Hamburg & ElbJazz Festival: diverse, defiant & damn tasty

words Vienna Famous

Sandwiched between a tempestuous Teutonic sky and the North Sea’s rising tides, Germany’s second city sizzles with energy like one giant, artisanal Hamburger. An import/export hub that embraces both immigrants and natives, this wealthiest of German states also has one of the healthiest alternative scenes.

If this place had a face, it would be a smiley with hipster hair. From the air, the suburbs are fringed by fields that look like sideburns, a patchwork of fünf Uhr stubble and broccoli-bushy lambchops.


On the ground, vast industrial blocks give way to conical Gothic churches and life size gingerbread houses, their decorative bricks like pixellated mascara. And like all the best cities there are cyclists everywhere – but these aren’t the shrinkwrapped speedfreaks we have over here; Hamburg’s citizens glide past upright and unhurried, chic leather jackets their only protection.

My visit coincides with the ElbJazz Festival, a six-year old celebration of all things sax. As someone who’s allergic to the freest types of jazz, I was pretty scared: thankfully the festival is eclectic enough to find music with enough structure to sink into. ElbJazz also offers the best opportunity to see the city – founder Tina Heine negotiates with shipping companies to open up their immense dockyards for the weekend. It’s the first time many locals will have seen this part of their home, a Free Trade federation of warehouses and wharfs with its own border control. Many of the venues can only be reached by river and so regular festival ferries chug along the Elbe, past countless cargo containers as steel ships loom by like sideways skyscrapers. The city itself is built on a more human scale; by law, all buildings stop at the tenth floor, so architects must get creative to expand. Pride of place on the waterfront is the pulsating, über-expensive Elbphilharmonie, due to open in 2017. A melting ice-cube of glass and concrete, it somehow combines a hotel, carpark, and concert hall suspended on giant springs, its wide roof undulating outwards like the waves below.

These docklands are a work in progress, a hinterland that hints at future greatness. Of course for someone like me, it’s a limbo to get lost in. Luckily, lovely Tour Guide Lu Yen has infinite patience and manages to direct me to the ferry and across to the festival HQ, an industrial island owned by Blohm+Voss. As soon as I’m in sight, Lu Yen & boyfriend Bjorn take me under their wing for the night, plying me with pilsener and hatching plans to avoid bearded men with brass instruments. First up is self-proclaimed Whitest Boy Alive Erlend Øye whose Scandi-soul-pop eases us into twilight, an occasional clarinet his one concession to jazz. A packed festival bus later, bouncers direct us along a gangplank to the MS (Merkel’s Ship?) Stubnitz, a decommissioned freighter bathed in blues and reds. Here, I sip an evil concoction called Club-Mate, which I’m promised will make me fall on my face. Deep in the hull, Jimi Tenor’s new band the Tenors of Kalma mix jazzed-up reggae with synths and allegedly the world’s only electronic flute. Jimi offers an alternative reality where bluesmen use Dawkins to justify their cheating ways: “My selfish gene must go on,” he croons over and over as the sea caresses our sides. I remember Jimi from a decade or so ago as the Brian Jones of acid jazz – now he looks like shit, Wayne’s World Garth gone to seed. I guess that’s what jazz does to a fellow.

“The only German I remember is what my teacher found scribbled in my school notebook,” I admit to Bjorn at one point, embarrassed by how well Germans can speak English. “It said ‘Du hast keine schamhaare‘ (You have no pubic hair).” “‘Schamhaare’!?” Bjorn guffaws, “SCHAMHAARE!! Hahaha!” Everyone is staring now, “That’s such an ugly German word!” “I know,” I say in shame, “it got me detention for a week.” With this confession, I have clearly passed some kind of initiation test because Bjorn leans in conspiratorially; “You have to come to the Golden Pudel,” he says with sparkly eyes, ”It’s the best club in Hamburg.” More an excitable labrador than a poodle, Bjorn tells me the venue is prime real estate whose deeds prevent owners from altering its appearance. When we get there, I see why that’s such a victory: the Golden Pudel is a ramshackle shack, a finger flipped at gentrification. Inside, signs at the bar encourage smoking but prohibit photos: Fuck posterity, this club is all about losing yourself in the moment. Tonight, it’s rammed and everyone dances with abandon, stashing their leather jackets under French Techno star Chloe’s decks, club hierarchy evaporated in one hot mess.

For many Brits, Hamburg is Amsterdam’s hipper, sexier sister. Star attraction on my flight was a tattooed man in a wedding dress. As he stared down other blokes with his blue-shadowed eyes, I tried to work out if he’s gay or straight or bi before deciding that maybe he’s using this last weekend of freedom to decide himself. A fellow journalist tells me her plane emptied to an a cappella rendition of the Dad’s Army theme tune, its puff-chested weekenders determined to clash horns with Huns. These stag parties are here for the Reeperbahn red light district, a Eurotrash theme park where blokes from Barnsley can pretend to be sex-starved sailors staggering ashore. Behind its main thoroughfare of strip clubs and Beatles pubs, there’s a side street blocked off by metal barriers barring women and under-age men from entering. Between these iron(ic) curtains, well-lit women in lingerie sit or stand in shop fronts that slide open to let slurring men barter for their bodies. As I pass by, neglected mannequins knock desperately on the glass for attention, an escalating tap-tap-TAP-TAP-TAP that will work its way into my nightmares.

This tourist trap is a performance of what Essex boys think Europe is like; anyone who staggers a straße or so further inland will find a very different city. While all the generic subculture symbols are present – bridges accessorised with lovers’ padlocks (a Euro-trend being stamped out in Paris), overpriced vintage shops, street art – Hamburg adds plenty of its own unique touches. ‘Say it Loud, Say it Clear, Refugees are Welcome Here!’ graffiti proclaims, a dazzling sentiment in our post-UKIP times. This is a socialist city where multinational corporations share addresses with anarchist collectives. St Pauli is a district wrestled from the state; after a decade-long siege, squatters were granted the freedom to remain. Out of this came an anti-racist & anti-sexist football club, reportedly one of the few grounds with a sizeable female contingent. The slang here is symptomatic; alongside the universal ‘deine mutter’ (your mother), immigrants diss each other as ‘die opfer’ (the victim) – it seems self-pity just isn’t part of Hamburg’s identity. Defiance is everywhere. In the middle of Karolinenviertel’s alternative shopping district, the Solidarische Raumnahme movement has set up an open air swap shop where people can leave whatever they don’t want. The smileys sprayed onto every surface are the tag of OZ, an OAP graffiti artist whose death while marking a moving train reveals how hardcore the spray scene is here. His happy faces have no outline; perhaps the whole city is encompassed in the emoji.

Like all major metropolises, Hamburg is not without its friction: there’s the homeless who sleep under bridges, conveniently out of the way of tourists; an NHS-style welfare system that demands pricey monthly insurance payments; something of a chip on the city’s shoulder about the cultural allure of Berlin; and the occasional graffiti frowny amongst all the smileys. But taken all together, Hamburg is that rarest kind of city, where production is at least as important as consumption and a disparate population combine forces to keep their home exactly how they like it.

On the return flight, I see many of the same faces again. This time, they sport a catalogue of minor head injuries, passing out before we even take off. Here for hedonism, they left with sore heads; their lost weekend a missed opportunity. Just like its jazz festival that caters for people who don’t have to like jazz, Hamburg’s seedy reputation is a smokescreen for a city that somehow combines the best bits from all your favourite places: Manchester’s Northern Quarter, SoHo, Central Park. Everyone’s had a bite of the Big Apple; it’s time to taste the Giant Hamburger.



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