The sincerest form of flattery

The past two weeks I’ve been (trying) to write about Kraftwerk. German band. They play instruments; flutes, keyboards, fake drums, robots. They make beautiful music, really the only way to put it, beautiful music. Really it is a singular body of work, modern music that you can listen to over and over. As with other famous bands there are, in fact, tributes to the band. To be honest, I’m only familiar with one tribute to the band. And when I say tribute, I’m talking cover versions of songs. One could say that Kraftwerk have had MANY tributes over the years in the form of sampling. This is not what I’m talking about, no, I’m talking about the type of tributes you see touring local casinos around the state. I first heard a song from this tribute about 11 years ago; on a mix CD a friend of mine gave me. The song was a favorite of mine, Tour De France, and the name of the artist was Senor Coconut.

I found the CD and bought it and took a listen. The record, El Baile Aleman (The German Dance) was recorded by Senor Coconut or as he was know to me before this the artist behind the musical act, Atom Heart. I’d describe Atom Heart as minimalist techno. The big time music folks I knew when I discovered the LP were BIG into Atom Heart, so I knew the name when I found out about Senor Coconut. I wouldn’t call Atom Heart’s music difficult, but I would call it totally different from El Baile Aleman.

Uwe Schmidt is the man behind the monikers. He is a German who moved to South America and began recording as Senor Coconut, ostensibly to distance himself from his past music and the scene he was occupying. It sounds very Marathon Man, don’t you think? I always thought this bit of biography was a joke, a rib played for those who knew their history. For those who don’t, South America was a destination for many Nazis post WW2. Joseph Mengele and Adolf Eichmann lived and worked in South America in public secret after the war. So when I heard about the gimmick I thought it just that, a humorous wink at a terrible history. Senor Coconut’s first CD is Gran Baile Con…Senor Coconut. While charming and such the CD feels like a cross between the old and new, an attempt to embrace some of your past while rejecting the rest of it. It isn’t terrible yet not great but does allow a look at his future direction, the direction being El Baile Aleman.

So just what is so special about this release? The detail is in the back-story. A German moved to South America. Germany. South America. The music originates from Germany but the style of the record is pure South America. Every song on the LP is done in a differing Latin style. The version of Tour De France is listed as a Merenge, a predominantly Dominican style of music and dance meant to invoke images of egg beaters making merengue while watching dancers. The song smokes, is so fast and so different while retaining the little things that make the original song so classic. This version uses marimbas and a faster tempo but retains the core melody that makes the song a classic as well as the breathing that sets such an important portion of the original song.

Neon Lights is done in the Cuban style of Cha Cha Cha, a style you can hear whenever/wherever you hear the Cuban national anthem. Once again the song is the same yet different, the melancholy and loneliness and wonder of the original are present but the emotions don’t feel as deep as in the original. Maybe the pastiche ruins the emotional heft of the music, or maybe it ruins the emotional heft to the listener. Whatever the case the song slinks more than moves for the duration. The prominent marimba makes you feel like you are on a vacation somewhere watching rather than being somewhere and observing. Both versions of the song are great, but only one makes you wistful.

Autobahn is done in the Columbian style of Cumbia. The song does lose a great deal taking away the elements of the original, the soundscape nature of the track that made you want to listen to the entire track. I will say this for the Coconut version; it sure is hell is a lot of fun. The whole CD sounds like fun, but the sounds of Autobahn just make you want to stand around and move. Look at this live clip from 2006, how much fun does that room look? Is there a fantastic amount of energy on display? No. Is there a ton of fun in the performance? Yes.

Compare that to the real deal performing Autobahn on a recent tour. Does the room look like fun? Not really. Fun to look at, the backing graphics at least, but does the song make you want to dance? Does it make you leap to your feet? No.

For me, and I LOVE Kraftwerk, what the band is missing is a sense of humor. Or at least a feeling of levity. I feel like they take the myth and the history of the band VERY seriously, and why not? It has given them a long and rich career. And then I saw this interview and thought that there was something there, a sly nod to a sense of humor one can get by sending a Robot to do an interview for you. But is that really Ralf Hutter? Or someone else’s voice? Werner Herzog’s son? Who knows. Does it matter?

What makes a great tribute record is a dedication to the source material with a rendering of the music through the eyes of the artist. What Senor Coconut did was take the music of Kraftwerk, classics, and re-imagined the songs through the diaspora of Latin music. The idea was clever but only really worked with Kraftwerk. On Senor Coconut’s subsequent LP the lead single was a version of Smoke On The Water while also featuring source music by the Doors (Riders On The Storm), Sade (Smooth Operator), and Michael Jackson (Beat It). The idea that made El Baile Aleman so intriguing and charming is lacking on the follow up. In the years since Schmidt has continued to make music under the Senor Coconut name as well as other aliases. Sadly the music sounds stale now, but when you break out El Baile Aleman and give it a listen it will still sound fresh, sunny and fun. The concept might not continue to work but the early efforts, man they were thrilling.

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