left-wing artivism movement “Rotzfreche Asphaltkultur” (henceforth RAK; snotty asphalt culture, author’s translation) that formed in the 1980s in western German states. Haberkorn’s participation in RAK shaped how the band adapted RAK’s critical artistic practice to engage the public sphere. RAK’s key goal was to intervene in cities and interurban areas through street music and street theater.
It is important to know that Banda’s work in the streets of Dresden is also part of a larger reconciliation effort regarding right-wing extremism in Saxony. Right-wing violence has been blissfully ignored in Saxony for years, and only recently civic support for anti-right-wing social projects has received increased support by the state. The long history of ignoring and deemphasizing the influence of fascist underground networks in the state3has left many activists frustrated, on the one hand. On the other hand, negligence enabled the continuous strengthening of right-wing networks across the state and beyond. The RAA Saxony (regional support network for children and youth from migrant families and for the development of a democratic culture in schools and society) reports that in 2020 alone 208 right-wing extremist and racist attacks affected 304 people4. The number of attacks annually increases, and many civil society organizations worry about a worsening of the situation. In an open letter to the Saxonian state parliament, the RAA and other groups explain that their worry is connected to the continued defunding of activities and initiatives by the state5that could work against the growing support for right-wing groups.
Banda’s musical resistance in Dresden has been part of local efforts to work against right-wing extremism for more than 20 years. The band’s primary strategies for that are getting people active in civic protest through funky brass music. A second tier is that the band tries to model how international connections are already part of Dresden’s urban culture. Central to that work has been to engage in international street brass band classics, as for example the Algerian chaabi “Ya Rayah”, the Romanian Gypsy brass “Hora din Ghermanesti” by Fanfare Din Cozmesti and Tony Camargo’s Colombian cumbia “El Ano Viejo”. The transcultural connections that the performers draw build on the different geographical origins of performers in the band. Half of Banda’s have migrated to Germany at some point in their life. The links between different cultures are evident in the performer’s geographical and cultural backgrounds that stretch from the Middle East over Russia to eastern European nation states to Spain and Burkina Faso. These many cultural influences shape how the musicians interpret the street brass band classics that they perform with the band.
With that work, Banda showcases the role that the migration of culture plays for how we understand contemporary music. The migration of music has established new relations between different cultural heritages in music, which characterizes popular music in all types of genres today. The connections between cultural practices and cultural knowledges of how certain cultural heritage should be performed once migrated has traveled across borders. Street brass band music, too, is shaped by this type of transculturality6. Transcultural music, then, is music that mediates the process of coming in contact between different cultures. The mediation takes place through sharing cultural knowledge about different geographies in lyrics, instrument selection, music writing and performing styles. That process of exchange is one that is not linear but fragmented and imbued with friction and frustrations as cultural misunderstandings and historical gaps need to be mended along the way. In the case of Banda, the attempt to create a repertoire that reflects the process of creating something new in music that speaks to the contemporary social, cultural, musical, and political experiences that the musicians make places the band into the rubric of music whose process and products can be characterized as transcultural music. The band builds on an international musical repertoire that stretches across continents and across brass and string traditions. Songs in their collection may at first glance be classified as World Music, however, the music goes beyond that label because it incorporates the contemporary moment of uncertainty regarding borders and contemporary migration regimes. The band tries to respond to these political developments through merging musical styles and arrangements.
One of the examples for Banda’s contemporary global pop is the 2017 album Kimlik. The album sought to capture the struggles over belonging, participation, and visibility that migrants experience. Kimlik showcases 14 songs and three sound assemblages of which two frame the beginning and middle of the album through interlude. Another posits the outro of the album. Each of the sound assemblages draws connections to claims against migration to Europe that are contrasted by resistance movements. The sound assemblages draw a linearity of argument from louder right-wing voices that are slowly drowned out to the outro, which focuses on future developments in which intercultural exchange is a central task. The album presents six new interpretations of known Banda songs, for example of “Ya Rayah” and “Caballo Viejo”. Also included are eight newly composed or arranged pieces.
