About three years after immigrating to Berlin, Germany, from Russia and the Ukraine respectively, Wladimir Kaminer and Yuriy Gurzhy started the legendary eastern-disco club night ‘Russendisko’ (Russian disco) in 1999 — first at Café Zapata and then at cultbar Kaffee Burger — by putting light on music that was previously eclipsed by the Iron Curtain. Their Russian-disco-pop frenzy hit East Berlin for the first time when Wladimir was asked to organise a Russian-themed event for the anniversary of the October Revolution. Not really having much of a clue what this should encompass, it was Wladimir’s wife Olga who suggested he simply throw a party with the music he loves. So Wladimir and Yuriy – who connected through a mutual love for collecting music – introduced their home turfs’ party songs to an appreciating crowd of 300 – 400 people from all sorts of backgrounds. A year later Wladimir published a book about the bi-monthly event aptly titled Russendisko, a corny film of the same title has been made, and both of them now have an unexpected career and reputation as DJs who can steam up a room.

Intrigued about how Russendisko’s obscure music managed to become trendy among such a broad audience, one small seed hooked up with Yuriy in Berlin. We found out that he took his love for revolutionising music culture further and founded a band, or let’s say a music-making party collective, with a shifting line-up of often more than 10 musicians, who are of different nationalities, speak different languages and integrate different styles of music. This diversity and wealth of influences is, it would seem, hard to combine into something smooth without the surface looking a bit rough. Yet Rotfront’s musical ‘front’ is slick and easy to traverse. Once you’re in, you’ve joined a party of, as Yuriy will explain in this interview, various realms and dimensions.

Image: reeperbahnfestival.com

Image: reeperbahnfestival.com

Russendisko in Xtra Zuerich’06 from RUSSENDISKO on Myspace.

Image: so36.de

Image: so36.de

How was your band Rotfront formed after launching Russendisko?

Three or four years later we met Simon Wahorn, a guy from Hungary who lived in Berlin, and realised that we were both musicians who didn’t really know anybody. We realised that we both wanted to form a band for quite some time but we didn’t have contacts, or knew someone who was willing to lead this band. So suddenly we realised that we would fit together well and our skills would add up.

At the beginning it was more of a hobby, a fun band, we rarely played any shows. We were a normally more than ten people in the band, including a female choir, and the line-up kept changing, so it was hard to tour.

We were actually a cover band when we started, but then I found out that in Germany a cover band is something completely different to what I thought it was.

A lot of bands play covers so they can earn money, it’s the easy way. But we covered music that nobody knew, that’s why people might have thought we were playing original songs.

What problems did you have starting out as musicians and what sort of role did the music industry how it was back then play a role? How does it compare to today?

We did manage to play bigger festivals without releasing our first record, through live performances and making a name for ourselves. I’m proud of that. It’s difficult because in the last couple of years there are more and more niche markets and it’s hard to say, ‘This is how you do it!’ It could work for one band but ruin another. There is no model for success that works today.

Apparently musicians are quite well off here in Berlin. It’s supposed to be like London in the ‘80s. Everybody wants to come here to do music because rents are cheap and it’s relatively easy to sustain yourself as a musician.

I wasn’t in London in the ‘80s because I needed a visa for London (laughs). Berlin is still relatively cheap compared to some other cities and because of that, but also for other reasons, there are a lot of musicians. If that’s all you need, sustaining yourself and being among musicians, you’ll definitely find this in Berlin. You generally don’t have to pay that much rent and you can get gigs by getting to know lots of people. Musicians that I know, for example, who do music as a profession and play in cover bands four days a week, can be pretty well off if they want. They play at corporate events and get their 200 Euros per show and can live from that. Yet when it comes to more creative things it’s not so easy. Because Berlin is cheap, venues often don’t charge a lot of cover. If you play for a cover charge — which is a quite widely spread model in the club industry — and 20 people come, then you get 70 percent from the door. And that’s a 100 or 200 Euros that you still have to split between band members, which must be pretty tough…

Image: liveberlin.ru

Image: liveberlin.ru

Is that the norm? The band gets 70 percent of the door?

Yes, absolutely. As long as your music doesn’t get played on the radio or TV and you don’t get any GEMA royalties then your income depends on your live performances. I can only speak for myself and the people I know – but I do feel a general bitterness towards today’s music industry.

Is it true that Rotfront is a political band but you don’t sing about politics? What sort of influence do you think that has? Do you want to influence anything at all?

Of course we want to influence something but I don’t want to sound partial when I sing in any way.

It’s so absurd when a band plays to 10 or a 100 people and sings about weighty political topics.

