Jan Schulte’s New Album Celebrates German Tropical Drum Music

Jan Sculte

Photo by Stephan Machac.

“According to maps and witness accounts, Germany does not officially have any tropical forests. This is of no concern to Jan Schulte however, who has unearthed many stunning examples of tropical drum music recorded there.”

So begins the sleeve notes to one of the more intriguing compilations to emerge in the last few years. Compiled by Düsseldorf-based DJ/producer Jan Schulte, aka Wolf Müller, and released on Danish musician and producer Kenneth Bager’s Music For Dreams label, Tropical Drums of Deutschland collects obscure tribal music recorded on small Germany-based independent labels in the 1980s.

“I was always into drums, and started to buy every record that suggested some type of percussion,” Schulte says from his studio in Düsseldorf. “I began to find the ‘80s stuff just by chance about 10 years ago. It was then that I started to make the connections between all of these records that were being made in Germany at that time. It really was just a flea market thing—I kind of became obsessed with finding these records. I was digging really heavily, but didn’t pay more than €10 for any of the LPs that ended up being featured on this compilation.”

Schulte was in search of a specific kind of percussion music. “A big thing for me was to find all the records on the Någarå label with [Frankfurt-based Swiss jazz drummer] Peter Giger,” he says. And while Tropical Drums of Deutschland focuses on music from the ‘80s, Schulte was first drawn to the percussion music of Germany through LPs like Illegitimate Music from 1976, as well as recordings with the Family of Percussion collective featuring Trilok Gurtu and Doug Hammond.

It was through the records of experimental players like Giger that Schulte developed his love of jazz fusion. “When I was about 14, I found out most of my favorite hip-hop records sampled these ‘70s jazz records, so I started to hunt for the originals,” he says. “I was always a very big fusion head so I trace the roots of the project back to then.”

That’s not to say that all the records featured on Tropical Drums of Deutschland come from Germany’s prolific fusion scene. “The compilation really is a mix of all different kinds of musicians,” Schulte says. “Some came from the jazz fusion scene, others were coming from the krautrock field, but they were all getting into these kinds of world music and other interesting things. Then there was another group of very classically-trained musicians who were great percussionists and wanted to show off their skills on these records.” As it tunes out, there was a lot of overlap between the different scenes. “I was also really into bands like Embryo, who came from progressive krautrock, went to fusion, then went to world music,” Schulte says.

Despite their varied musical backgrounds, all of the artists featured on Tropical Drums share a single aesthetic commonality. “I think what tied them together was a move away from this hard progressive sound of the ‘70s into something that was a more New Age ‘80s sound,” Schulte says. “I also think the less hard sound of the records was a result of the new studio equipment being better and more easily accessible. The recordings are all very high class. And another important connection was that they were all exploring this kind of esoteric world music.”

The vast sounds of “world music” have inspired musicians throughout time—from the “Aloha” of Martin Denny’s easy listening in the ‘50s, to the faux Balinese explorations of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono in the late ‘70s, to the tropical New Age of Spain’s Finis Africae in the ‘80s. And it’s that same globetrotting spirit that drove a small group of musicians in Germany in the ‘80s to reach deep into their imaginations to create the incredible music found by Schulte. “I was always fascinated by music that described fantastic places, especially by people who might not have been to those places,” he says. “I have a huge collection of cosmic disco, which is people making music about space when they haven’t been there. It’s the same thing with these records, it’s these songs about the jungle or the rainforest made solely by these people’s imagination and fantasy.”

As far back as 2011, with the Wolf Müller EP Lagerfeuer Tanz and continuing through records like Wu Du Wu in 2014, Schulte has explored tribal drum music in his own production work. “The records that are featured on this compilation had a really big impact on me. This mix of a straight back beat and free percussion, layered on top with high-pitch chimes, then all the bird or flute noises weaved in the background. I wouldn’t have taken the Wolf Müller direction without those records,” says Schulte. “My production is very different from those records, of course. I do it from a very underground producer approach. But I also have other musicians around me, like drummer and percussionist Niklas Wandt. I make music by computer, but my studio is full of real instruments, made from clay and wood.”

Schulte’s shamanistic sound can be heard as part of a new wave of what the blog Test Pressing called “Modern Sacred Music,” alongside the likes of Africaine 808, Zsou, and Peter Power at the Multi Culti label. “I don’t see myself as part of a particular scene, but there is a general movement happening, I think,” Schulte says. “We are living in such a completely organized, overwhelming technological world, that I have this dream of living 3,000 years ago and being fascinated by the sun and taking all my energy from nature.”

Om Buschman opens the compilation with the Gamelan-like jungle sounds of “Klang Fangt An.” “They came from Leichlingen, which is a countryside area near Cologne,” Schulte says. “The guitarist Michael Peters and one of the drummers, Urs Fuchs, were also in the [ambient/electronic] group Camera Obscura from EMAK [Experimental Musik Aus Köln], and this was like another side project for them to experiment.” Recorded with four percussionists, this and the two other tracks  [“Prima Kalimba” and “Hey Tata Gorem”] were taken from a 1988 LP called Total, recorded at Bex Studios in Cologne and released on High-Fine Music, a small label that quickly sank. “They were really having fun in the studio with this,” says Schulte. “If you look at the back of the record sleeve, you will see they have a list of a hundred different instruments including a toilet flush, wheel hubs, cucumbers, and all sort of things.”

