Music & clubs

Keeping the soul alive: Max Weissenfeldt

INTERVIEW: The Polyversal Souls are heading to HKW's Wassermusik X, where they'll support Ethiopian jazz legend Alemayehu Eshete on Aug 11. We spoke to band leader Max Weissenfeldt about his musical upbringing, jazz jamming, and Sikyi Highlife.

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The Polyversal Souls [second from left: Max Weissenfeldt]

Berlin-based drummer and producer Max Weissenfeldt started his first label when he was 16 years old and went on to play with heavyweights such as The Black Keys, Lana Del Rey, and Dr. John. He now heads German-Ghanaian ensemble Polyversal Souls, the funky and flexible house band of his newest label Philophon. You can catch them at Wassermusik X on Friday, August 11 at 7pm, supporting Ethiopian jazz legend Alemayehu Eshete on HKW’s terrace.

You grew up in Munich listening to funk.

Yeah, we called it rare groove. It was not just funk because funk music also includes stuff from the 1980s. Rare groove was a specific period. I’d call it Afro-American local music from the mid-1960s to early 1970s.

What was it about rare groove that captured you?

This was the late 1980s, when mainstream music became very professional and somehow clean and predictable, with house – it was called “acid” back in the day – and early techno stuff, and this music was not affecting me. But then I heard soul music. If you take the words “techno” and “soul” and compare them, they’re the most far-apart corners of the universe, just the words. Mostly, I wouldn’t say that techno has a soul. So we decided to keep the soul alive in a world where techno music had just started. But it was intuitive, not reflective.

What was your musical education?

Buying records, being enthusiastic about it. And always trying to play with good musicians, mostly with better musicians, because then you get the motivation to be good like them and get your business together. But I had some teachers. I played with the German Krautrock group Embryo, and Christian Burchard, the leader, showed me a lot. He was very skilled, and he really kicked my ass. Then I studied with the great drummer (and a great friend of mine) Marvin “Bugalu” Smith. He played drums for the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 1980s, so he’s an original Sun Ra band member. In 2008, shortly after I moved to Berlin, he said to me, “Max – when you’re back in Berlin, build up a jazz jam session.” So I did. A weekly jam session at a small club called Soul Cat. It became popular very fast, and then suddenly I had a phonebook full of numbers. That was the best advice anybody ever gave me.

For Wassermusik X, your group is playing with Ethiopian singer Alemayehu Eshete – how did that come about?

Alemayehu actually came to Berlin in 2015 for a few days. We played a concert with him and did some recordings [including a reworking of Eshete’s song “Alteleyeshegnem”, released as a single in June 2017]. After that we were approached by HKW’s booking agent. But if we have time and everything works well, we would like to record a few more tracks. We have four songs now, so take another four, and maybe two instrumentals. Then we’d have a whole album, which would be great. After the single’s release, a lot of people requested more, like “Why no album?” So it could be a mega-seller! [laughs]

German-African collaborations seem to be everywhere these days… What do you think is the biggest challenge when it comes to these cross-cultural music projects? 

I think you have to be very serious if you want to bring different cultures, different identities together. It’s very naïve to just jam it. You really have to go deep down to the formal principles of the music and find out where we can come together, really in the core of the thing.

Why doesn’t jamming work?

It works, it can be fun, but it’s mostly not satisfying. Every identity has its own values. If you just puzzle it together… it’s too superficial. Every music is a language. You don’t speak gibberish and say it’s a new language now. So take your time. First of all, don’t disrespect your own and the other culture. It’s not good to just jam with identities. It’s better to be serious, to sit down and try to understand, and then build something up. I think I have a problem with this term “world music.” World music is mostly a very superficial mixture. There is no cultural value. It doesn’t convince me. Either take it seriously, or don’t do it.

You’ve been going back and forth between Germany and Ghana since 2010, and support a lot of Ghanaian artists via Pilophon. Why Ghana? What prompted you to make your first trip there?

Since the 1990s, I’d been trying – and this was before the internet, so it was actually hard to get stuff – to buy African recordings. Original, polyrhythmic drumming from the big drum choirs which are mostly located in West Africa. Polyrhythms are so complex. You can’t understand it if you don’t go there and ask how you do it. That was one aspect. Plus, Ghana has a great highlife culture. There’s one particular group called Dr. K. Gyasi & His Noble Kings. They did this recording called Sikyi Highlife, and it’s a beautiful record. A friend played it for me, and the next day I booked a flight to Ghana. I had to find these people. I was so overwhelmed by it.

So you wanted to learn about the record?

Yes, to understand it. It was the first ever gold record in Ghana that sold more than 250,000 copies. And you have to see, in Ghana, there maybe just exist 250,000 record players. And this album is still played by young bands. Live on the radio, during funerals, and stuff like that. For me it’s the Ghanaian anthem. It’s one of the great heritages of human culture – that’s my definition of this record. Unbelievably good. Better than Beethoven.

Alemayehu Eshete & The Polyversal Souls at Wassermusik X, Aug 11, 19:00 | Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Tiergarten