“Paying Dues” – a musical anecdote

In the music world, “paying your dues” means gathering experience while learning valuable life-lessons from others with more of it – for more, see this article from the New York musicians union: www.local802afm.org/2014/02/paying-their-dues/ This is the story of a young New York musician leaving home to find his fortune, describing the winding route along the inroads to a new city.

My arrival in Berlin coincided with the inauguration of a weekly jam session just three blocks from my new home; It was the fall of 2011, and the jam session at the very cozy Café Engels would become the first port of call in my newly adopted neighborhood. The session was on Tuesday nights, and I was there almost every week – between taking a few classes and looking for steady work, I considered myself lucky to have a place so close by my shared apartment to keep up my chops and get connected with other musicians – and all that without paying a cover charge!

The house band consisted of Tony Karadimchev on guitar, Georg Donchev on bass and Sebastian Maschat on drums. They usually started with a trio set featuring a lot of slower numbers & ballads played in a blues-tinged style. Georg and Tony came from Bulgaria, and I thought you could always sense some kind of deeper connection going on musically between the both of them.

I was always happy to give Georg a break and take over for a few songs after their set. Sometimes, if no other bass players came by, I stayed onstage for the rest of the evening as multiple horn players soloed for chorus after chorus… I appreciated the session as a good opportunity to learn a few new tunes, but most of all, it was a great opportunity to meet all those other musicians. (In fact, I met most of the guys who now play in Kontraband there!)

Eventually, as I got settled into life in town and found some work teaching music lessons, Georg moved on to another job and asked me to take over the bass seat in the house band. I gladly accepted – and so began the next chapter of my orientation:

Once Georg left the trio, it took some time for the house band to find it’s footing again. I had known and played with the two other guys for a while, but the fact that Georg had been the glue of the trio in a way that I did not yet fully grasp as a bass player became quickly evident to me; I found myself often too busy trying to make the band groove the way Georg had done to concentrate on other aspects of the music.

The four or five horn players who would show up regularly asked us for certain things (some wanted the bass to be played louder, some wanted to play a tune in a faster tempo) and I would always nod and say “no problem” then go right back to developing the song as I usually did: bouncing the music along with simple, straight-forward time, none too loud, but every note played with a rich, full tone. This fit well together with Tony’s warm guitar sound – if not the most virtuosic soloist, he was definitely a sensitive accompanist with a delicate feeling for what’s required by the music.

I was fortunate to get into this situation and grateful that the drummer Sebastian took me under his wing as a newcomer in town. We played weekly at the session and asked horn players from the session to join us at the studio he shared with Daniel Nentwig, a recording engineer who taped our impromptu meetings from time to time (www.soundcloud.com/butterama-jazz-dept). Sebastian would also show me around town, introducing me to other musicians and friends. Among them was Indonesian songwriter & bandleader Tomi Simatupang.

Tomi moved from Yogyakarta (central java) to Detmold, Germany with his family when he was 10 and basically grew up in Germany. He was looking for a bass player when we met him. His songwriting is based partly on Indonesian folk & popular music and partly on western jazz & rock music. In the course of preparing a few big concerts with Tomi, I learned to transfer traditional Indonesian gamelan scales onto the upright bass and a bit about the history of music in Indonesia, especially a composer named Mohammed Arief.

It was playing in Tomi’s band that I met flutist, saxophonist and arranger Claudio Jolowicz. He in turn pulled me in to fill the vacant bass chair in Lord Mouse & The Kalypso Katz, resulting in several tours of southern France, playing caribbean music and original calypsos written by the band.

The band was a motley crew of 17 with a lead singer, six singing backup dancers and a ten piece orchestra. The Kalypso Katz were a lot of fun to play with, if a little rough around the edges at times. One of our last concerts before the group disbanded in 2015 was a memorable night of music on the property of a ruddy, long abandoned amusement park on the banks of Berlin’s river Spree. I was sad to say goodbye to the band, but the farewell concert was a real blow-out, calypso-fueled party.

Paying your dues can be trying at times, but your musicality will never profit more from watching a youtube video or reading an article than it will from maintaining long-term, sustained relationships with other musicians. To put it short: Engaging in many of the experiences described above did not earn me very much money. There were unsuccessful, sparsely attended concerts along the way. I can’t imagine putting myself through some of those hoops again if it weren’t doing something I absolutely loved. However, the experience I gained and the lessons learned from those who knew better than I did remain some of my most invaluable assets as a musician today.