FolkWorld article by The Mollis:

Jams' Northern German traditions

Plattdeutsch - a former universal language, nowadays nearly unknown

On Jams' latest album, Fisch, as well as in their new concert programme, Jams discover their Northern German roots, presenting several songs in Plattdeutsch (low German).

Jams; Photo by The MollisBoth Jo Meyer and Wolfgang Meyering have grown up with Low German, Wolfgang coming from North-Western Germany (Ostfriesland), Jo from North-Eastern Germany, from Mecklenburg. The decision to sing in Platt came when Jams decided to include (more) songs into their repertoire; "we asked ourselves then, why not sing in Platt; it's a language close to our heart, and there is loads of good material. And it is part of our cultural identity."

Platt, low German, is one of the many local dialects (Mundarten) of Germany. It is a dialect that even most Germans do not understand very well. "The Mundarten have the advantage", explains Jo, "that they are very lyrical in comparison to an everyday language, to a very technical language. This is fact for all existing Mundarten, for Hessian and Bavarian as well as Frisian or Mecklenburgian."
"There might be some danger in it; we know that just few people can understand what we are singing, that people in Hesse or Saxony won't understand us." On the other hand, this might not be too important, as everybody listens nowadays to English music, many of them not really understanding the content of the songs. Jo reminds also of the succcess of Mundart Folk from the Alps - their folk rock music has established (inter-) nationally, though the language is hardly understood.
The reactions on Jams Platt CD were interesting enough: Not the Northern Germans who understand the songs are enthusiastic about it (many of them have a puristic attitude on their Low German language), but other people who do not use this language. It was quite surprising for Jams that they also had very good reviews in the foreign countries (also in Folk Roots).

Jo Meyer; Photo by The MollisThere are strong regional differences in the Low German language, there is the Pommerschen Platt and Mecklenburger Platt, the Mecklenburg-Schweriner speak differently than the Mecklenburg-Sprelitzer, there is the Schleswig-Holsteiner Platt, which is already Frisian, which is not really Frisian, but Frisian Platt.

Today there are nearly no musical traditions in the Northern/Platt German regions alive. Looking back, it is interesting to hear that in Mecklenburg there were educations for town pipers (Stadtpfeifer) still in the 1950s. These were musical educations in the sense of trade, of travelling around. "There were examinations that the last town piper (Stadtpfeifer) went in apprenticeship in 1954, in Grabo, a small town in Mecklenburg." Town piping meant that you knew to play brass and string instruments, and you had to play at marriages, burials, harvest festivals etc. There are still several music books available, as in the 1950s scientists in the GDR have made incredible work, compiling books of the material - songs and tunes - collected in the 20s and 30s. "The problem about this kind of passing down is that it went through strong intellectual censorships; so people left out certain things that did not fit into their opinion. But this is also a problem in other traditions."
Jo talks about a bagpiper from Schwerin who is historian and works in a museum, trying to examine if traditional Mecklenburgian melodies have been formerly pipe tunes.
There is some really good literature on Northern German folk music traditions, like Fritz Reuter's book "Unter Franzosentied". "He describes the time when the French soldiers - better the big armee - stayed in Mecklenburg coming back from Russia. The soldiers were not just French, but also Spanish or whatever. He describes especially three Frenchmen who stayed in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and gave to the whole village French influences. Two of them were musicians, and they brought French dances to the village. On this way counter dances with structures similar to the Gavotte went into the traditional Mecklenburgian folk dance."

Drawing by German artist Annegret Haensel; for more info on the artist, look at the editorial pageNow we start to talk about another examination, how people who returned from Amercia influenced the music. "People who came back as successful people, who brought back structures they had learnt while socialising on the emigration ships to America. They came back as prestigious people, not as losers, they sometimes also had money. They brought back music, and influenced on that way the Northern German traditions."

Wolfgang reminds that Northern Germany is flat country, it is open and it has many harbours, so there has always been much communication. " I think the development was similar to that I know from Fanø, a small island at the Danish coast. Lots and lots of melodies can be lead back to little presents from seafarers coming back from their trips around the wide world. They also brought back music, and this music became part of the tradition, and developed also their own tradition: Tunes were played differently, the melodies were adapted to their dances." In Northern Germany it was similar.

It is also important to see, that Low German as language was once nearly as important as English is nowadays. "From Flanders up to the Baltic countries, to Riga, it was the traders' language to communicate; first they wrote in Latin, but later in Low German." It was a language of communication that was widely spread. And the trading imperium naturally brought back also cultural influences, new ideas, new melodies. You find in Northern Germany many melodies that you can find also in other regions - in the Netherlands, in Denmark, in Sweden.
"For us nowadays, water is a devide, but in former times, water was conncetion for the people." The land ways were very difficult, sea ways were always better. So Northern Germany, connected to North and Baltic Sea, was a place with much communication.
(Read about this topic a similar story from Asturias, explained by Llan de Cubel's Fonsu Mielgo, published in FolkWorld issue 2.)

Another example is the dance Schottische. "Schottisch has actually no connection to Scotland. Also there are Highland Schottische, having the same dance structure, the same rhythm. Schottische was widely spread in Northern Europe in the last century." - "Dancing is called in Low German 'Schottschen'. In Sweden for example, you can find 'Hamburg' and 'Engelska', both Schottische, a Schottisch from Hamburg and from England."
Wolfgangs grand mother still has danced Schottische when she went to meetings at the beginning of this century - it is a quite simple dance that allows lots of improvisation. For Jo it is even his parents who have played and danced these dances, also after the Second World War, when all was over and there was a new beginning. "When they went dancing they danced the old structures: Waltz, Mazurka, Rheinländer, Schottisch, Polka."

Latest published CD: Fisch, reviewed in FolkWorld issue 2.

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© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 2/98

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