The Tuedelband Plays On
I was twenty-five when my culture and creativity collided. We were all in the midst of Y2K chaos and on the blind side of a monumental shift in the way we were living our lives. Since I had been raised on a steady diet of movies, music, and theater it was no surprise that my dreams were tied up in the visions of fame and fortune that pop culture provided. I was a founding member of a live Hip Hop band and theater collective called Felonious and we were recording our first album The List and writing our first piece Beatbox: A Raparetta. I was also a company member of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, an amazing young theater group that had been my artistic home, but something was missing and I was about to find out what it was.
I walked into my ailing grandmother’s house and my dad handed me a yellow manila envelope. Inside was a forty-two-page letter from my grandfather, meticulously typed on aging paper telling me why my family left Germany. My grandfather, Donat Wolf, had begun writing the letter the day after my sister was born in 1977 until his death in 1984.
To My Grandson Daniel, I am sitting down to write you a letter so that one day you will not only be able to read but to understand what it is I am trying to tell you. And it is quite possible that when you read this I will no longer be among you.
It was as if he was alive again, telling me pieces of a history that I thought he would have rather forgotten. It was already clear to me that our family was defined by the pain of the German/Jewish experience during World War II. That my grandparents were filled with the fear, sadness, and betrayal that comes with being forced to leave everything you know and start a new life in a distant land. That because of them I was craving, deeply, to find root in my traditions and a place in the dark lineage that had been kept separate from my California upbringing.
Six months later my grandmother passed away. But before she died she had received an email from a German filmmaker who wanted to make a film about our family. “Why our family?” I thought. “Ahk, these Germans,” she said, “What do they want with us?” My father said to me, “You’re the artist, do something!”
I am an artist. The first time I walked into a theater, I knew it was where I wanted to spend my life. But I hadn’t ever had to grapple with the relationship between my legacy and my work as an artist. What would you do if your entire family history fell into your lap? How do you even make sense of that? I guess I thought “why not”? So, I answered the email and made plans to meet the filmmaker—still with no clue as to what would interest a filmmaker in our family.
We met at an outdoor café in San Francisco. Across the table sat a man in his fifties with spiked white hair wearing a white tee-shirt and a black leather vest. He found me by placing an article in a German newspaper answered by a cousin who “knew of a great grandson in San Francisco who wanted to be an actor.” The cousin had just returned from America where he visited my grandmother before her death. She told him about me and here I was sipping coffee with a filmmaker still feeling like something was missing, still not knowing what it was, and still not grasping why this man was interested in my family. So, as we learn to do in our field, I spent my time selling him on my performance resume and, as a side note, handed him a copy of the Felonious demo Fight For Light.
“Do you know Ludwig Wolf? Do you know Gebrueder Wolf? The Tuedelband song?” He immediately asked.
I had no idea what he was talking about. “I know nothing,” I replied.
An de eck steiht’n Jung mit’n Tüdelband,
In de anner’Hand’n Bodderbrot mit Kees;
Wenn he blots night mit de been in’t Tüdeln kummt!
Un dor ligght he ok all lang ob de Nees.
Un he rasselt mit’n Dassel geg’n Kansteen,
Un he bitt sick ganz geheurig op de Tung.
As he opseight, seggt he : « Hett nich wehdon ! »
Dat’s’n klacks för so’n Hamborger Jung!
On the corner stands a boy with a hoop
In his other hand is butter bread with cheese
Hopefully he doesn’t stumble with his feet
Oops there he goes yo he falls and hits his nose
And he wrestles with his head against the curbstone
And he bites his tongue deep inside his throat
But he jumps up and says “Check it, I’m bulletproof”
That ain’t nothing for the Hamburg City Youth
This stranger started to unravel a life-changing story about my great-grandfather and his brother—Leopold and Ludwig Isaac, aka the “Gebrüder Wolf” (Brothers Wolf). To my astonishment, this two-man ensemble—my ancestors—recorded over 600 songs including Hamburg's anthem “An de Eck steiht´n Jung mit´n Tüdelband” (On the Corner Stands a Boy with a Hoop) in 1911.
My grandfather suddenly made sense to me. He was a proper man in a smoking jacket inspired by fine art, good drink, and smart company. As a businessman he’d traveled to Africa and learned to speak English. As a refugee he had been through Shanghai and New York. He was a man shaped by the fact that he was the youngest son of a successful performer who he perceived as never around.