The album presents not only the different musical folk traditions that Banda frequently employs. Kimlik makes space for the transcultural relations in the music. For example, “Ahebek”, a love song, showcases Masoud Gego rapping. “Ahebek” is the first recorded rap version on a Banda album. The song points to the transnational connections countries that the band could make to hip-hop culture in contemporary Arabic-speaking after Masoud entered the ensemble. “Beraghsa”, on the other hand, gives Metal enthusiast Hamid Jamshidi the stage. The performer’s passion for the genre caused him to leave his home Iraq. Now in Dresden’s Banda, that passion created new challenges regarding fusing musical styles. Banda’s interpretation of “Beraghsa” is a cover of Kurdish Iranian Mohsen Chavoshi’s song of the same name. Central to this piece is the combination of rock influences with traditional melodies. Banda’s adaptation of the song combines instruments such as jazz saxophone and oud to broaden opportunities for musical combinations in the rock-centric piece. Musicians stated in the interviews that producing “Beraghsa” involved frictions between the performers concerning the musical styles with which they were comfortable. The process of crafting the song required the musicians to come up with new ways to merge Metal and string-infused brass music. Performers described the process as a true transcultural nightmare.
Slowly, Banda acquired a sense of flexibility that then made possible that performers could more easily try out different styles and modes of performance. It also made possible that new performers could join the ensemble. The openness that Banda propagates is central to its identity as a band, and to its identity as a key player in social protests against right-wing groups, where they also seek to build large provisional assemblies of musical performers with audience members.
Theatricalities of Social Activism through Music: Thinking with Rancière about the Possibility of Politics
In a sense, Banda’s music and musical activism can be understood as a music that offers its audience the possibility to imagine solutions to the social and political problems at hand in Dresden. That activity of imagining takes place, on the one hand, through a bodily experience of pleasure while listening and performing the music. On the other hand, the music seeks to inspire the audience to develop creative ways through which political propaganda from the New Right can be unmasked in different ways. Both forms of engagement require that the musicians inject their music very deliberately into different performance settings in Dresden and Germany at large.
For example, during a 2016 counter protest march in Freital, a neighboring town to Dresden, Banda utilized the recognizable sound and moving marching band brass beats of the New Orleans Rebirth Brass Band classic “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up”. Staging “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up” in this context was, first, an opportunity to move the critical mass of people around them. The song’s upbeat polyrhythmic constellations created a grooviness that encouraged people to dance along, thus, creating pleasurable ways of experiencing music together. On the other hand, dancing to funky music in the tense setting of a demonstration at which participants threw bottles through the air that barely missed the instruments disrupted ways in which participation at that political demonstration could be imagined.
Non-amplified brass music may, at first glance, not appear as a force large enough to captivate audiences and entice them to follow the resistance. However, Banda can build on its long history as a neighborhood ensemble to install a critical mass for musicking together. Audience engagement methods include clapping or demonstrating dance moves that can repeated. The underlying premise of the continuous creation of new means of engagement is to change the expected ways of becoming active in the streets, and to change the ways in which people can imagine participation in activism more easily in the city. Doing so, Banda breaks with the ways in which the small neighborhood ensemble is expected to appear in the space. These observations are examples for how creative interventions disrupt “what is common in the community”7.
Banda’s performances in protests can also be evaluated for the ways in which the band incorporates strategies that are typical for the dramaturgy of theater. Deliberate staging of protest and opportunities to imagine social transformation encompasses both taking risks and trying to strengthen revolutionary imaginaries. Music is the home through which the band realizes participatory activism. Doing so in the streets centers the transcultural musical sound as the backdrop against which protest against the anti-immigration claims by the New Right can be made audible. The music helps No-Pegida activists set the stage, appear and sound undeniable.
