Street Fighting Human

Sounds of resistance in the streets of Berlin

The last two years were not only marked by enforced isolation and a shift of many people’s lives online. They were also marked by huge social upheavals and growing social movements across the world. Berlin is a city in which each of these social movements resonated on its streets through the actions of its many diasporas. Berlin is a city in which the sounds of its streets reflect the struggles that are contained within it. And finally, Berlin is a city in which musicians integrate the streets into their artistic practice. The sounds and musics of the South Asian, Polish, and Palestinian communities, and on two groups that perform in and around the city’s political struggles – the Out of Time Embassy and Comunidad Sikuris – will contour the different ways that sound is used as resistance in the streets of Berlin.

Power incollective emotions

In Berlin, sometimes turning a corner means entering an entirely new sound world. Sometimes before you even see the crowds, you can feel it is a protest from what you hear, and the emotions conveyed by the sound. A tense silence broken only by police announcements telling protesters to go home, protesters shouting Ganz Berlin haßt die Polizei [whole Berlin hates the police], and helicopters whirring overhead will tell you it is the end of the 1 May demonstration. Traditional songs in Arabic, feet hitting the ground rhythmically in the dancing of dabke, and ululation might tell you it’s a demonstration insolidarity with Palestine. Thousands of FLINTA* people filling the streets with their voices, music and performances will tell you it’s the 8 March:

International Women’s Day, increasingly known as the Day Against the Patriarchy, in 2021 was a warm, sunny day. Joining the demonstration of the Alliance of Internationalist Feminists, on Unter den Linden as it was turning onto Friedrichstraße – two of the largest road’s in Berlin’s Mitte – you were welcomed by a samba band accompanying feminist chants, while the sun was shining onto the Brandenburger Tor. As you walked towards the front of the demonstration to which cis-men are not invited, different rhythms would weave through the crowd. At some point you could see a group performing the choreography to El violador en tu camino [A rapist in your path], created by Chilean feminists in 2019. From the stage-truck at the front, songs in many languages were played in-between speeches delivered largely in accented English or German, other times in the speakers’ native tongues. The demonstration ended at twilight outside the headquarters of a German arms lobbyist, back on Unter den Linden, to the sounds of feminist reggaeton and a dance performance by Perrxs del Futuro – a Berlin-based collective whose motto is ‘If I can’t perrear [twerk], it’s not my revolution’ – and a light show courtesy of the many cars of the Berliner Polizei surrounding the remaining group of protesters. 

What remains from many of demonstrations like these, especially the annual ones, are memories. Those memories are often sensual: you may not remember a conversation, or the content of a speech, but you may remember how you felt, what you saw, and what you heard. Agnieszka Bułacik, a Polish-speaking activist, and member of Otucha choir, said: “I really remember what the music did to my body. From the 8 March demonstration [in 2021], what I remember is a lot of music, and a lot of joy.” Many of the memories of this demonstration, described above, are the same moments that remained in Bułacik’s memory too. This shared memory is an important element of community-building through what Lynne Segal calls collective joy.[1] It’s an almost utopic concept that, through histories of resistance, argues for the power of collective emotions in community building and the pursuit of social change. Segal often refers to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Dancing in the Streets,[2] which looks at histories of large public festivals that often became catalysts for revolution. Crowds and joy and sound are a political force.

Talking about the protests around the de facto abortion ban, introduced by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal on 22 October 2020, Bułacik recalled a conversation she had with other activists while painting banners for a demonstration: “We had a conversation about how to invite other emotions. There was rage and anger, because they needed to be there, but we asked ourselves how we could also create a space for hope and connection. How to connect not only around ‘I am pissed off’ but also around ‘I love you, you are my sister, and I want to stand up for you’”. An answer to this was to write a song – a crowd song that could be sung collectively. The song was called “Moja macica to nie kaplica” [My uterus is not your chapel]. The song was simple, made up of just four lines and a refrain, which was four times the sentence “Never, you’ll never walk alone” – a reference to one of the main slogans of the movement. It was usually the refrain that would be picked up by the crowd, thanks to the simple melody. Initially always starting as a call and response in order to teach the crowd the song, eventually everyone’s voices would come together, and the distinction between those ‘on stage’ and the crowd would become blurry. The power of this experience to Bułacik was in the connection with the crowd – it was not about performing in front of people, but with them. It was about feeling collectively and being together. 