Like most of the LPs Schulte found for the compilation, Total has rocketed in price as interest in this percussion music has grown. “I picked that LP up really cheaply for around €5, like a lot of records on this compilation,” says Schulte. “I am always far more excited when I pick a record up cheaply just by going on the cover or name or something. I’m not chasing after expensive records.”

Slightly more prolific than High-Fine Music, in that they released three rather than two LPs, the Rash label was the home of Total Art of Percussion. The group was formed in 1978 in Mörfelden-Walldorf, south of Frankfurt. Their self-titled 1982 LP, published by the influential Cologne-based veraBra Music, was mainly a platform for the group’s interest in Latin music with tracks like “Bata Y Rumba-Guaguanco” and “Afro Cuban Revelation.” And, in fact, members Martin Hesselbach and Thomas Kukulies went on to join Dusseldorf’s Salsa Picante in 1985.

But it’s the rainforest drum groove of “Wuhan Wuchang” that drew Schulte’s ears. “I think the Total Art of Percussion was the first LP I found in the direction of the music that is featured on this compilation,” he says. “I must have found that more than 10 years ago in a pile of records a friend was selling. And what attracted me to it was the high-quality recording. I already had a lot of the ‘70s percussion records and loved that kind of very specific studio sound. But the Total Art of Percussion record was the first one I really got into with that ‘80s sound, with a lot of room on it— very high definition. And this track ‘Wuhan Wuchang’ was just so dreamy and ethereal, I loved it.”

A year after the Total Art of Percussion LP, the fusion collective Argile released their debut LP Nimdirsi, on Munich label Schneeball. The group was founded in Nürnberg by flautist Dieter Weberpals, ex-member of cult krautrock band Gebärväterli, whose 1978 LP Im Tal Der Emmen for the Nürnberg-based Brutkasten label is much sought-after by collectors. “Argile are a really interesting group, and there you have the more obvious connections to krautrock, because of the involvement of Dieter Weberpals and their release on the Schneeball label, which is home to bands like Embryo and Hammerfest,” Schulte says.

For their 1983 improvisational LP for Schneeball, the group explored world music with the quena, flute, and percussion of Dieter Weberpals accompanied by darbouka (goblet drum), marimbas, congas, and vibraphone. The result was a deeply layered hypnotic sound that reached its heady zenith on “Tagtraum Eines Elefanten.” Also featured on Tropical Drums of Deutschland is “Kleine Rosa Wolke” from Argile’s 1986 LP Weltmusik, a meditative New Age track revolving around dulcimers and flutes.

Rüdiger Oppermann also knew a thing or two about meditative spaces. He began playing the Celtic harp in 1973 and released a number of modern classical and New Age LPs on the Wundertüte label in the 1980s. The track chosen by Jan Schulte for this compilation was recorded for Wundertüte ‎in 1990 as a double-sided 7” entitled “Troubadix’ Rache” under the name Rüdiger Oppermann’s “Harp Attack.” “I remember buying that 7” in a thrift shop around the corner from here for like 50 cents,” says Schulte. “I had no idea who Rüdiger Oppermann was. I just bought the record because of the sleeve and the label name Wundertüte, which means ‘bag of wonders.’ Everything on that record said ‘please buy me.’ He also has two LPs going on with this New Age harp music, but I think the 7” is the strongest.”

Veteran New York drummer Bob Moses was one of many American jazz musicians who found their creative energy in Germany. The titles of his two LPs, When Elephants Dream of Music and Visit With The Great Spirit (both on the Gramavision label), offer a hint of his headspace in the mid ‘80s. Drumming Birds, recorded with Billy Martin (later of Medeski Martin & Wood), and released on German label ITM, was his most exploratory work to date. “That record was really easy to find. While a lot of these records have gone up in price, this is one you can still pick up quite cheaply,” says Schulte. “Actually, that LP is also a DJ classic with me because it also has some very club heavy dance tracks on it. But I love the atmosphere on ‘Boat Song.’” The LP featured the duo playing a raft of percussion instruments including congas, talking drum, surdo, repinique, pandeiro, ganzá, as well as electronic drums, and Yamaha DX7 and TX816 synths. On an LP consisting of percussion jams filtered through the electronic devices (with titles like “Rumble in The Jungle”  and “Tempest Sandstorm”), “Boat Song Part 2” and “Laughing Drummers In The Park, On Mars” were the most hypnotic.

All the records featured on Tropical Drums of Deutschland were played by Schulte in his DJ sets at Salon Des Amateurs, the Düsseldorf venue that Young Marco called “the weirdo post-kraut scene’s Haçienda.” The venue has also become a testing ground for Schulte’s own edits of tracks from the LP. “It has been a very important place for me, especially with my edit of Om Buschman [‘Hey Tata Gorem’],” he says. “That is about 85 BPM or something, and I think it would have been very difficult for that to have been a club track in any other surroundings.”

It’s important for Schulte that this isn’t simply music stuck in the past. “I’m continuing to produce in the vein of this compilation, and have just finished an LP with Niklas Wandt who I also play with live, so it’s really exciting,” says Schulte. His recent mix on Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM show offers an indication of the way Schulte is pushing the music forward, with his own unreleased Wolf Müller productions plaed next to other drum tracks like “Dum-Tititi, Dum-Titi, Kpasch Kpasch” by German based Ghanaian artist Mustapha Tettey Addy, another of Schulte’s favorite drummers.

“There is so much of this music out there,” Schulte says. “At the moment, I’m just really happy that this music is new to a lot of people, and I could I draw people to it and maybe get them looking for similar kinds of records. There’s an audience for this music without me even knowing.”

Andy Thomas

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