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Posted by Michael Franti ( on May 28, 2001 at 12:20:48:

Memories of East Berlin

Last week we played a club called Pfefferberg in Berlin Germany. As our bus pulled up to the venue I realized that the neighborhood we were in was in a neighborhood that I recognized as part of the former East Berlin. It looked quite similar to the way I had remembered before the wall came down except for the fact that there was tons of advertising everywhere I looked.

In july 1989 I had made a tour of East Germany, with my old band The Beatnigs. We were invited as part of a political song festival and It was one of the most emotionally turbulent trips I have made as a musician. At the time Berlin, was a virtual island landlocked by East Germany. I recall flying on Interflug (the east german airline), the DDR government had flown us first class from San Francisco to JFK on Pan Am and then on Interflug to East Berlin from there. Ironically we got on the second leg of the flight and noticed although the tickets said first class we got no special seating as a result of the fact that East Germany was supposed to be a "classless" communist society and therefore there was no first class seating.

We travelled with two russian bands and played four concerts in east germany. The last concert was in a park on a lake island called the Isle of youth. After the show, John Lennon's film "imageine" was shown for the first time in east Germany. The Russian bands played very strange "art rock" music that seemed to be inspired by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. At the time the only western music reaching Russia, was black market records that were sold in Russia as a result of too many being pressed up in America. Dealers tried to unload their surplus stock in Eastern Europe. so the influences that reached Russian rock musicians was often varied, and did not follow the same progression of change as pop music in the west.

At the time, people from the east were only allowed to pass throught the wall to west Berlin on very special occasions, for example a wedding or funeral. They often had to apply for visas years in advance. people from the West were allowed to pass into the East on a tourist Visa, provided they had money to spend and were willing to spend 25 German marks on a visa. The East German government was desperate for cash flow at the time and allowed this type of tourism in order to bolster their economy.

On one day I passed through the border from east to west in order to do a promo trip. Somehow I had taken a train from one side to the next and ended up at the wrong location, so I used my American passport, paid 25 marks and passed back through. After this I found the right passing and crossed over again into the west, did my interviews and then crossed back in to the east that night. Each time I passed through, I was saddened by the fact that there were families who were dressed in their very best clothes, attempting to convince passport police that their visas were in order. I recall one little girl and her mother who were not allowed entry for their once in a lifetime visit. Although I could not understand their language, I could see that the mother was telling the little girl, who was breaking down, not to cry in front of the machine gun toting passport poilce. Not to give them that satisfaction.

The fact that I had been able to pass through the border three times in one day had made me feel sick to my stomach as I sat in my hotel room and recalled the look of the little girl who would not be passing because of some stupid paperwork technicality.

The most difficult part of my trip to east germany was to come months later.

During our time in the East we were accompanied by a young inerpreter named Irene. She was young energetic and ever so helpful as we journeyed throughout east Germany where the second language was often Russian and very few people spoke fluent English. She was especially fond of music and loved working with us.

We were paid in East German marks for our gigs, and this currency was worthless outside of the DDR. So when we left East Berlin we bought Praktika (eastern made) camera equipment. It was like being on wheel of fortune. "For 800 marks I'll take the camera, for 1000 marks I'll take the telephoto lense, etc..." . There were east germans in line to buy things who had saved up money for months just to buy film. Each of us were given more marks than what a family of four would make in a year. We had so much of this money that could not leave the country that we decided to open a bank account and leave the money there in case we ever came back.

After we had left the country we found out our interpreter Irene had already been 3 months pregnant when we had met her. She had explained to us that the biggest problem in east germany at the moment was "brain drain". The brightest and most talented young people were leaving the country and the government would not allow anyone who left to return to see their families. She told us that possibly in ten years time the government might allow people to travel freely and possibly in ten or twenty years the wall would eventually fall.

In a great shock to the whole world, in October of 1989, the wall came down.

I was very happy about the collapse of the wall and we decided to give the money we had in the bank to Irene. In an effort to help Easterners get off to a good start in the new Unified Germany, the Unified Government traded DDR marks for Western Marks at a rate of one to one. Which meant that this useless money was now quite valuable. We had left about 30,000 marks in the bank (at the time the mark was valued at about 2.5 to the dollar) We were happy for Irene who would be giving birth soon and the money would help her to get off to a good start.

The wall coming down was not easy for everyone. Many East Germans immediately went out and took loans to buy all of the material goods they could never get in the East. TV's, VCR's, cars, motorcycles, etc... Many Easterners found themselves madly in debt with no job and a limited comprehension of how the western way of finances worked. Others found out that members of their family had been working as informants for the secret state police. There was a lot of pain in the discovery of these truths.

For whatever reason Irene went into a great depression. She found out many of her family had been involved in things that she had no idea about.
For reasons that only she will know, at seven months preganant, Irene committed suicide.

We were all crushed at the news.

I had hoped to see her again in the Unified Germany and see her with her child growing up with a new sense of freedom. The learning of her death challenged my view of what it means to be free. We in the West often view the fact that we have access to materialism as freedom, yet we often find ourselves enslaved by the rat race struggling just to pay the bills. we see the fact that we are able to travel as freedom, but only a few of us can afford it and many of us never leave the area we grow up in. We have the right to free speech(until you actually try it!) yet we are subject the views corporate owned media manipulators.

Freedom is an internal thing, some of us find it in circumstances others feel oppressed by. Some of us find it wherever we live, and others find it only in death.

michael franti
may 28th 2001

Posted by jennyb ( on May 30, 2001 at 23:55:37:

In Reply to: Memories of East Berlin posted by michael franti on May 28, 2001 at 12:20:48:

I just have to say that this story (this truth) struck me so hard....particularly because in the same year you were working with Irene, I was in Budapest, and spent one evening under the citadel talking with 2 East German back-packers about what the word "freedom" meant to them. The conversation left me so confused - the concept of freedom suddenly seemed very abstract - not at all cut and dried. Your final comment that freedom is personal and is unique for every one of us helps me understand it so much better....

peace to you in your travels,


Posted by Eileen ( on May 30, 2001 at 10:32:11:

In Reply to: Memories of East Berlin posted by michael franti on May 28, 2001 at 12:20:48:

I'm glad there's someone out there like you, Michael, as well as people who read and are moved my your words, your poems and your music.

What you write about, the history you've enocuntered in East Berlin is amazing from a personal, social, economic and global level.

I'm sorry to hear about Irene and her unborn child. Can things really be that rough?!

I guess so, and I know so. We all interact with the world, the earth and each other in such varying ways. I often look at my surrounding and my situation and I question what it's all about, question my role, my goal, my spirit.

I think your message in written, spoken, and sung form creates a communal atmosphere. that I'm proud to be a part of. I look at the worls around me and I feel love, anger, fear, confusion, joy.....I feel human. That's how I want to be and that's how I want to stay. I hope we can all do it together.

Posted by madmanbabar ( on May 30, 2001 at 03:53:08:

In Reply to: Memories of East Berlin posted by michael franti on May 28, 2001 at 12:20:48:


i have not read something that is written in so easy language but at the same time every word has so much colour and life not to mention the brutal and tragic beuty of the story

reminds me of tales charles bukowski wrote

the story made me stop and think.thank u.


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