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Scarlett O' - an introduction by Ken Hunt

If you want it straight, the latter-day Scarlett O' (Scarlett Seeboldt, as was) is nothing less than a Blue Angel. Unlike Marlene Dietrich posed to seduce Emil Jannings' ego in Josef von Sternberg's film, Scarlett O' is poised to seduce your ears. A little actress of a singer in her own right, Scarlett O' has a gimmick-free voice that can turn believers into heretics. There I've said it. It's as simple as that. She has the power to transform.

    SCARLETT O'

She is an original talent, a consummate interpreter not only of German chanson - the Germans use that borrowing too - but also of folksong, Moritat (broadside), Lied (German art-song) and Kabarett. Those vocal shivers that you hear on record are what you get when she sings on stage. She sends you the shivers. Live, you realize that none of those high soaring notes and artistic heights are doctored by computer chicanery, nothing is fixed in the mix, everything is real. Her voice is the product of a lifetime spent singing and a life immersed in song.

In the finest tradition of Kabarett (Germany's harder-nosed equivalent of cabaret), paraphrasing old songs (unless for satirical purposes) was not good enough. Moreover, it was taboo. A song should be a new song, not a regurgitation or rehash. Breathing life into songs is what Scarlett O' does instinctively. Even when she sings an old or old-sounding song she ripples it with new insights. Her best interpretations are transfiguring, whether she is dipping into the My Fair Lady libretto, some morsel from Ton Steine Scherben, Element of Crime, Wenzel or Werner Richard Heymann, singing an aria from Leoncovallo, singing about the pointlessness of war, about butchering a good-for-nothing couch-potato of a husband or about a lesbian couple conceiving a child (and the thoughts racing through the narrator's head about the day coming when she will have to explain that particular little miracle to their child). Her songs make you think.

The English songwriter and master of English chanson, Robb Johnson, is an admirer: "Scarlett O' is one of those rare singers who not only knows her tradition note for note, but who also knows how to sing it without turning it into a quaint exercise in nostalgia or rendering it meaningless with glib modernity. When Scarlett sings, Kabarett is a living voice, a contemporary art; she makes Kabarett today every bit as exciting and powerful, emotional and intelligent (not to mention downright entertaining) as it was in 1933."

The yet-to-be Scarlett O' yelled her first breath in Strausberg, not far from Berlin on the East German side of the border, in 1957, but grew up in Buckow (pronounced 'Book-o'), also in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Ninety years before her birth, the railway had reached Buckow, connecting it to the capital, making it possible to travel from Berlin to Buckow's lakes and gentle hills in a few hours. It became a holiday or excursion destination. It also attracted literary types such as Theodore Fontane, who famously wrote about the place in his travelogue Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg ('Wanderings through the Brandenburg Marches') and Adalbert von Chamisso. After his return from exile in the USA, the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the actress Helene Weigel settled in Buckow.

In short, Buckow had an artistic ring to it. Even as early as 1863 Fontane had commented on the good sound of the place (but let's just treat that as a literary aside). Nevertheless, it was very good place to nurture and develop artistic tendencies. There Scarlett got a thorough grounding in music of many sorts ranging from church to folk, light classical to socialist song; there she learned the discipline, fun and delights of singing and making music. Between 1973 and 1976 she studied construction in that more easterly of Frankfurts - Frankfurt an der Oder - and thereafter, from 1976 to 1981, in Cottbus. The region is the heartland of the Sorbs or Wends, Germany's indigenous, minority Slavic culture, the culture that time, Germany and the outside world forgot (as if they ever knew about it).

It was no accident that Scarlett became a founding member of the folk group Wacholder, eventually to become one of East Germany's most influential folk ensembles (if not its most gregarious folk act) in Cottbus in 1978. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that hordes of people passed through its ranks, but no more so than saying that of Fairport Convention and Pete Frame's famous Fairport Confusion family tree. Wacholder rode out the massive upheavals of the next decades, before bowing out in 2001. In 1980 her daughter Rebekka was born. In 1986 she made the still divided Berlin her home.

