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Music as a Tool for Cultural Diplomacy: The Cat Empire Visits Berlin

Australian band The Cat Empire speaks to Berlin Global about cultural influences in music

November 22nd, 2016
Irene Escacena, Alicia Hoor and Claire Caruth, News from Berlin

The Cat Empire, a band from Australia, has been mixing different rhythms and melodies from all over the world since 1999. Their music is the result of backpacking through different countries and cultures, and has sometimes been defined as jazz-ska-latin rock.

Berlin Global had the chance to talk to Felix Riebl, percussionist and vocalist with The Cat Empire, a few hours before their concert in Huxleys Neue Welt in Berlin.

During the interview, we discussed the band’s influences, how they are welcomed in the different countries they visit during their tours as well as how they can use their influence to work as cultural ambassadors. We also learnt about their work as ambassadors for the Melbourne Asylum Seeker Resource Center, where they are seeing how many doors could be opened with good music and good faith.

Probably the first thing people ask themselves when they first listen to your music is where it comes from - what has influenced you to make such diversified music?

I was always very interested in different music, especially music in languages that I couldn’t understand… music is very powerful: it has everyday meaning and it can make a raw connection to people’s feelings - I enjoy that.

Did you travel before the creation of the band? How have these travels influenced your music?

Travelling has influenced my music a lot. I have travelled to quite a few different countries and have often written songs about those experiences. I recorded ‘The Cat Empire’ [the band’s debut album] overseas and travelled to just about every continent on the planet, and a lot of different countries. But I think it’s more than just travelling and appropriating a place: music itself is its own form of travel. You start a song and you move with it, and that’s a very special form of travel.

How would you define your music?

It’s very festive music, and it sounds like it comes from many different places. But we identify by collective audiences and a kind of a chaos on stage. Our music has been influenced by a lot of different cultures, sounds, bands and artists and things, but I prefer to not get too caught up on that and just say it is what it is.

The song ‘Wolves’ on your new album mixes tropical disco with cumbia and Ethiopian music. How did you manage to create a song using so many different rhythms?

We listen to a lot of different types of music, and DJ Jumps [band member] is a great collector of music. He is especially interested in cumbian, Caribbean and African music, and we’ve been quite influenced by that. I also have a lot of friends who have great taste in music and ever since I can remember being alive, I was always hearing new songs from somewhere else. I would then see if I liked it and would try to take something from it and adapt it into my own songwriting.

Would you say that Latin American music is one of your main influences?

Yes, absolutely. I think Latin American music has a huge influence on us. More recently, cumbian has been a real inspiration, but Cuban music was one of my first fascinations. Ollie [McGill] and I have been musicians together since we were 13 years old, and we used to listen African music and we were very interested in its sound.

Why did you choose Cuba as the place for recording your second album, ‘Two Shoes’? How was the experience?

It was a great experience. We were very young, and we were very excited to be there. We were recording in a very old fashioned, simple studio, so it made us play in a very raw, direct way, which was quite useful. And it was wonderful, it was an amazing experience. We also got to visit Ibrahim Ferrer before he passed away, which was a real honor. All of those old musicians came to the studio to honor him there, so it was a really exciting time.

In the different world tours you have done so far, you have visited many countries in America and in Europe. How are you welcomed by the different cultures? Can you notice the difference from one culture to another?

We are always welcomed wherever we go: we’ve had very generous crowds everywhere we’ve been, but there are real differences between one country and the next. For instance, in Spain, the crowd is not afraid to bustle against each other and is very energetic and dances a lot. In Germany, there’s a different sort of energy but it is also more powerful. In France, they tend to be more standoffish at the beginning and wait until the end of the show to really express themselves. So there are a couple of differences in between the countries but once you get past that level, then I don’t like to think too much about what country we’re in but more about which people are sitting in front of us that night and try to have a wonderful experience with them.

Do you think that the audience’s culture and background influences your energy and the way you perform?

Yes, for instance I sing in really bad Spanish in a few of the songs. And I enjoy writing songs in Spanish for the same reason I like listening to music in other languages – because the songs start with sounds rather than meanings. And when we’re in Spain, the audience seems to respond very well to that. There are certain songs which get a certain feeling in some countries but not in others, and we always try to respond to that because in the end, the audience is a big part of the live atmosphere of the band.

Could you tell us about your work as Ambassadors in the Melbourne Asylum Seeker Resource Center?

We did a concert a while back, and I was involved with playing music with asylum seekers in Melbourne. It was a really interesting project because we got to discover Eritrean music, and it was very challenging because they had such a different approach to music and learning. Because of our random influences, as a band we thought it would be good to support some of the most vulnerable people in our community through music and through the community diversity that our music might represent.

How do you think celebrities could make use of their reputation and fame to participate in social and political affairs?

It is a difficult question: I feel that the chance to create something is really good for us, because it relates to our music and we are learning as much we are giving back. I think people with a public profile, like the band, should do what they do well but also be involved in an exchange of giving and receiving. They will learn something good about the things they do through that project, and they will also learn things about other places. I think people with a profile should do something that’s close to themselves and be who they are – so they’re not pretending to be someone else.

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