Methods of staging resistance through music that occupy and seek to recode the sonic space of a demonstration are methods with which the musicians are able to create and curate what might be called provisional assemblies of resistance8. These provisional assemblies serve multiple functions by employing the methods of theatricality. An important part of the theatrical in music activism is that musical engagement and intervention go hand in hand when it comes to moving people in the street. Through the movement of bodies to familiar and new tunes, the musicians create a sound and an atmosphere that can be enjoyed amidst the tensions of encounters with the New Right. The critical mass that dances along the streets stages a provisional collective. That collective is new to the space and can become a challenge to dominant police orders. The aesthetic pleasure of musicking together in protest spaces that Banda stimulates triggers action without knowing who will engage. This form of risk-taking marks new possibilities for protest. Farida-Vis et al. discuss the formation of new possibilities for protest through such risk-taking as the “aesthetic of protest”9. They argue that the “aesthetic of protest is “an understanding that all political struggles are aesthetic to the extent that they are struggles over who can be seen and heard in political terms”10. The protest emerges because the risk is taken that the outcome of the action is not predetermined or agreed upon. That openness allows creative interventions to make an offering that enables the production of an effect that may not be anticipated.
In the case of music, the offering is made through the aesthetic pleasure of musicking. That makes way for music’s aesthetic of protest to develop and unfold. In the case of Banda, the curation of provisional musical assemblies whose modes of engagement are not fully predetermined but leave room for contingent encounters in the streets give insight into how the aesthetic of protest comes into being. The openness of the musical encounter is subversive, I argue, to the extent that it proposes ways of engagement and dialogue (through the music) that have not been imagined before. This form of musical dialogue, however, is nothing distinct about Banda. It is integral to many kinds of musical encounters. Tunes from around the globe are meant to signify that the band’s musical activism draws from the knowledge of international brass bands. Musically intercultural references are woven into the existing fabric of Dresden’s Street sound. Banda can, therefore, be understood alongside other marching bands, such as the HONK movement, who are politically active in protest and sound and use similar audience engagement methodology. What makes Banda’s usage of this method in the streets unique is that the street is given the characteristics and functions of the rehearsal space. To say it with the words of Jacques Rancière, the band suggests ways of action in a space where these forms of engagement are unexpected11.
The deliberate staging of music for protest speaks to the fact that both dramaturgy and subversion are part of Banda’s approach in protest settings. The street becomes a space that follows the rules of both the theater stage and the rehearsal space. Rancière notes that the dramaturgy of theater can construct scenes that allow the presence of opposites that would never share a stage in reality12. Similar statements can be made about Banda’s music in protest spaces. The provisional ensemble that is created when ordinary citizens join the ensemble as amateur musicians in the street is an ensemble that breaks the rules of engaging with street music. Ordinary citizens do not have to remain spectators but are invited to become ordinary musicians when the band offers low stakes means to participate. Simple repetitions of song segments, a followable speed, and visual cues by the orchestrating lead of the tubist make room for improvisation and trying things out. There is also room for uncertainty about whether the musical strategy of a song will form a sound that would classify as “hitting the right note”. The boundary between what is music and what is sound is blurred for the purpose of encouraging participation from a broad audience.
This form of risk-taking in music is typical of rehearsing. It is uncommon that the rehearsal takes place on stage, regardless of whether the stage are the streets or an elevated fixture. When rehearsals act as provisional performances, what is played become hybrids of the expected phenomenology of staged musical activity13. Such hybrids are different from the contingencies of stage performances. Musical acts that are presented as staged performances follow predetermined rules of performance. The background of determinants that guides how a performance, for example in a concert hall, is to take place also gives that performance a musical identity. That is a reproduction of an anticipated effect and the participants who will join the action in different roles are known in advance. In the rehearsal, however, there is more room for risks, uncertainties, things that are unplanned. While a rehearsal can strive to provide the background of a staged musical activity, there is a greater tolerance toward errors, possibilities for failure, and opportunities for new things to emerge that have not been imagined before.
Rancière describes these ways of engaging the principles of theatricality as employing the “method of scene”14. The method of scene helps dissociate the gaze from what it perceives as visible and plausible. As a disruption of a space’s police order, the theatricality of the method of scene recenters the gaze so that (new) forms of dissent appear possible. Another phenomenological world is created within the existing order as a disruptive and undermining force to show that the conceptualization, narration, and performance of a police order and its aesthetic is deliberate and that it can be disrupted. Thus, the method of scene can be understood as a theatrical approach that helps create ways in which things that do not seem present or possible can begin to appear and be used15. On the street stage, scenes construct relationships and capabilities that seemingly do not exist otherwise16. Therefore, examples like Banda’s involvement in Freital show that the band uses its music to solidify musical interventions that reshape the identity of Dresden’s activism, how it comes into being, and through who. In the following discussion, I show the ways in which different methods of scene can be recognized in the different arenas within which Banda places its musical activism.
