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Prenzlauer Berg is a bustling section of Berlin just north of the town center and away from the usual tourist haunts. The neighborhood, once part of East Berlin, offers cheap rent and a hip cachet, making it a haven for students, artists, intellectuals and immigrants. It’s also home to the Kulturbrauerei (Culture Brewery). Built in 1842, the red brick complex operated as a working brewery until the 1960s, and it’s now a protected landmark. Spread over several square blocks, it conceals a half-dozen small courtyards and a warren of inexpensive offices and studios,along with a café, theater, even a grocery store—a cozy village hidden in a bustling city.
Back in one corner is the 17 Hippies headquarters: two large, open rooms—the first with a small kitchenette and large conference table, the second with offices and a recording studio. Several desks are pushed together into a giant workspace for band members who double as publicist, manager, graphic designer, webmaster, and online retailer. On the opposite wall, a clutch of tour gear is stacked near the small studio where the group’s latest CD, Heimlich (Secretly), was recorded.
Heimlich, in fact, has all the earmarks of the Hippies. Their second studio effort and their first U.S. release, the album embraces a wide range of influences from chanson to alt-country, Balkan to beerhall—and beyond. With bittersweet lyrics sung in French, English and German, and with catchy melodies played on a dizzying array of instruments, it’s a mature (if such a word can be used with this zany outfit) set that highlights the growing subtlety and complexity of the Hippies’ original material.
Although they’re well-known in Germany and other parts of Europe (France, Spain and Russia in particular), until recently the group’s only American appearance had been in Austin, Texas, where they played the South By Southwest Music Festival in 1998. All that changed this past fall on the heels of their first American tour, which included dates at the Chicago and Lotus World Music Festivals, the Kennedy Center and the Knitting Factory, among others. For the band’s Christopher Blenkinsop, the tour caps a long and arduous journey that began more than 12 years ago.
“I was visiting friends in Ireland,” he recalls, “and in Dublin on Sundays, if you don’t want to go to the church, you go to the pub and you drink and you play—you never just listen. You’ve got different generations, from kids hardly able to hold a fiddle to grandpa who knows every tune but can’t play anymore because of arthritis. And you’ve got this scene of someone getting up from the table, going up to the bar, tapping someone on the shoulder, giving him the violin and he sits down and plays. We were just fascinated by this.”
Back in Berlin, Blenkinsop and singer/accordionist Kiki Sauer, a couple at the time, wanted to re-create that Dublin experience. “The idea was, you bring your three tunes, I bring my three tunes, and someone else brings three tunes, and then we have a repertoire of nine songs we can play,” Blenkinsop says of the early days. “It wasn’t a band. It was just a group of people wanting to learn stuff and play.”
In the midst of all this creative energy that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Hippies bounced along, attracting a group of players that varied in size from a dozen to as many as 30, along with a growing crowd of ardent fans. Gradually the musicians introduced an even greater assortment of instruments—violin, cello, accordion, clarinet, flute, recorder, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, euphonium, spoons, musical saw, bass, ukulele, banjo, triangle, mandolin, balalaika, guitar, harmonica, Irish bouzouki, Persian hammered dulcimer, harmonium, castane