Rory MacLean meets Pigor

Photo: David Baltzer
Photo: David Baltzer
Hitler stares in his bathroom mirror, salutes himself and prepares for his morning shave. 'Eva, where is my razor?' he calls out to piano accompaniment. 'I will shave away these bristles as I did Eastern Europe,' he sings as he strokes his chin. 'But shall I keep the moustache?' “

Singer-songwriter Pigor is one of the most provocative performers on the German stage. Cheeky, effervescent and witty, he was the first German to bring to the theatre a 'funny Hitler', a creation which led to the YouTube 20-million-hit parody Adolf, Die Nazisau with cartoonist Walter Moers and animator Felix Gönnert.

'Hitler, the new perfume for men: smells monumental - and like a German shepherd,' sings Pigor as the Fuhrer back in the bathroom, slapping his cheeks with aftershave and saluting himself again.

Thomas Pigor grew up in a musical household in Unsleben in deepest Bavaria. He played the violin while his sisters accompanied him on the piano, his mother strummed the guitar and his father – a veterinarian – blew into a flute. His father's love of the great 1950s Viennese cabaretists – especially Gerhard Bronner, Helmut Qualtinger and Georg Kreisler – sparked Pigor's own passion for the marriage of music, wit and words. At the age of 16 that spark was fanned into flames at a Franco-German youth exchange summer camp.

'In France I met Parisians who introduced me to Georges Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian and political song-writing,' Pigor told me when we met in his Berlin home. 'We were three young guitarists with two guitars, greeting each other like the French students with "Je suis anarchiste. Et toi?"' he teased, tongue-in-cheek. 'After the summer I returned home to Unsleben and searched the school library for books on anarchism, but found none.'

The masters of the modern chanson – above all Brassens with his elegant melding of seductive humour with rhythms and Vian with his literate, thoughtful and theatrical songs – marked Pigor. While at university in Würzburg, he began to perform on the streets, choosing to play not the usual fodder of English pop songs but rather original works in German.

'I got goosebumps the first time I heard Udo Lindenberg singing a pop song in German,' he recalled. 'I thought, "This is my music. This is my language. They should be together."'

Pigor graduated with a chemistry degree and – after a year of heartfelt reflection – gave up science for his art.

'I just had to do it,' he said with a laugh. 'Although now I wish that - rather than chemistry - I'd spent all that energy learning to play the piano.'

Over the next 15 years with his five-man musical theatre company College of Hearts, Pigor worked to regalvanise the German chanson scene. In small venues across the country he mounted productions entitled New York Must Burn, King Kurt, Casanova, Bloody Honey and a saucy red-light fairy tale about Puss in Boots called Der Gestiefelte.

Photo: Thomas Nitz'There are something like 800 small theatres in Germany, ranging in size from big city classic cabarets to tiny venues in rural areas run by crazy individuals who, with little funding but a great deal of personal commitment, manage to mount regular cultural programmes in their basements and barns. To my mind the importance of this scene is grossly underrated,' Pigor told me. 'Most people are not aware of how widespread these cultural activities are, neither in the media nor in our cultural consciousness, nor even in the scene itself. I would guess that every evening these German-speaking fringe venues attract at least the same number of viewers as 3sat.'

Pigor went on, 'Small-scale theatre, readings, cabaret, comedy, chansons, adult puppet shows, all are lumped together under the derogatory term "Kleinkunst", which translates literally as "small art". Unfortunately this term has a similar ring to allotment gardening, half marathons or kissing without tongues. But in truth the fringe scene is far richer than the solo artists who perform on television would have us believe.'

'This is despite the fact that fringe performances and cabaret are as much part of German culture as Fado is in Portugal, and the further you go away the more clearly people perceive the brand: Berlin – 1920s - Cabaret. The fact that this scene is still very much alive today, and that it is precisely the place where the much-missed German humour can be found in all its facets, often goes by the board in national debates on culture because the survival of the old German Apartheid system, which distinguishes between E-Kultur ('E' as in earnest) and U-Kultur ('U' as in Unterhaltung, i.e. entertainment).'

Photo: Linn MarxIn 1985 Pigor moved to Berlin and in time began his enduring double act with pianist and comedian Benedikt Eichhorn. As well as the song Hitler, he wrote dozens of popular songs including the Nieder mit I.T. (I.T. Go Home) rap and the Rastafarian Heidegger Song, in which the philosopher's thinking is disentangled – and then doubly befuddled (Das Fragen dieser Frage hat als Fragen nach natürlich sein Befragtes, Gefragtes, Erfragtes…). As well as operas and children's musicals, he also formed the 'Show-band' Pigor und die Pigoretten, with a cheeky nod to France's Claude François et les Clodettes.

Since 2011 Pigor has written and recorded a monthly Chanson des Monats for SWR2 and Deutschlandfunk radio. In each programme he tackles an aspect of contemporary life, demonstrating a remarkable ability to make people laugh over dry material such as the Länderfinanzausgleich – the mechanism that redistributes wealth between central government and the 16 German states – and the five-year-delayed Berlin Brandenburg airport. In German it's called Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt. As Brand means burning in German, Pigor points out that it's no surprise that the airport's biggest problem was with its fire-control system.

'Just imagine if it had been called Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg Marlene Dietrich, then the problem would have been with the door locks,' he jibes. Dietrich is the German word for a lock pick, or skeleton key.

'Material comes to me and I work fast so as to be current,' he said. Among their many awards, Pigor & Eichhorn have won the Deutscher Kleinkunstpreis and Österreichischer Kabarettpreis.

Pigor sings with wit and wisdom, veering off on unpredictable tangents, delighting and surprising audiences with his wicked sense of humour at as many as 100 concerts a year. His distinct style – in which words and music are given equal weight – bring to mind a funny Wolf Biermann, a less ambiguous Bob Dylan and a Tom Lehrer with a penchant for acting. Above all Pigor is blessed with a gentle, life-enhancing sense of fun – and a deep understanding of what it means to be German today.

'My work is very different from that of the big, state theatres,' he said in "E" earnest. 'I don't want to be distant from the audience. I want to have a dialogue with them, to be close to them, both physically and emotionally. I don't call that simple "U" entertainment.'

Rory MacLean
January 2015
Related links

Weblog: Rory’s Berlin-Blog

Rory MacLean Weblog
Settling in Berlin: Travelwriter Rory MacLean gives an amusing and insightful account of his new home.

Youth in Germany

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