Dramaturgy of Activism: Setting the Stage for Action in the Street
From these different influences, Banda draws the dialogical practice that it uses to stage confrontations and interruptions in street protest and on stages throughout Germany. A recent example is Banda’s musical activism during appearances of fascist Björn Höcke at Pegida demonstrations in Dresden at the weekly Pegida demonstration on the New Market Plaza on February 17, 2020. This invitation sparked ad-hoc reactions and calls for counter protests in the city. Banda participated in these activities in absentia. The band collaborated with local singer Bernadette La Hengst at the BrechtFestival at the time. Via Instagram and Facebook, Banda invited its followers to sing Berthold Brecht’s “Kinderhymne” (children’s hymn, author’s translation) during the demonstration.
The “Kinderhymne” is a familiar classic in eastern Germany due to the hopeful message it conveys about a new future in German history post-WWII. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jörg Meibauer discuss that Brecht’s “Kinderhymne” was a creative reaction in lyrical form to the national anthems of both German nation states. Brecht had published the poem and it was set to music by Hanns Eichler in 1950 when five of the 16 German states had already become the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The “Kinderhymne” became the official children’s song of the GDR in 1951. According to Kümmerling-Meibauer and Meibauer, the “Kinderhymne” expresses a sense of hope that Germany can again gain respect in the world from the international community if it tackles the past17. Underlying is the notion that Brecht addresses Germans’ responsibility to face the atrocities of Nazi past, which can be understood as a call to reconciliation directed at both nation states.
Banda’s choice for performing the “Kinderhymne” as a choir piece at the demonstration was a deliberate act to provide the audience recognizable tools to oppose Höcke’s speech. Days ahead of the event, Banda posted the invitation to its social media, along with a recording of Haberkorn and La Hengst performing the song. Banda also made available the song text in the video description. On February 17, 2020, individual performers but not in their capacity as Banda were among the critical mass at the demonstration. However, it seemed that they had distributed the song text, which I was able to pick up from the floor. The band’s strategy enabled singers to create an audible resistance to Höcke’s speech on the other side of the plaza. The lyrics were an extended technology of how Banda creates provisional assemblies in the city. They were also reminder to the singers why resistance to contemporary fascism is so crucial.
The dramaturgical method that created a sense of solidarity among the counter protest empowered the singers to be able to withstand the danger of the encounter on the street. The independent magazine “SAX_Dresden” reported the encounter as “a battle of speeches, chants and songs” (author’s translation, eine Schlacht der Reden, Rufe und Lieder) on its Instagram account18. The militaristic language on several posts under #dd1702 for 2020 exemplifies the heated climate within which the sonic altercations took place. Throughout the demonstration, leaders of the opposition to Pegida would encourage their audience to make noise: to sing, to clap, to boo, to shout, to rattle, to do anything audible that would help render a sonic tapestry that could take away the space within which Pegida and Höcke would want to spread their propaganda.
From the heated interaction in the plaza, it was clear that the band’s tactic contributed to the sustainment of the counter protest. Preparations for the demonstration online were instructions for how to disturb the New Right at the demonstration sonically. These instructions equipped singers with means to creatively intervene in the dramaturgy of the New Right propaganda. Banda practice, therefore, laid important foundations for participatory musical activism in the space of the #dd1702 protest. The musical tools provided functioned as guidance for the audience to develop their own sonic interventions.
