Esrap by Daniel Shaked -2857

The Sounds from Afar and Around

You’ve probably been to “Tschuschistan” and you didn’t even know it. There is no border and you don’t need a passport.

But if you’ve ever bought an eggplant at Brunnenmarkt, eaten ćevapi in Balkanika, tasted a sugary baklavain Restaurant Kent or sipped black coffee from a demitasse on Yppenplatz in Vienna’s 16th district, you’ve been there. It’s where the siblings Enes and Esra Özmen – EsRAP – like to hang out. She raps; his voice is the melancholy sidekick to her rhyme. Their recently released album is called – you guessed it – “Tschuschistan.”

Tschusch is a hurtful word. We don’t know where it came from exactly, said the ethno-musicologist Ursula Hemetek, but the word took root in the ’70s, after the 1973 oil crisis that reverberated around the world, shaking up the Austrian economy, too.

Xenophobia was on the rise, and the Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia who had come to Austria sometime during the previous decade were its target. Enter the slur Tschusch. Originally “reserved” for the former Yugoslavs, today its derogatory meaning extends also to people with Turkish roots.

At the beginning of the 1990s, a band of migrant musicians saw music as a good way to fight these negative stereotypes. The Wiener Tschuschenkapelle came onto the scene, playing traditional songs spanning the Balkan Peninsula. Three decades later, EsRAP – born and raised in Ottakring in Turkish families – are giving Tschusch yet another, second-generation twist.

Children of the Diaspora

“Normally it is a discriminatory word against immigrant people, and we were often confronted with it,” said Esra. “And then we thought, ‘Hey, it’s not a bad word, we live here and we love our Tschuschen status. We are Tschusch! What’s the problem?” The term conveys a feeling of diaspora, an identity that fits these children of immigrants very well. Not quite Turkish, not quite Austrian, but both – a mixture of here and there.

So is their music – potent rap and melodious Turkish arabesque that Enes used to sing at weddings as a child. “Arabesque is music for expressing grievances,” said Enes. “You can complain – about fate, about sadness; you mourn. Rap is similar, but stronger. It is protest, but it is also about suffering, only in a different form.” “In Arabesque, we felt that something inside hurts; in rap we found out why it hurts,” added Esra who first started writing poetry in school as a way to cope with the racism and discrimination she experienced.

Stepping up to the mic, musicians with so-called “migrant backgrounds” (first or second generation) are proposing a counter-narrative to the anti-immigrant talk at the heart of right-wing politics. In Tschuschistan, everyone is welcome, they say. No passport required.

Some in the older generations who have also felt the sting of exclusion might not understand EsRAP’s vision. “My uncle says: ‘Esra, what are you doing? Twenty years ago we worked so hard not to be called Tschuschen. And you come and say, I am a Tschusch. Why?’”

Even so, over time, people have started coming up to them with personal stories to turn into songs.

People in our communities have noticed: “This is political,” she said. “It’s possible to complain and be loud through this music. You don’t need a lawyer, you don’t need a translator. Here is Esra, they say. She can rap about the problems, and maybe that can bring something. They hope that the music can change something.”

The Viennese hip-hop duo EsRAP reflects in their music the experience of growing up between Turkish guest worker culture and Viennese student life. Photo (c) Daniel Shaked

Rhymes & Chimes

Yasmin Hafedh, aka Yasmo, rhymes for a similar reason. “I want people to connect and know that they are not alone. I let people know – this is how I think, maybe you can relate to that. Or you totally disagree but this is my opinion and you have to listen to it now because you paid the ticket for the concert,” she laughs.

In her “feminist dance music,” Yasmo sometimes uses humor to drive her politics home. One of her songs lists all the banal questions she’s regularly asked by journalists.

Like this one: “Yasmo, where are you from?”

“I was born and raised here.” Her mother is from Germany; father from Tunisia. “It is such an annoying question because you get it so often. And I’m white – I don’t wear a hijab. Other people get it even more often.” The reason may be her German accent, or her name. Or maybe because “not every person in Vienna has understood that Vienna is an international city.” Curiosity about others is a good thing, she said, but so is reflection.

Some of Yasmo’s childhood memories are set to the soundtrack of the darbuka drums she heard on her visits to Tunisia – the reason she feels at home with rhythm, perhaps. Her sound today, working with the big band Klangkantine, is a blend of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and pop – an original Vienna mix.

Another Vienna original is Madame Baheux, made up of four women, four passports, a multitude of musical influences in one city – Jelena Popržan from Serbia (viola and vocals), Ljubinka Jokić from Bosnia and Herzegovina (guitar and vocals), Lina Neuner from Austria (double bass) and Maria Petrova from Bulgaria (drums, percussion). “We are an Austrian band” said Popržan, “because the music we make is made here.”

At the sound check for the “Signale19 – Make Music Political” event in September, the band’s powerful rendition of the traditional Bulgarian song “Dilmano, Dilbero” comes through the loudspeakers. Powerful voice, moving arrangement, emotional beat. It’s hard to sit this one out.“

Everyone brings her own experience, personality and favorite music, so in each arrangement you can hear each one of us,” said Popržan. Sometimes, though, the background is louder than the music. “We are seen as people from certain places and countries, and there are prejudices – positive or negative. So, you are not only seen as a musician; sometimes you are first a Serbian, Bosnian or Bulgarian musician.” Lina Neuner, from Vienna, is the band’s only Gastarbeiter, they joke.

Traditional music from the Balkans forms a good part of Madame Baheux’ diverse repertoire, but for some, it took moving away from home to appreciate it. Growing up in Serbia in the 1990s, Popržan didn’t listen to this music, because it was used for nationalist war propaganda. Only in Austria could she finally hear its beauty.

Some of their songs have a clear political message. Others simply tug at your heart-strings. “With or without the message, we play what we like,” said Ljubinka Jokić.

Sing Your Heart Out

On the election night, in club FLUC on Praterstern, Marko Marković makes music with knives. They clink against each other; it’s just another piece of percussion on the stage. The act is impressive, an adrenaline-filled dissemination of this performance collective’s anarchist manifesto. An uncomfortable question hangs written above the entrance to the club: “Do you like Ausländer?”

Ausländer is the performance collective’s name – it means “foreigner,” a common scapegoat for the political right. So, the name is a protest, said Marković, a cooptation. “Now when we’re playing somewhere and people hear that Ausländer is playing, this becomes cool and something good.”

For Marković and others, Vienna is an especially inspiring place, where people from all over the world come together to create.

“Coming together” – perhaps that could be a good alternative to “integration,” a word that sits uncomfortably on many peoples’ tongues. The musicians offer their personal definitions: learning from each other, creating together, respecting each other, tolerance. Why are we even talking about this?

Everyone agrees that music is a great tool for integration, whatever its definition. Maria Petrova summed it up: “It works without language and without countries; it touches you on a different level.”

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