These memories of collective emotions are situational and fleeting. They are not possible to recreate, but they still live in our memories and our bodies. This is how the members of the Out of Time Embassy (OOTE) remember the summer of 2020. OOTE is a group of mostly migrant musicians, who all have roots in different musical traditions. They recall moments of radical joy and radical care for each other, in a time where their many travelling musicians were stuck in Berlin in the height of summer because of restrictions caused by the pandemic. OOTE came together out of a necessity to play and to be with others, and so they began with jam sessions on Tempelhofer Feld. “We didn’t have that typical gap between the performer and the audience. It was more of a setting you could call traditional or ceremonial, and this is how most musics were played in the past”, said one of the members. Playing on the flat, every week always in the same spot in the park, this group of musicians built a community within and around themselves. Their music was rhythmical, ritualistic, cyclical and, above all, joyful. Feeling joy in difficult times – during a pandemic, shortly after the terrorist attack in Hanau, around the height of Black Lives Matter – is something this group of musicians had to learn, to throw off the feeling of guilt that they are having a good time while the world is falling apart around them, to let themselves enjoy it, and to allow themselves to spread this joy to others. 

Sonic fictions for a better world

OOTE see themselves as a loose formation, and they see their undefined structure as key to their artistic practice. They came to see this togetherness, through a loose structure that is not a finished product, that is not trying to extract anything, that is more a sharing experience, in its essence as an experiment countering the colonial matrix. The colonial matrix can be defined as the structure behind the global capitalist system, through which Western European states – including Germany – used colonisation to enforce a global hierarchy in how societies should be organised based on Western European values and knowledge, thereby oppressing if not destroying other knowledges, values, and ways of living. The colonial matrix implies Eurocentric control over the economy, knowledge, gender and sexuality, and institutional authority[3]. For OOTE, therefore, making music in a way that is organised outside of ‘expected’ structures, and where no capitalistic (financial) compensation was expected, felt freeing. The moment they began to fantasise about making a living based on this practice, they felt that the capitalist system sent an interference through their formation, finding that the process of institutionalising and defining started to change how they were relating to the group. 

Out of Time Embassy during a session at Tempelhofer Feld © Roberto Zanrosso

Through its practice, OOTE was writing a sonic fiction of a music that is inclusive, open and diverse. Its musicians, with a range of migration backgrounds, had roots in many musical traditions, and by the process of getting to know each other on both a personal and musical level, they were creating a community around openness and diversity. Sonic fiction is a term first “undefined” by Kodwo Eshun in his text More Brilliant Than the Sun.[4] Just as OOTE played without trying to define what they were doing, Eshun just wrote about and on sonic fiction without defining the term. Rooting his thesis in afrofuturism, sonic fictions use sound as vessels for inventing new histories and fictioning better futures, based on and processing through histories of violence and oppression. 

Then maybe when Bułacik’s choir of Eastern European women, Otucha, came together in Hermannplatz a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine to sing a Ukrainian song for one hour, on a loop, in the traditional technique of ‘white singing’ – maybe this was also a sonic fiction. “White singing” or “white voice” is a traditional Eastern European folk singing technique rooted in rural areas across many Eastern European countries. This way of singing was traditionally heard in open fields and it uses the open throat to create a bright vocal sound, resembling almost a controlled call. Maybe then this event, which centred this traditional singing technique, fictioned an Eastern European solidarity against an old imperial power, and connected to tradition and land untainted by national borders. Those in the choir were from different Eastern European countries, singing in Ukrainian with only a few of them speaking the language. The news of the war, however, affected them all in some way and because of that they chose to create a space for being together in their emotions, and invited others to join them – also in singing in this public space. While the dominant emotion in this public intervention was sorrow, the future it imagined was joyful and hopeful. It was a celebration of a shared culture, fictioning a togetherness against oppression. It created a moment of collective feeling in a public space that brought momentary relief in a time of high tension.