The 2020 demonstration was not the first time when Banda distributed materials. Banda often shares sheet music and audio samples ahead of demonstrations to encourage participation from ordinary citizens and transform them into provisional performers. Together with, for example, the musicians from the Ensemble Incroyable the band could form extended orchestras that amplified the brass tunes even further. Concerning this performance, Banda commented on their Instagram account on March 2nd in 2020 that the “noise” of rehearsing is the best tool to create the kind of “noise” that would be most effective for disturbing Pegida’s exclusive claims to public spaces in Dresden. The video posted depicts Banda playing “Blues for Ben”, a New Orleans jazz classic, that allows the musicians to draw in players more and less amateur. The performers give each other space to try out things in the open, which allows facilitating a playful kind of engagement. Furthermore, through the unpredictability of play, the extended orchestra can extend a song beyond its predicted length. Thereby, the performers seek to prohibit interruption by the police. Elongating the breath of the music that the ad-hoc ensemble composes in the streets, broadens the space they can take up to take over the street’s soundscape for that moment.
From the Street Onwards: From One Stage to the Next
Besides transforming the ways in which the citizens of Dresden imagine participation in anti-right-wing protest in the street, Banda uses the platform that derived therefrom to draw attention to the undervalued work of the city’s resistance network. The band aligns itself with marginalized activists and anti-fascists to showcase that the collective project of destabilizing the New Right has strengthened the community for left-wing activists in the city. “Das Blaue Wunder” symbolizes the coming together of different actors who are oftentimes the core of making sure that civic engagement is realized in Dresden.
In interviews I learned that in 2015, the network underwent a period in which it grew stronger. At the time, Pegida sounded the bell for a new era of right-wing extremist movements in Dresden, mobilizing up to 25,000 weekly protestors for weekly radical anti-establishment and anti-migration protests. Left-wing groups in Dresden began to participate in an ad-hoc community-building to oppose the development. An ensemble experienced in playing anti-right-wing protests, Banda expanded its activism in 2014/15 in reaction to that. In an interview with me, performers stated that the band and its friends felt the need to “do something” but did not know how. When Banda marched and played in 2015, the musicians were met with hatred. Pegida supporters would throw bottles at the musicians, sometimes even hitting instruments.
In their 2016 study of No-Pegida movements, Stine Marg et al. discuss Dresden as a specific site in terms of grassroots mobilization because unlike other major counter-Pegida sites like Leipzig, Dresden could not rely on a large established network of associations who had been working against racism in the preceding years. Instead, much of the grassroots protest was conjured up very quickly through the “Dresden für alle” network19. For Banda that meant that much of its activity against Pegida had to be established ad hoc. This type of engagement required many resources and the establishment of new networks between different civil society actors. In my interviews with Banda, performers explained that connections to anti-fascist groups were crucial for understanding how to organize a demonstration. One musician stated that thanks to the work and activism of anti-fascist groups, Banda and other actors in the city were able to swiftly stage resistance concerts. Banda musicians explained that in addition to the network’s resources, a strong determination and an unbreakable willingness was needed to keep the ad-hoc activism alive.
When Banda appears in “Das Blaue Wunder”, it shares this part of its history with the audience. It is clear that the musicians have become a symbol for relentless resistance through music on stage in Dresden. Being part of the play must, therefore, also be seen as a subversive civic effort to rewrite the recent history of resistance groups in the city. Georg Kasch convincingly writes in his review of “Das Blaue Wunder” that it portrays Dresden’s “Arche No-AFD” (ark No-AFD, author’s translation)20. What he means by that is that the play draws attention to the otherwise invisibilized left-wing support network that carries out much of the resistance to right-wing groups in the city, as for example through HOPE fight racism, Bündnis gegen Rassismus. Für ein gerechtes und menschenwürdiges Sachsen., Herz statt Hetze, Nationalismus raus aus den Köpfen, and others. The incorporation of these groups and the band in the play signifies a way of homing resistance on stage and saving it from destructive New Right propaganda.
Off to New Futures: Staging Global Popular Music Imaginaries
“Das Blaue Wunder” is, nonetheless, not the only way in which the musicians engage the theatrical stage. In 2020, the performers participated in the Brecht Festival with “Wild at Brecht”, a collaboration with Bernadette La Hengst. “Wild at Brecht” is a narrative and musical journey through Brecht’s lyrical heritage on migration and flight after 1933 that brings the German-Jewish lyricist’s work in conversation with the band’s global pop music. Exemplary for this combination of narration and musical engagement with the theme of migration and flight is the musicians’ interpretation of the Algerian chaâbi folk song “Ya Rayah”. The song was initially written and recorded by Dahmane el Harrachi in the late 1960s. Jon Stratton explains that the chaâbi genre was an acoustic folk music genre, created in Algeria in the late 19th century. The genre combines “some western instrumental influences with the music of Andalusia”, often carrying a strong moral message through the lyric21. “Ya Rayah” reflects on the experiences of migrants from Algeria who migrated to France for work but failed and had to return home.
