Hamburg: Germany's Port of Rock 'n' Roll

Karen Zarker and Sarah Zupko
Hamburg harbor

PopMatters shoulders its backpacks and treks to Hamburg to check out Germany's pop music capital, to partake of four days of Kunst und Kultur, historical wanderings, and indulge in a bit of Gemütlichkeit.

See also Hamburg: Art, with its Sleeves Rolled Up

(January 2010)

Hamburg is a business city going back to medieval times and right through to the present with its world-class harbor and bustling downtown filled with the companies that power Germany's media and other industries. And yet, like every German city, it is a place of Kunst und Kultur (Art and Culture). Art is highly revered in this country, though there can be quite a divide between the "High" or "Serious" and the "Low" and "Popular", as we are to discover on this journey.

Hamburg is also a rock 'n' roll city through and through. Maybe it's the sailors and dockworkers or the red light district or just the gritty, working-class vibe of the Reeperbahn environs, but Hamburg is more rock 'n' roll than any city in Germany. Berlin is the city of electronic auteurs and musical visionaries. Hamburg is the city of hard-working and hard-living bands that sweat for the crowds night after night doing their version of the old "mach Shau" ("make show") ethos.

We are in Hamburg for the 2008 edition of the Reeperbahn Festival, a new entrant into the crowded international music festival marketplace, but one that is placed in a perfect location with careful curation that ensures it shall grow and flourish even in these trying economic times. The Festival is held in the historic red light district of the city in the St. Pauli neighborhood, not far from the central business district and its high-end shopping, art museums and opera house.

HafenCity / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Harbor City

While its Hanseatic League, Old World mariner presence remains tangible in some areas, particularly the harbor, this bustling seaport city is clearly a place of modern business, and all the fixings of modern urban life are found here, in lieu of Southern Germany's romantic kingdoms and castles. But for Hamburg's international port of trade, at times the city looks much like today's Chicago – both cities have suffered devastating fires, albeit of very different natures, and responded with robust renewal. Such is the nature of business.

In the harbor of Hamburg's picturesque waterfront, dubbed HafenCity, where Hitler's U-Bootbunkerwerft "Elbe II" once produced submarines, you cross a network of elevated wooden walkways and you quickly find yourself startlingly far away from the familiar comforts of pavement beneath your feet. It's a strange feeling, standing so far from the city, and above the mercurial tide waters.

Much of this architecture is restored after Operation Gomorrah ("the German Hiroshima"), the devastating Allied bombing campaign and firestorm of 1943, yet the historical activity of the docks and all who toiled there is nearly visible, their ghostly presence almost tangible. It's easy to imagine the dock houses now vibrant with galleries, businesses, restaurants, and high priced condos, instead busy with sailors and sea merchants, beasts of burden and groaning loading docks.

HafenCity going up before our very eyes / Photo: Sarah Zupko

More than 60 years after WWII, and this whole area is undergoing major restoration and redevelopment. The industrial look will remain, but married to it will be Kunst und Kultur, highlighted by the development of the new Elbe Philharmonic Hall. By 2011, the entrance to the HafenCity from the harbor will be crowned by a spectacular new multi-use facility with a gigantic crystalline-appearing top that will house the city's orchestra and jazz and pop concerts, as well as a hotel and luxury residences. Meanwhile out in that frantically busy working harbor, the German language version of The Lion King plays at a floating musical theatre. Even in the water, "Serious Music" and pop music shall sit side by side.

Look to the Elbe River feeding into the North Sea, and you will see enormous, tireless machines of international trade glide through the waters, look up, and cranes hoisting containers slowly swing their heavy cargo with deliberate grace. Turn back to the shoreline and your eye is cooled with picturesque, lush greenery, dotted with the colorful buildings of St. Pauli and then increasingly posh private homes as you continue farther away from the mouth of the HafenCity Even during late September, when the air is chill enough to require a jacket, one sees artificial beaches, complete with fake palm trees, where the natives will spend a day sunning or, now that winter's coming, just go to gaze out at the lights of the machines in the sea and the men who work them, 'round the clock. A long-time resident told us he loves to come to the shore some evenings, beer in hand, just to watch the lit up harbor as it works through the night.

Hamburg's hard-working harbor / Photo: Sarah Zupko

And a bit of leisure amidst the industrial bustle / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Hamburg is heavily invested in cultivating business alliances with China, especially since its sister city is Shanghai. China is an undeniable presence in the Hamburg harbor, its ships clearly marked in English and Chinese characters. A small Chinatown existed in Hamburg until 1944, when Hitler had its occupants detained, tortured and sent to labor camps. None has been rebuilt since, and if Hitler's army didn't eradicate every trace of the Chinese presence, Operation Gomorrah certainly did. We wonder about the Chinese and others from various countries throughout this visit. We will meet two cultural representatives from Shanghai later in our tour, lugging camera equipment and interviewing various people who cross their path for their travel TV program. Hamburg is but one stop on their busy itinerary, which has them globe hopping. They had hoped for my modern high-rises, they told us. We've grown accustomed to America's towering high-rises, and so we're happy to spend four days in a human-scale European city.

Like our acquaintances from Shanghai, we, too are in this city as merchants of culture, if you will – another form of modern business – but we come with dual intentions. Yes, we come to hear the musicians at the Reeperbahn Festival, and we hope to discover some new, exciting music -- but we also come to experience, first hand, History. That is, History as it permeates the very air one breathes and as it reverberates in the very ground below one's feet. History that makes you stop, and look, and think. And we came for Gemütlichkeit, the manner of living one's life well, with pleasure and often simply, and thus, our experience takes us to, and beyond, the Reeperbahn Festival.

The Reeperbahn Festival / Photo: Sarah Zupko

Hamburg's Reeperbahn Festival

The Reeperbahn Festival is, in sum, the European South by Southwest (SXSW), but with world-class shopping nearby in the central business district, fine dining, art museums – and clean bathrooms. We experience the Red Light district in the St. Pauli parish neighborhood the very evening of our arrival, and to our sleep-deprived, jet-lagged brains, it is lovely, all lit up at night.

Imagine three nights in late September devoted to 150 bands playing on 20 stages. Indeed, the Reeperbahn Festival is intense. In addition to the natives, bands come from the parts of the UK, Scandinavia, North and South America, Western and Southern Europe, Africa and Asia. As if to bolster the cross-cultural offerings during the rich fall season, Hamburg happened to be running their annual Filmfest Hamburg concurrent to this large and growing music festival. For pop cultural travelers, Hamburg is a scintillating place to be in late September, and it's easy to get around the interior of the city, where all these activities take place, via foot or train.

At night the fall air is cool but electrifying. The Reeperbahn is colorful and welcoming. A center meridian holds two, empty outdoor stages with schedules posted. Oddly we never see any music performed on them. Merchants sell wurst and beer out of brightly lit kiosks. It's a perfect beginning.

The Reeperbahn on our first night / Photo: Sarah Zupko

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