Otucha Choir and others at a solidarity event with Ukraine © Karolina Gembara

Sounds of and for existence

Each time a community comes together and produces sound that is outside or against the dominant culture, it becomes a political project. Doing this in a public space inevitably makes it a much more direct statement – and for historically oppressed groups, the taking up of public space is a statement of asserting existence. In Berlin, the dominant culture is the culture of the white German majority, and the values dictated by this society through its institutions, way of living – and musical preferences, both in terms of institutional support and in terms of which musics are deemed ‘acceptable’ in public spaces.

“We are alive, we are here, we have not disappeared” – this is what bringing their music into the public space means to Comunidad Sikuris. Comunidad Sikuris is a group of indigenous persons from various regions in Latin America, now living as migrants in Berlin, who play the sikus – a traditional form of music from the Andean Altiplano, whose status as a music of resistance is traced back to the arrival of the conquistadores around 500 years ago. They play instruments made of natural materials – pan flutes and drums – each of which is to be played by two people, representing night and day, male and female, reciprocity and exchange. They play music that has survived centuries of oppression. The music is rhythm and melody, highly cyclical and communal. The music and the instruments keep the Sikuris connected to Pachamama [Mother Earth]. They first came together in 2018 to oppose the proposed release of Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, who oversaw the mass sterilisation of 300,000 indigenous people in the 1990s (and who, it has been announced in March 2022, will be released from prison on ‘humanitarian grounds’). Since then, the group has become part of the fabric of the migrant activist scene in Berlin. 

Comunidad Sikuris after a festival performance in Saxony © Comunidad Sikuris

Comunidad Sikuris perform deliberate acts of political resistance and are often to be found at demonstrations, such as the 1 May Workers’ Day demonstration, fighting for their rights as migrant workers, or 12 October, which is the day commemorating the start of resistance against Spanish colonisation of Abya Yala (a term used by indigenous communities instead of colonial terms such as the New World or America). “The way we play at demonstrations needs more power, more energy. We blow harder and play louder, we get our energy from the crowd”. While many other protesters might not understand the deeper meaning behind their music, and while some might just see it as an exotic addition, the Sikuris always feel empowered while being part of a crowd. Their public performances are a statement of the right to exist that has been questioned since the beginnings of European colonisation. Keeping traditional and ancient musical practices alive is directly linked with the survival of the people, and not just their own community. They acknowledge they are one of many oppressed groups, and when they play they play for and with all the world’s oppressed.  

Palestinian activists often feel the same. To Michael Jabareen, a Palestinian activist/artist and member of the street theatre troupe Basta Theatre, it was self-evident that taking up public space is both empowering and essential, and that when one community speaks up against colonisation and oppression, they do it for all the world’s oppressed. Palestinians also use traditional music, linked to dabke, a traditional dance, as a form of asserting their existence when it is being threatened.  

Performance by Basta Theatre at Theatre X's Community Parade (Festiwalla) © Helena Majewska

In Germany protesting in solidarity with Palestinians can be more difficult than elsewhere and so this confrontation on the streets of Berlin becomes much more direct. The sound of chants, music, ululation, of feet hitting the ground, are all sounds of and for the right to exist and be heard. “Maybe we need our voices to be heard so badly, and to make our demonstrations loud, because we are constantly being silenced. It’s important to not be silent, and to reach out, with your voice, to as many people as you can.” For Jabareen, it is not only about directing protests towards governments and official institutions, but it is also about drawing the attention of the public – since it is the public and the pressure of public opinion that can influence change. For him, how you do that is not really through the words you say in the speeches, but through the experience you give to people who come to support you. You build a collective memory through the senses – and music, sound and performance are all a big part of that. 