“Ya Rayah” has been part of Banda’s repertoire for many years22. A first recording of the song appeared on the 2005 “Banda Comunale” album, where Banda interpreted “Ya Rayah” as an instrumental piece. The 2005 version incorporated melodies and rhythms typical for Klezmer and Romani rhythms. Once oud player Thabet Azzawi and cellist Akram Younus Ramadhan Bauer entered the ensemble in 2015, the band adapted the instrumental piece to include string instruments and Arabic rhythms. Banda primarily performed the song as an instrumental piece, except for rare occasions when Arabic-speaking singers joined the band in 2015/16. That changed with Banda’s 2020 joint performance of “Ya Rayah” with Bernadette La Hengst. Here the musicians not only added lyrics but also provided a first interpretation of Harrachi’s lyrics in German.
The song starts with a sousaphone bassline in syncopated groove, typical of funk traditions, that quickly floats into the song’s theme, which is introduced by Thabet Azzawi on the oud. The combination of styles and traditions marks not only Banda’s adaptation but is characteristic of other interpretations. For example, Rachid Taha’s “Ya Rayah” uses a combination of “hybrid instrumentation drawn from western popular music, as well as traditional north African instruments23 to allude to the in-betweenness that second generation Algerians who have little or no knowledge of life in Algeria and who at the same time live in a France that rejects them. In Banda’s version, hybrid instrumentation is generated through the interplay between oud and sousaphone, played by Peter Birkenhauer. That interplay creates the main theme, which is repeated four times and intermittently interrupted by the orchestra that switches the groove of the bassline to a downbeat-orientation. This treatment suggests a stop-and-start-again moment that can be read as symbolic of to the many attempts made in telling the story that the audience is about to hear.
Repetition is something that recurs throughout the song. The first two lines of the chorus that follow are sung together by Alfred Haberkorn and Bernadette La Hengst. First is the song’s original lyrics in Arabic, followed by the German translation. An upbeat rhythm supports the chorus performed by the percussion section and the guitar.
Ya rayah win m safr trouach taya w twali
Sch ́al ndmou laabad el chaflin kablk ou kabli
Wieviel Länder, wieviel Menschen, wieviel Leid hast Du gesehn?
Wieviel Zeit hast du verschwendet, wie viel Leid muss noch geschehn?24
Following the chorus, the singers alternately each perform two lines of the song’s verses 1-4 that Banda translated into German until a repetition of the chorus after which verses 5-8 are again sung in German.
Sag, warum wirst du so traurig, wenn du in die Ferne siehst?
Sag mir wo ist dein zuhause, wie gehts denen die die du liebst?
Wo wird deine Reise enden, dort wo sie einmal begann?
Oder treibt dich deine Sehnsucht immer weiter nur voran?
Einsam ziehst du durch die Länder wie ein Komet auf seiner Bahn
Du bist müde, du musst weiter und fängst stets von vorne an
Und die Tage werden kürzer, und dein Haar wird langsam dünn
Und doch kommst du nicht zur Ruhe, du musst immer weiter ziehn25
The German verses are not direct interpretations of the Arabic original and available English translations. The band made its own lyrical decisions to adapt the song to context of the preluding Brecht poem “Über die Bezeichnung der Emigranten” (about the name of the emigrants, author’s translation) before which Haberkorn had told the audience about Brecht’s experience in exile and flight to draw connections to the experiences that migrants today make when stuck in detention centers in Lybia or in-between origin and destination in Turkey.