I don’t think that they can really influence anything except for making the person who’s singing feel relevant – it’s all a game. Rotfront is an international band, we pretty much all come from different countries, and can handle each other pretty well. It’s exactly that – politics try to give society certain rules and what we do is try and show what happens if we do things according to our rules. We get along well, socially as well as musically, and that way we are showing that this exchange, this togetherness, can happen smoothly and effortless.

Some topics in our music aren’t addressed directly but they are there. I’m Jewish and I like to play with elements of Jewish culture and music – not in every song and I’m by no means saying that we’re doing Jewish music – that wouldn’t be quite correct – but you’ll come across it at some stage – certainly if you know the band for a bit longer or listen a bit more intensely. I know people who, through Rotfront, came across topics that they wouldn’t have found interesting otherwise. Yet if you try and teach people certain things in a way that is ‘unsexy’ it often doesn’t work.

If you dance to a song like ‘Gay, Gypsy and Jew’ you’re partying with that song but you can also think about its message easily – that’s how you find a ‘smoother path’ to topics that normally might not interest you.

And if you go further you might find more interesting things – there are many dimensions. I do think it’s important to deal with certain topics in songs but in a way that’s not necessarily on the surface but in another dimension of the song. The song also has to work without that dimension though. I don’t want to say this band is so cool because it’s a Jewish band or a political band but it’s something that could be beneath the surface. If the songs work and you enjoy the band and you’re prepared to listen a bit more carefully, you’ll come across it.

Image: vimeo.com

Image: vimeo.com

Russendisko goes Greece 2004 from RUSSENDISKO on Myspace.

Image: so36.de

Image: so36.de

I think the concept of your band would fit really well into a South African context because there are so many different languages and cultures in one country.

Yes I’ve heard that from a lot from people.

I read in an interview that when you were still in the Ukraine it was hard for you to make music because you didn’t have access to the right equipment. In South Africa music equipment is often expensive because it’s imported. Do you have any advice for musicians who can’t afford instruments?

In the last couple of years it’s not a problem anymore. People travel more because it’s become much easier. When I was 13 or 14 and I read about punk rock I found it really funny that people were writing about ‘simple guys from working class families’ who’d ‘just’ set up their guitars and drums and so on in their garage and make music – my family didn’t even have a car (laughs)! So what garage are you talking about? In my case, an old piano might have been the only thing that you maybe found ‘just standing around’. But an electric guitar that you just pick up because it’s there?

Today, hip hop is punk rock because if you don’t have a laptop then I’m sure your neighbour has one!

And then you just need a microphone and maybe the internet to download some things and you’re ready to go. That’s the new language of today and it’s how you do things. I can’t give you an address for cheaper guitars, but you don’t need that nowadays.

Image: pavillon-hannover.de

Image: pavillon-hannover.de

Image: rotfront.com

Image: rotfront.com

With Rotfront but especially with Russendisko you got people interested in music that was not mainstream at all and managed to make it relatively popular. In South Africa radio and TV is monopolised by American music and therefore lots of South Africans are prejudiced about local music. Do you have any ideas on how this could be changed?

In the Ukraine, for example, everything Ukrainian was considered uncool by young people – that was towards the end of the Soviet Republic era when I grew up. And then when the Ukraine became independent there was – I think it was organised by the state – a competition for the best Ukrainian-speaking band. The winner would get their album recorded for free and tour the country. It was about ’91 or ’92. The thing was that Russian was the language of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian was the language of rural people or known from the radio through really boring folk music which was really unsexy. And suddenly through this competition people got the opportunity to become really big and they actually started to translate things!

This was the exact right step for some bands I know that are still active today. Before the competition they were so uninteresting but, through the change of language, they suddenly had an element that other bands didn’t have. That was supported by the government and the band actually developed into something like the Ukrainian Rolling Stones.

With music it’s really important how you present it, you have to try and think of a way to present it interestingly. I don’t have a clue how we managed that with Russendisko – it was definitely cool music and through different elements that were direct as well as indirect people became interested.

The people who came were enjoying themselves instantly but first you have to find a way to get those people to come.

What plans does Rotfront have at the moment?

We’re in the studio at the moment. We started recording our third album this week and I’m very euphoric. We’ve only played a third of the songs live and the other songs are home-produced demo-quality songs that we realised have lots of potential. We’ve only recorded the groundwork so far, like the drums for example, but they already sound so great that I can’t wait to continue recording. Now it’s time for the wind instruments to be recorded. It’s going to be lots of fun.

Interview by Christine Hogg


Wladimer Kaminer and Yuriy Gurzhy have recently put together a compilation called Die Lieblingslieder der Deutschen Taxifahrer (the favourite songs of German cab drivers) which you can listen to here.

Rotfront is currently recording their third album 13 German Dances. Stay posted to their website for more information.