Right to the City

Bringing different sound worlds into the streets of a city like Berlin, inevitably leads to a tension with the sound world of the dominant culture – and its legal and bureaucratic arms. A different struggle also plays out in the streets of Berlin when groups rooted in non-Western musics rehearse or perform. The struggle is over the question: who does this city belong to? There is no one way to describe ‘non-Western musics’. The Eurocentric framing of ‘the West’ and ‘the other’, reinforces a colonial hierarchy, but it is also this hierarchy that the musics and sounds covered in this text are confronted with. Some aspects that are outside of what Western art or pop music sounds like include the musics being highly rhythmic and cyclical, with a deemphasis on harmony, and often without a prescribed end. They include different ways of using voices – whether it is white singing, or ululation, or singing based on maqam (Arabic modes). They include different instruments, such as drums and pan flutes for the Sikuris, or a combination of a ‘Western’ rhythm section with Middle Eastern and North African instruments for the Out of Time Embassy. They are also often in fusion with movement and thereby relate differently to audiences – the performer and the listener dichotomy is often deliberately removed.

Another struggle also plays out in the streets of Berlin when non-Western sounds take up public space. The struggle is over the question: who does this city belong to? Majoritarian views get reflected in official structures, meaning that, for some, asking for permission to fill public space with their voice is more difficult than for others. Back in Palestine, the Basta Theatre troupe would turn up, perform, and disappear again before the authorities realised what was happening. In Germany, Jabareen had to go through official routes to get a permit for the performance. Not only were the parameters of the performance checked, such as noise levels, duration, and size, but also its content.

It is a similar story with music. “Making street music in a place like Germany, like Berlin is inherently political, because it is not wanted. There are lots of structures in place that jeopardise that kind of activity and prevent it from taking place.” A member of OOTE said this in the context of the band being asked to play at the renaming of Lucy-Lameck-Straße (formerly known as Wissmannstraße, after a German colonial governor of German East Africa, now Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and parts of Mozambique, Hermann von Wissmann) in Neukölln, a historically migrant area. “The instruments we featured, many of which have roots in the Middle East and North Africa, immediately put us in a specific sonic space, which doesn’t get heard in the public very often.” This performance, despite having the legal permit and despite the performance taking place around a known cultural centre, which has been there for over 30 years, caused trouble with the neighbours. A minimum of two neighbours needs to file a noise pollution complaint for there to be a reaction from state officials, and this happened to OOTE.

Even if the street remains a majority migrant street, gentrification has meant that new people moving in from the majoritarian culture have the tools, knowledge and the legal system behind them to prevent any sound they dislike from taking up public space. This is not the case for all sound. Construction sound is allowed– within designated hours. Some music is also acceptable. A member of OOTE recalled a situation from his studio, which is also located in Neukölln. He has had several visits from the Ordnungsamt when he has played music that is louder, more cyclical, featuring non-Western instruments. When his studio neighbour has played jazz with the door wide open and the music flooding into the courtyard, no one has ever complained. Jazz has become respectable and European enough that an unplanned concert in the public space is welcomed, while other musics are deemed to be a nuisance. 

Sonic mirrors of political movements

The soundscapes created by various diasporas and communities are different by nature of reflecting different protest cultures – each has a unique mix of language(s), music and sound. Thanks to social media, the exchange between diaspora and ‘home’ is immediate, and the songs sung or played at protests in the country of origin will also be played abroad,  and in all cases there have been many songs written for and as a response to the movements. Diasporic protests additionally add local protest cultures and global influences into the mix.

Mihir, a South Asian activist whose community was involved in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and in support of the farmers’ protests in India, talked about this phenomenon within his community. “People who have just moved to Berlin or have an imagined South Asian audience in their heads often seek to recreate a similar atmosphere, but some of the semiotics don’t work in the same way as in South Asia. Sometimes because people don’t understand the language, sometimes because the song doesn’t resonate in the same way, or because the song evokes different feelings in non-South Asian audiences”. What this means is that the demonstrations have to adapt to the local audience, while still creating a space for diasporic expression. 

Singing in public spaces is a big part of South Asian culture, and songs and music inevitably also find a place in protests, as can be seen in Teresa A Braggs’ documentary film about the anti-CAA protests in Bangalore, Sab changa si, recently shown at the Berlinale. The soundtrack of South Asian protests in Berlin also reflected many of the narratives and struggles within the movement they were connected to. A lot of the discussion was around language. Whether it was a debate as to how to reflect the fact that majority of the farmers in protest were Punjabi, a reflection on the fact that the common language between South Asians is the colonial language, English, or a debate on whether to sing the Indian national anthem during the protests against the CAA – all of these threads are a reflection of the idiosyncrasy of protests in South Asia. 