The performance of the verse sections is again backed by an arrangement of percussion and guitar in maqsum rhythm whose upbeat-oriented groove makes the song danceable despite its heavy lyrical topics. Midway through the song, Thabet takes an oud solo for a minute and a half. The first third of the solo is backed by percussion and violin in syncopated groove whereas in the latter two thirds, the solo is backed by the orchestra performing an ascending theme that has a bassline with a downbeat-oriented groove. The orchestra reaches its crescendo after two repetitions. The mixing of basslines musically mirrors the feeling of dissonance between a hope for new beginnings and the barriers faced on the way to which the song’s lyrics point. Finally, the chorus is repeated once more and the song’s ending is signified through the recurrence of the funk baseline. Guitar and other instruments chime into the sousaphone’s upbeat oriented groove. Jumbled together, the direction of the music is no longer clear. The syncopated groove evokes the feeling that the journey continues, and hope is on the horizon. At the same time, as the tune slowly fades out, there is an uncertainty as to what the future will look like. The performance remains an invitation to the audience to reflect on the sorrows of the migrant whose journey is never-ending.
Performing the song alongside the lyrical contributions of Berthold Brecht, Banda sheds light on the connections between the different parts of migration history in the German context. The translation of the Arabic lyrics into German allows the performers to work through verbal expressions that can be understood by a German audience. The band provides a language to the song that allows the audience to understand the story associated with the song that they have been dancing to for years at Banda performances. However, it is not only the interpretation of the Arabic lyrics in German that marks the translation work that Banda does in this song. The band also translates the musical crossover that has developed through the recent inflection of performers playing string instruments and performers who have been trained in playing classic and contemporary Arabic music. The arrangement is, therefore, characteristic of the genre of global popular music that is developing in European contexts wherein newly settled musicians begin to engage and shape the music culture of their new home. Global popular music confirms that both newly and longer settled performers are collaboratively producing a sound, which builds on the legacies of World Music in Europe but also tries to break ties and forge its own track to mimic contemporary experiences. In other words, Banda thematizes the change brought to the music through migration to make something new that reflects, on the one hand, the contemporary moment, and acknowledges, on the other hand, the uncertainties that characterize that moment. The song can, therefore, be understood as a simultaneous staging of past, present, and future ways of imagining and reflecting on migration experiences. The purpose of that is to call for a more humble engagement with the people who experience pain in the process of their journey.
To conclude, this article looked at the case of Banda and its work in the context of Dresden, where the New Right has been on the rise. I followed the band’s trajectory in different politically charged settings to show how music-making and music-staging follow different dramaturgies. This research has shown that the “methods of scene” that Rancière describes can be found in contemporary music activism by Banda where staging and risk-taking go hand in hand to set dialogues and new forms of political participation in motion.
Strategies of disassociation, of staging the unfamiliar and the unexpected through transcultural music can be seen as Banda’s way of creating offerings that do two things at once: The music is supposed to provide musicians and audience a sense of identity and a feeling that a better, more open-minded, and tolerant Dresden is possible. On the other hand, the music proposes an aesthetic that encourages already settled people in Dresden to imagine new futures that are not yet determined. These futures are in the making in the same way as the community in the city remains under constant negotiation. Such subversive forms of imagining are meant to break open anticipated directions for the city’s future. The research presented here provided examples through which Rancière’s conceptualization of the chance of politics and opportunities to disrupt the police order may be thought possible. When the aesthetics of music determines that we can begin to imagine another future, then it is possible to think the dramaturgy of politics as a dramaturgy that is created through the music to make the taking of political risks imaginable. The work of Banda shows that the staging of protest through music resembles the ways in which political participation is sought: more and more diverse voices that have not been given the chance to speak should be given the opportunity to do so and with their voices contribute to the way the space will be defined and imagined in the future.
Therefore, Banda’s work stands in the traditions of what Vis et al. discuss as the aesthetic of protest. The band builds a political dramaturgy for resistance against the New Right in the city. This dramaturgy acts on multiple stages and seeks to overcome the dilemma of preceding resistance movements, and to start an open conversation about the future. The discussion of Banda’s work in this research has shown that together musicians and Dresden’s citizens reassure themselves of their ability to resist. Continuously reinventing their strategies of resistance and reacting to the contingent encounters that they make, they are capable to survive the propaganda of the New Right.26
- Eunice Rojas and Lindsay Michie. Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism [2 Volumes]: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism. Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CL, Oxford: Praeger, 2013.
