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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cutting edge meets tradition in German reggae artist Gentleman

A pioneer of the Germaican music scene, Gentleman has diversified his repertoire for a new chart-topping album. But while he applauds change, he says turbo-powered digital society needs a more human approach.

With several international hits behind him and requests to perform in Japan, Israel, and even Suriname, German performer Gentleman is one of the nation's foremost reggae artists. He's also grown roots of respect in the genre's cradle, Jamaica, a place he calls his second home. Born Tillman Otto, he sings in fluent Patois.

In April, Gentleman released his fifth studio album, which shot to Number One. Its title, "Diversity," befits not only the variety of songs on it as Gentleman branches out musically, but also how Germany's most Jamaican-at-heart musician views the genre of reggae as a whole. Deutsche Welle caught up with the award-winning artist who divides his time between family life in Cologne and his Caribbean island of choice.

Deutsche Welle: Why is your new studio album, "Diversity," so different from your previous record, "Another Intensity," released in 2007?
Gentleman: When I'm in Jamaica and turn the radio on, I hear what's getting airplay. It has become incredibly diverse. There are now Europop/dancefloor numbers, classic roots sounds, of course, music with a hip-hop touch, elements of dub, ballads, R&B. And it's all reggae! Naturally, you raise your standards with every album you release, but at the same time, you grow and mature. You become more relaxed, calmer, and don't care so much about the reggae "police." You have to in order to progress.

Over the past several years, reggae has become more widespread and is no longer solely popular among diehard fans. What is better about it now?
I can't say whether reggae has become better or worse. For me, it has always been in flux. Since the days of Bob Marley, it has been in a constant process of change and progress. Sometimes it's more traditional, goes back to the roots. Sometimes it's totally modern. It has always had that rich diversity. In my opinion, you can't find that to such an extreme in any other genre of music.
Why did you choose to use more electronic elements on your new album?
For the previous albums, the band and I predominantly recorded what we played in the studio live. There were only rare exceptions. This time, it was different. Parts of it we recorded from playing live, but most of it was produced electronically.
You've switched record companies and are now signed to Island Records, Bob Marley's old label. You have said you want to tap the American and Japanese markets. Why is that so important?
It's a logical step. I've been performing for almost 20 years. At festival gigs in America, I've noticed there's an intense interest in me and the music. But that's been under-utilized. There's still potential in terms of releases. My records aren't really in many of the shops and played on the radio there. I can sense the appetite for it and want to check it out.
You've changed your studio approach, record company, even the band has a new lineup….
It'd be terrible if things didn't change. When people say "Hey, you haven't changed a bit," I consider it more of an insult than a compliment. Life is full of change and after so many years, it's perfectly natural. It's not always easy, but new beginnings often feel good. And the time lends itself to that: a new decade, a new record label, a new band name. Musically, it's also taking a different direction compared to the past - without neglecting the roots of course. The record has its share of classic roots songs on it.

Some people say your lyrics now contain more social critique than on earlier records. Do you agree?
My music has often been called so positive. I never saw it that way. I don't know why people thought that. "Hunky-dory, sunshine, blue skies - barefoot reggae people seeing everything through rose-colored glasses saying 'everything's cool.'" I've always found the music to be political, radical and socio-critical. I aim for a certain standard in my lyrics. At the same time, not every song has to have a deep message; music is primarily entertainment. You can have the most poignant lyrics in the world, but if you don't have the melody, no one will listen.
I am critical of the direction society is taking. Web 2.0, for example, and interpersonal relationships. As an artist I think you have to address such things. They become much more bearable the moment you start talking about them - instead of pretending we're all happy in this society preoccupied with the pursuit of pleasure, when actually there's a much different vibe. You just have to be honest, talk about it. Or in my case, sing about it.
Why are you critical about Web 2.0?

It's both a blessing and a curse. I use it too, but I'm not on Facebook or twittering about what I do all day. It works really well to have various musicians sending files back and forth to each other. But the background is that you already know each other personally. You meet face-to-face and afterwards say, "You send me your saxophone part, and you send me your guitar bit, I'll sing over that and then you send me the final mix." Or skyping with my kids when I'm in Jamaica…That's exciting and cool.
What bothers me is the unbelievable divulgence of information. We all complain about it, but we're the ones doing it. I'm careful about what I post about myself. The moment people know everything about us - our religious views, sexual preferences - we become predictable, calculable. Then we become more controllable. The big question of the naughts is: who is controlling whom? It's a bit Orwellian, but we're doing it ourselves. 
Kids today are digital natives and have a very different relationship to the Internet. Besides, there's no stopping that development you describe….
No, but you can show them alternatives. There's an incredible amount of data racing towards us, even more so to our children, and we have to filter that information. In the old days, three TV channels were enough. I make sure to take my son outdoors, go into the woods to build a tree house, for example. There's less interest in an online war game if you have other prospects and are familiar with other activities.
German R&B singer Cassandra Steen appears on your new record, as does African German reggae artist Patrice. How did those collaborations come about?

I first met Cassandra when she was 16, back in the days of Freundeskreis [a German hip-hop group, with whom Steen has sung]. I've always found her voice fascinating and have watched her development as a musician. When I wrote this R&B ballad, I heard her voice in my head.
With Patrice, it'd been a typical "I'll call you"-thing between musicians. For ten years, we'd been saying "let's do a song together," but it never panned out. So I was in Kingston, a city of millions, sitting in the back of a car stopped in rush-hour traffic. Most of the cars have tinted windows and as I rolled down my tinted window, a tinted window to the right of me rolled down at the very same moment. Who was sitting in the back of the car? Patrice! It was such an incredible moment. That feeling I always have that there are no coincidences, only strokes of fate, was confirmed thousand-fold. He was on vacation; I was recording my album. Two days, later we were in the studio together. The song is called "Along the Way." It all fit. It was a very spiritual moment.
What's the story behind the unusual Eurodance track you recorded with Christopher Martin, a well-known musician in Jamaica, but a virtual unknown in Germany?
The story is to be open to the kind of music that's popular in Jamaica right now. That's part of it. I like the mix of continuous bass drum with soulful elements. At first, I was also critical: "Oh no, that typical Europop sound." But that's hot there right now and the song has amazing bounce. I was in [Jamaican-American reggae singer] Shaggy's studio and Martin's producers were there and thay said they wanted both of us on it. We recorded the song and I thought it sounded so cool and fresh, I wanted to put it on my album, too.
How do you explain your affinity to Kingston and Jamaica, a country torn between beauty and violence?
I think Jamaica is close to life, that dichotomy is the key. Those paradoxes are what make it interesting. Just like in life. That may sound a little overblown, but that's how it is. In Jamaica, you feel life with a different intensity. Of course, it's no picnic there. Sometimes it's hard to cope with the two extremes - utter love, openness and creativity on the one hand and the unbelievably high murder rate and human ignorance on the other. But you find good and bad everywhere in the world. In Jamaica, it's extreme, but that's also part of the appeal.
Interview: Deborah Friedman
Editor: Louisa Schaefer


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