In 1998, three years before Wacholder folded, Scarlett had already branched out with her first solo programme, a Liederabend ('an evening of songs') that went under the apparently nonsensical, yet intriguingly, and appropriately, wonderlandish title, Zum Beispiel Nilpferde ('Hippopotamuses for example'). It lent its name and its repertoire to her first solo album. (Incidentally, its cover artwork was shot at the lakeside Brecht-Weigel Haus in Buckow.) The next year the programme "In Hamburg lebten zwei Ameisen" ('There were two ants that lived in Hamburg') came along, followed by "Round The Bend" and "Das muss ein Stück vom Himmel sein" ('That must be a bit of Heaven') in 2000. The last revue, a programme of compositions by the famed German film composer Werner Richard Heymann (for which his daughter Elisabeth opened the family vaults) became Scarlett's second solo CD, Das muss ein Stück vom Himmel sein (2000).

Back in the old GDR days, making records had been a matter of state sanction, bureaucracy and censorship. Liederabende (song evenings) were not only a substitute for recording but the only game in town. Even after the Fall of the Wall, such song programmes maintained their pertinence and continued to act as proving grounds for Scarlett's new song programmes. Whatever else had happened, the system worked and there was no point in changing it. Every concert performance tweaks and refines a new work, a process that road-tests each programme, whether or not it goes into 'posterity's studio'. It also means that live programmes and revues can lead a completely separate life, independent of the usual record-making and promotional cycle (or merry-go-round).

Making music need have no ulterior motive, nothing to do with 'new product'. It was a GDR thing, trait if you like, a tradition that such as Gina Pietsch, Barbara Thalheim and Scarlett O' have taken into the present. Song evenings such as "Round The Bend" and "Das muss ein Stück vom Himmel sein" have nestled into her back-repertoire, yet continually reprised, while year-in, year-out, one or more than one programme has entered the repertoire. Recent examples include "Das gibt's nur einmal" ('For once and once only', 2001) and "Männerlieder" (Songs for men', 2002), the latter gloriously dedicated to the age-old difficulties associated with masculinity, with Jürgen Ehle, the former lead guitarist of the East German rock group Pankow in full support and flow flow.

Chanson is a synonym for literate song and that is what Scarlett has delivered over her entire, impressively diverse, career. That is one reason why Scarlett O' and Jürgen Ehle's CD Fast Mit Neid ('Almost with envy', 2003) counts for something special. In August 2003 it won the highly respected German Record Critics' award for the third quarter of 2003.

Scarlett O´s incomparable interpretations blend the great voices of German chanson into one great burst of song that makes the past approachable and the present a portent of the future. Her selection of material presents her audiences with songs that still ask those knottily pertinent questions that never go away - and certainly never will in our lifetimes. Of course, the words of Brecht, Goethe, Heine, Heymann, Kästner, Ringelnatz, Tucholsky and trad. arr. still resonate on the printed page and continue to have relevance, but they benefit from breath, from having breathed new life into them. Trust me, great songs enjoy having new life breathed into them, however old they are.

Naturally, most of what Scarlett O' sings is in German. That is no longer grounds for prejudice. She is a world-class singer capable of holding an audience in the palm of her hand irrespective of their grasp of German (or English, French or Russian in her case). The passion of her delivery, the theatre when called for, is what counts.

In times of need a Blue Angel will come along. Scarlett O' is a Blue Angel for our times.

Ken Hunt, December 2003

PS: All this talk of scarlet and blue, this mixture of UFA and Hollywood, may seem contrived. Scarlett is her real name and, to let you in on a bit of her family history, 'Gone With The Wind' that was on when Mum went to the cinema.

update, December 2009:

“The most sensuous voice ever to emerge from Germany. ... Her ability to both growl and hit the highest of notes and her emotional and intellectual grasp of her material is positively scary.” – Rough Guide to World Music (2009), page 168
 

Ken Hunt is the author of the Germany chapter in the second and third editions of the Rough Guide to World Music (1999 and 2009). He has written in English and German on the subject of German roots music for a variety of European and North American publications from fRoots to Mojo, from Folker! to Penguin Eggs (and Penguin/Viking) and likewise broadcast on a variety of radio stations and television channels on the same subject.

  Ken Hunt
 
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