These tensions, however, can lead to some beautiful results. During one of the demonstrations in solidarity with the farmers’ protests, which took place in January 2021 in front of Rathaus Neukölln, Mihir’s group sang the Internationale in Urdu. It being a song known in leftist circles, many people joined in by humming the melody or singing it in the languages they knew, the crowd coming closer together. At other points, only those from the South Asian diaspora joined their voices together in song. “Sometimes it’s more an internal bonding experience. Those who sing feel a strong sense of purpose or feel united or joyous. Joy is something that both the movement against the CAA and the farmers’ protest were trying to preserve in their fight against the neoliberal fascist establishment.” 

Whether it is a joy shared by just a handful of people or by a large crowd, any collective feeling of joy is worth fighting for. And whether it is a protest in solidarity with social movements in India, in Poland, or in Palestine, all such protests build a musical heritage of a movement, both for the future – and for the now. Building up a collection of music and songs associated with a movement is a way of feeling connected with social movements back home. It is also a way of creating collective memories and a feeling of connection and togetherness amongst those present at the protests in Berlin. 

Sounds of connection

A crowd sitting in the middle of the street in West Berlin, looking for any available spot of shade on a sweltering hot summer’s day, watching a performance of the Palestinian Basta Theatre. Screams and shouts and a movable wagon with a mirror inside, asking you to recognise the prison that is the system we are living in, in the middle of Festiwalla – a colourful parade organised by Berlin’s migrant theatre, Theatre X. 

The sounds of pan flutes and drums echoing across Karl-Marx-Straße, a crowd gathering around the Sikuris, stopping the demonstration from moving forward, as they play in the middle of the migrant block leading the huge Worker’s Day demonstration. 

A former political prisoner from Turkey performing songs he learned while in prison, while a group of people sits around on makeshift seating, eating homemade curry. It’s a drizzly late autumn day. They just heard about political prisoners in India and about the launch of a new initiative that aims to highlight the issue. 

A small crowd on the verge of tears, on a freezing late February day, listening to a group of women from Eastern Europe singing “Zelenaya Vishnia”, a song from eastern Ukraine. Voices join in and out, humming and singing, someone occasionally joins in on his accordion. At the end Ukrainian speakers start singing their national anthem. 

Children running around, the sun setting over the old Tempelhof airport. People of all ages dancing, smiling. Musicians of the Out of Time Embassy playing for now their third hour, with no wish to stop. The Polish, South Asian, Palestinian diasporas, Comunidad Sikuris and the Out of Time Embassy, are all connected – and they are connected to many other groups and communities too. Some know each other, some do not. They come together at events, sometimes at each other’s. They often remember how they felt at events that moved them, at events they did not have to organise themselves, but maybe sometimes contributed to with a performance or a speech, or just with their voice – chanting, joining in the sound of the crowd. Their exchange of sounds, of languages and accents, of music and song, creates a new sonic fiction. It is a sonic fiction of a world where people from its different corners stand together and fight for each other’s rights. It is fictioning a joyous future in which all these sounds exist naturally with each other. It is solidarity in action and the sound of resistance.

Even if the feeling lasts just for that moment, it lives on as a collective memory of and for a better future.

[1]          See Lynne Segal (2018), Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, London: Verso

[2]           Barbara Ehrenreich (2006), Dancing in the Streets, Metropolitan Books

[3]          For a more thorough discussion of the colonial matrix, see this interview with Walter Mignolo, who developed the concept of decoloniality:

[4]          Kodwo Eshun (1998). More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, London: Quartet Books


Head photo: Anti-CAA protest in Berlin © Berlin for India

This article was first published in a german translation by Michael Steffens in issue #131.

Hanna Grześkiewicz
Hanna Grześkiewicz is an independent Berlin-based writer, researcher, and curator working in music and sound.