- Jacques Rancière, Das Verfahren der Szene. Translated by Thomas Laugstien. Zürich: Diaphanes, 2019.
- Heike Kleffner and Matthias Meisner. Unter Sachsen. Zwischen Wut Und Willkommen. Berlin: Links Verlag, 2017.
- 16 March 2021, Der Sonntag, ‘Rechtsmotivierte Angriffe in Sachsen gegen 304 Menschen’.
- 6 November 2020, RAA – Sachsen e.V., ‘Verunsicherung bei Vereinen und sozialen Organisationen’.
- Wolfgang Welsch, ‘Transculturality – the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today’. In Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, edited by Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, 194–213. London: Sage, 1999.
- J. Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Pbk. ed. London ; New York: Continuum, 2006.
- Judith Butler. Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015.
- Vis et al., ‘When Twitter Got #woke: Black Lives Matter, DeRay McKesson, Twitter, and the Appropriation of the Aesthetics of Protest’. In The Aesthetics of Global Protest: Visual Culture and Communication, edited by Aidan McGarry, Itir Erhart, Hande Eslen-Ziya, Olu Jenzen, and Umut Korkut, 247–68. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.
- Vis et al., 250.
- J. Rancière, Das Verfahren der Szene, p. 71.
- Ibid. , p. 15.
- Robert Minatel, ‘A Phenomenology of Musical Activity: Embodiment, World, Intersubjectivity, and Expression’. The University of Guelph, 2021.
- J. Rancière, Das Verfahren der Szene.
- Ibid., p. 13-14.
- Ibid., p. 14-15.
- Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer and Jörg Meibauer. ‘Bertolt Brecht’s Radical Contribution to Pacifist Children’s Lyrics in Interwar Germany: “Die Drei Soldaten” (The Three Soldiers) and “Kinderkreuzzug 1939” (Children’s Crusade 1939)’. Barnboken 42 (2019).
- SAX_Dresden, ‘Eine Schlacht Der Reden, Rufe Und Lieder Ist Vorbei. Ruhe Hatte Bernd Jedenfalls Nicht … #fuckafd #dd1702 #neumarkt #dresden’ Instagram, 17 February 2020.
- Marg, Stine, Katharina Trittel, Christopher Schmitz, Julia Kopp, and Franz Walter. NoPegida: Die Helle Seite Der Zivilgesellschaft? Xtexte. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2016.
- Georg Kasch. ‘Das Blaue Wunder – In Dresden lässt Volker Lösch zusammen mit Thomas Freyer und Ulf Schmidt die AfD zu Wasser’, 2019.
- Jon Stratton, “Rachid Taha and the Postcolonial Presence in French Popular Music”, Performing Islam 1, no. 2 (1 January 2013), p. 198.
- In the narrative mapping of Banda’s engagement with “Ya Rayah”, I discuss the role of the song for the ensemble in more detail.
- Stratton, ‘Rachid Taha…”, p. 201.
- English translation of Rachid Taha’s version of the chorus by Kabylia213: “Oh traveler, where you going? You’ll end up back/How many people have regretted unwise before you and me (bis)/How many overpopulated countries and desert areas have you seen?/How much time have you wasted? How much are you losing more and that you let?” Kabylia213, ‘Translation of “Ya Rayah” by Rachid Taha (رشيد طه) from Arabic to English (Version #3)’.
- English translation of Rachid Taha’s version of the verses by Kabylia213: “Oh you the stranger, you never cease to run in other countries/Destiny and time follow their race but you do not know it/Why is it your heart so sad? Why are you standing there like an unhappy?/The difficulties do not last and you do not learn build and nothing more/The days do not last, just like your youth and mine/Oh the unfortunate luck of which went like mine/Oh you who travel, I give you an advice to follow now/See what suits you before you buy or sell/Oh you the sleepy, news reached me of you, it happened to you what happened to me/So the heart back to its creator the Almighty” Kabylia213.
- I would like to thank Banda Comunale for sharing their experiences and work with me. I am also grateful to the editors whose comments and suggestions greatly improved earlier versions of this manuscript. The manuscript was written with the support of the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.