On Tour with... ... Danko Rabrenović through Düsseldorf

On the bike to Nordstraße
On the bike to Nordstraße | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak

In Düsseldorf everything is only 10 minutes away: a fact that Danko Rabrenović really likes about this metropolis on the Rhein, which he has chosen as his home and the epicenter of his life. Let us take you through Danko‘s Düsseldorf on a bicycle.

To begin with, this was not a voluntary choice. Born on February 9, 1969 in Zagreb as son of a Croatian and a Serbian, the musician, author and radio jockey reached Germany as a refugee and had to leave behind Belgrad, the city where he grew up, where his friends live and where he founded his first band, in order to evade military service in possibly the bloodiest of all conflicts that Europe has seen since the end of the second world War. Thus, he can relate to all whose flight from their country led them right across the globe to Europe where they are living now. However, he emphasizes the point that he didn‘t have to "travel in a shitty boat over the Mediterranean" and to steer to an uncertain fate in a reception camp.

At Rheinufer At Rheinufer | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak Danko had an aunt in Recklinghausen who back then in the early 20s took him into her family house. For him, the escape from his country consisted in boarding an airplane to leave his homeland. All the same, he knows the feeling of leaving behind all that one loves or is used to. And he also knows the adversities that lie in the way in Germany, the new home, when all one wants is to begin a new life here. Innumerable hours in the waiting hall of the foreign office and a long indeterminate stay are clear evidence of this.

The First Hop: KIT

Danko, who sees himself as a kind of a modern nomad, likes to be on the move. Without leaving his familiar surroundings and widening his horizons a man can hardly understand other cultures and other people. One who stays home always misses out an important shaping of character; a circumstance which ever so often leads to the behavior that manifests itself these days in the form of anger or hatred towards foreigners.

Danko and I are also on the move today. After days of rain there is finally a weather prospect which allows us to be on our bicycle seats together and take off from Düsseldorf. Our meeting point is the Cafe of KIT, short for "Kunst im Tunnel”, on the bank of the Rhein in the immediate vicinity of the Landtag and within the range of vision of the top of the television tower. Danko likes to hang around here.

In the KIT In the KIT | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak The crowd is usually very mixed and there’s often live music. "There are not many places in Düsseldorf where they play music before a variegated audience. I am not 20 anymore and don’t like places which stink of piss and smoke anymore. I prefer places about which I know: There’s soap in the toilet." Even though he and the band ‘Trovači’ that he founded with his brother, after "over 300 gigs in the ass" still play in places which don’t exactly fit his notion.  The KIT, however, is precisely the kind of place that Danko appreciates. Not only is a beautiful panorama with a view of the Rhein on offer, there are also Jam sessions, cakes and exhibitions.

Home is in the heart

Danko says about himself that he likes travelling. He relates a positive feeling to it. "It’s a story which all modern nomads have in common. We carry the home in our hearts; it’s not a geographical coordinate but a feeling. On the way to a new place, a person always expects something good. But once he reachs there, he experiences certain things apart from all the beautiful things that he would rather forget, which would be better in ‘the other home’.” Looking back, Danko believes that he already had this feeling in his childhood. In his youth, however, it was „not his theme“, what really brought it forth was leaving the former Yugoslavia. The first impression that Düsseldorf made on him was, however, not the best. Even though Düsseldorf was a step up from Recklinghausen, at first it seemed boring, bourgeois, too clean and rich. It was his studies and his girlfriend at that time that brought him there. “Each time I visited friends in Paris or Berlin and then sat in the S-bahn again, I would think: What are you doing here? But today, 20 years later, I find Düsseldorf lovely. As a family man with children, I won’t like to live in Berlin. Here, everything is manageable.”

Down the Rhein towards Tonhalle and to the Rhein meadow

On the bike On the bike | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak In order to be able to understand this manageability that Düsseldorf offers, despite being a Metropolis, Danko pedals with us and we ride on one of his favorite tracks along the Rhein leading to Tonhalle. The Old Town with its “bad music and completely dunk men” lies to our right. This part of Düsseldorf doesn’t enchant ‘the Balkanizer’ so much, although as a student he would often spend evenings in the Ratinger Street “ to meet friends, to chat and to look at girls” and for a short while worked in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant on Bolker Street, “the drunken tourist mile”. It drizzled a little as we reached the foot of the Tonhalle. The terrace which has a scenic view of the Rhein towards Oberkassel is closed; therefore, we head straight to the Golzheimer Rheinwiesen.

Golzheimer Fußballwiese Golzheimer Fußballwiese | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak Along this extensive green strip Danko meets every Sunday since eternity with a handful of friends to play football. “Not 11 against 11 with big goals. We have bought small goals; we play 3 against 3 with the last man as goalkeeper. For us it’s less of sport then a social element. This is how we see each other regularly despite a job and a family. It’s difficult otherwise to fix a date and time.”