Through the brotherhood of a creative impulse, people can come together and share in the complexities of expressing what it means to be human. That we are all... searching for new ways to articulate our vision by combining our past with our future.
The filmmaker continued to unfold this surprising story. These boys from Hamburg’s “Neustadt/New City” entertained their audiences with parodies, humorous songs, and farcical scenes, earning the reputation of being Hamburg's Marx Brothers. The Gebrüder Wolf had their artistic breakthrough with the revue “Rund um die Alster” (Around the Alster Lake) in which they incorporated their legendary characters Fietje and Tetje, two workers from the harbor. As young men they would meet on the street and make up rhyming songs on the spot. In his mind the filmmaker had connected what the Gebrüder Wolf were doing one hundred years ago to what rappers were doing today. It was like he was drawing a direct line to me and I had no choice but to follow it.
After the Nazi takeover it was forbidden for the “Gebrüder Wolf” to perform in public. Their most popular songs were still sung by the people in Hamburg but hits such as “Tüdelband,” “Snuten un Poten,” “Dat Paddelboot,” “De kugelrunde Deern,” and the many other popular songs were officially treated as “authorship unknown.”
As the story unfolded, all of a sudden I flashed on a picture that sat on my grandmother’s mantle for years. It was a painting of two men leaning on each other, obviously the Gebrüder Wolf. These brothers, extremely beloved for the way they injected humor into German society, had all but vanished from the cultural landscape and from the consciousness of the people of Hamburg. But there they were, for years, just sitting in that dining room staring at me. Telling me that it was okay to follow in their footsteps, that when I was ready to listen to their music I would have my chance.
Today you can still stop any German on the streets of Hamburg and ask them to sing An de eck steiht’n Jung mit’n Tüdelband and they will. This ”anthem” is covered by German pop stars, sung at halftime in the futbol stadiums, and taught to schoolchildren. But if you ask them who wrote the song you will hear a long silence. No one knows who wrote the song. I guess that’s what you want, a piece of art that you create to last long after you die. But if no one knows that you wrote it, is the fact that it’s out there, belonging to someone, enough? If no one knows how the contributions of so many German Jews touch their lives today, what is lost?
For centuries on corners in ciphers we congregate
Style to make the world dance cause art it elevates
Stood in line for bread and cheese, governments please
We a nation of refugees from overseas
Survival tactics, survivalist from the action brought by racist factions
The only mathematics that they fuck with is subtraction
Attracting weak white right Aryan devil practice
Before we concentrate on camps temples get destroyed
But I burn bright like eight day oil lamps so catch a glimpse but don’t stumble
I battle contemporary gladiators who want our world to crumble
I call this a comeback, you better ask where we been to arrive where we at
born by the Bay simple twist of fate USA
I go back in time to see if I can still relate
Months later the filmmaker brought Felonious to Hamburg as a way of re-introducing the people to the work of the Gebrüder Wolf. As we played shows and met young artists I became connected to the complex city. It felt so familiar even though everything I knew was connected to the horrors of war and its aftermath. I felt a deep understanding of my grandparents as people, as young people, as I walked through the city, experiencing its streets and buildings as if they were mine. I witnessed firsthand the famous Reeperbahn, a street where brothels mixed with bars and the subject of many of their songs. I walked along the Elbe River and watched the people ride their bikes along the strand. I stood in the shadow of the Operettenhaus, a 1,400-seat theater that belonged to the Gebrüder Wolf at the height of their popularity. “I’m not supposed to be here but I am. Fuck you! FUCK YOU!!!”
My work always starts with a question, a personal challenge to myself that is the equivalent of a theatrical shoulder check. The morning after Felonious played its first show in Hamburg, Germany, the question was “Now what”? The next step was unclear. As I sipped my morning coffee a picture in the newspaper was brought to my attention. Actually it was a composite of two pictures side-by-side. The first picture was of the Gebrueder Wolf onstage in their salad days and the other picture was of our group Felonious in the middle of performing at a club. In that moment I saw that the work I do with Felonious had been placed in a family tradition that predates war and slavery, betrayal and fear, sadness and anger. That through the brotherhood of a creative impulse, people can come together and share in the complexities of expressing what it means to be human. That we are all in a dark room looking for a light switch, searching for new ways to articulate our vision by combining our past with our future.
My understanding of Hip Hop Performance and my role in this continuum was altered—now grounded firmly in the possibilities that exist in hybrid forms that are born out of collaboration and in search of relevant and connective meaning that can speak to new generations.