Between the bakers and the office: The Nordstraße

From here we go on our bicycles right through Pempelfort to Nordstraße. On this busy street Danko finds everything that he wants: His supermarket, the bio-shop as well as the family doctor and the Dpd-shop through which he dispatches CDs and Vinyls to fans. But also his whole microcosm in Düsseldorf is located in the immediate vicinity with a maximum distance of 10 minutes. All members of his band live here, between Pempelfort and Zooviertel beyond the railway line. He lives with his wife and two children; the studio and the rehearsal room are located in the backyard with around 120 m² including his office. “Earlier I worked at home but at some point it didn’t work anymore. When the second child comes to your life, then you can’t work at home without interruptions anymore. You can’t simply shut the door. In my office I can concentrate completely on my work, but am always a call away. My daughter goes to the school around the corner; if there’s something I am able to go there immediately.”

Center for Creativity, Münsterstraße

At Nordstraße At Nordstraße | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak The destination of our bicycle tour is finally this rehearsal room of Trovači, which is at the same time Danko’s office. On his study table, I found a framed black-and-white photo of a man in a radio studio. Danko explains that this is his father, a journalist for Radio Belgrad, at work. Just like his father, Danko also works for a radio station, for the international radio program ‘Funkhaus Europe’ on the WDR station in Cologne. However, he had never any plans to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“My focus in my youth was the band; I wanted to be a pop star”, says Danko. “But it just so happened that I ended up with a former colleague of my mother at the WDR. However, I realize now how many things I have been learnt as a child of two radio journalists. The photo on my study table is, nevertheless,  a coincidence. When my father died in 97, I saw this picture and picked it up. At that time I was not yet in radio. The insane part is that he never got to know that my brother and I ended up in radio. But he would certainly have been proud of us.” In his programme ‘Balkanizer’, he talks to people from his neighbourhood and some, with whom he comes into contact, about their stories and their connection to the Balkan. Since 500 episodes, music and oral history have been combined in it.

Borderless Balkan, boundary-less world

Balkan means for ‘The Balkanizer’ not only the former Yugoslavia but also the surrounding area from Romania, Greece uptil Albania. “Borders, patriotism and identification are repugnant to me. It’s all just pigeonholing, prejudices according to which we are categorized and according to which we order our lives. It begins early on. When you’re in a stadium, you’re a fan of your team, when you travel you are suddenly a German at least when you look that way. If you have a German passport but you are black, then people ask you where you come from. You say then: From Germany; then they ask you where you were born. When you say: In Germany, then they ask you where is your origin, if it’s Eritrea or Sudan.  That is nonsense because you’re a man not a piece of a puzzle. The older a man grows, the more complicated and perplexing this picture becomes. That is however a good complexity. No man is like the other. Even two brothers who were brought up the same way can be completely different: One may be a murderer, the other a saint.”

At the desk At the desk | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak From his radio show ‘Balkanizer’ emerged Danko’s first book ‘Der Balkanizer. Ein Jugo in Deutschland’ (The Balkanizer: A Yugoslavian in Germany). Collaborating with a friend, Danko, after having presented so many stories about the lives of others in his show, in 2010 finally wrote his own. One thing is certain: Although he formulated some of the things in a different way, it’s basically his own story. His second book ‘Herzlich willkommencic: Heimatgeschichten vom Balkanizer’ was published earlier this year. Here he goes more in detail over his daily life events between his Balkan and Germany and the small differences that finally result in a symbiosis.

Four Balkans, three German guest-workers

With his guitar With his guitar | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak Sitting in the creative center of Danko Rabrenović we came to talk about his band Trovači. While the selection of music in his radio show shows that his Balkan which crosses borders has more to offer than Balkan-Beats and Balkan brass bands and also Punk, Jazz, Hiphop and many others, Trovači began as a homage to the Yugoslavian New Wave, to “the soundtrack of our youth”, according to Danko. All members of Trovači have their roots in Balkan.

At the drums At the drums | Photo: © Christopher Poltorak “Well, not all. When we grew in number, we got two others too. Those are our guest-workers. They are both German and come, just like our sound man from Cologne”, adds Danko with his peculiar cryptic grin. With his band Danko combines an air of ease and a kind of self-mockery which most bands today lack but which was present in the music of the 80s.  After the cover pieces of the first CD „Balkanplatte“, all the following CDs had specific songs which carried the same spirit as the first CD.

The new album ‘Aprililili’, which appeared in 2015, also hits a note of social criticism. “The song ‘Che’ is about the runarounds of the politicians in Yugloslavia. It just doesn’t change, no matter who comes into power.  It’s always the nationalists who are corrupt. We also have a song about how we are all being bugged by the NSA. It’s obviously in English, so that we don’t have to employ a translator.”

To the family and round the world

At times Danko’s family does get together after all. An evening with the children and his wife is in store and a couple of small things need to be taken care of in Nordstraße. Football has to be cancelled this Sunday though. For the first time, Danko has to read out his own texts in English. Although he had studied English at the university, he had for long not engaged himself with the language, except for smalltalk. A circumstance that he looks forward to happily with the hope of widening his horizons is induced by the invitation from Goethe Institut /Max Mueller Bhavan, as a Serbian-Croatian German who refuses to be categorized, to India. This will certainly add another layer to the colorful mosaic of his life and career.