Following his adventures with the Dadaists, Stef Kamil Carlens is transformed into a wild man in the new show from his colourful arts collective Zita Swoon Group. "We have diverted creativity to consumption, while genuine creativity has become something for artists."
"I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger / Traveling through this world of woe / Yet there's no sickness, toil nor danger / In that fair land to which I go." While I'm on my way up the stairs to the attic floor of Jan Lauwers's performing arts centre Needcompany on the Hooikaai/quai au Foin, the lyrics of a traditional song, "The Wayfaring Stranger", waft towards me, sung by a heavenly siren. The voice is that of Kapinga Gysel, it turns out, when I open the door of the rehearsal space.
Zita Swoon Group, in which Stef Kamil Carlens, the group's creative linchpin, brings together his hobby horses in the fields of music, the visual arts, and dance with a childlike enthusiasm, is rehearsing a new, hybrid show entitled The Ballad of Erol Klof. Large sheets of text and arrangements are lying around on the floor, amid an old big drum, a glockenspiel, Spanish guitars, and a multicoloured rocking horse; there are pre-war clothes, grass skirts, and colourful costumes by Sietske Van Aerde, some being worn, some hanging on racks; tape traces choreographic patterns on the floor.
On an old record player, Wim De Busser plays a mix of Debussy and electronica; musical mastermind Aarich Jespers recalls old blues singers; later, a Brussels-based American singer-songwriter, Matt Watts, sings one of his own folk songs as if it was an old evergreen by Mississippi John Hurt.
There are occasional cries of "Shit!", when a costume change doesn't go as quickly as hoped or a song gets off to a bad start. "A lot happens in the last rush," observes Stef Kamil Carlens with a smile, brushing the sweat from his brow. "The last two weeks of rehearsals are really important for us." As the rest of the team goes for a sandwich, he pulls up a chair. "So, Erol Klof really exists," he chuckles. "Apparently it's a German surname. You can find loads of them on Facebook, but that wasn't the idea." No: Erol Klof is quite...the opposite of folklore. As if we didn't know that! Carlens openly calls the new show a tribute to folklore. Even at a time when the all-connected, all-networked individual feels lost in a globalised world and engages in an at times frenetic quest for roots, the word "folklore" still has something moth-eaten about it. "For me, it didn't necessarily have to be that word," says Carlens. "These days it is all too often hijacked by nationalists and the far right. But there's much more to it than that."
The Ballad of Erol Klof is a sequel to Nothing That Is Everything, an ode to Dadaism that was triggered when Carlens became fascinated by a 1916 film about the avant-garde Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Via the ideas of the founder of modern dance, Rudolf von Laban, Carlens goes back to that voluptuous time; but his main inspiration came from recent work by the French photographer Charles Fréger. Carlens discovered Fréger's photographs in National Geographic Magazine and later came across his 2012 book Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage, in which the photographer portrays contemporary "wild men" – shadowy figures in bizarre outfits and masks who celebrate key moments of the year and aim to foster fertility or ward off demons. The men in question are transformed into animals like bears and stags, men of straw, or devils, often using skin or plants.
"I was both surprised and intrigued by Fréger's photographs," recalls Carlens. The singer had been fascinated by masks since his childhood, an interest that had grown in the course of his trips to Africa in recent years. That found expression in his work in the visual arts and in Nothing That Is Everything, in which Dadaist figures with absurd, African-inspired masks mock modern society and its failings.
"I thought things like that were mainly associated with Africa, which wants to be modern today but is still to a great extent dominated by voodoo and especially by its ethnic groups. But Fréger showed that those folk traditions are still very much alive in Europe today too. Perhaps even more than before. In Poland, there are people who gather in the forests to celebrate the solstice. And then there is that Krampus figure – with his red tongue, switch, and his basket full of children – who is very big in Germany. It doesn't take much imagination to see our Zwarte Piet [a mischievous companion to St Nicholas or Santa Claus in this part of the world – TZ] in him. I think it says a lot about our relationship with nature and animals and how that balance has been upset today."
Small, medium or large
Carlens began to wonder at what point folklore gets to be called folklore. When does it tip from being a custom of a community to something that is kept alive artificially? "I have a splendid book of photographs of the Omo, an ethnic group in southern Ethiopia who adorn themselves with flowers and paint themselves all over," Carlens tells me.
"I was completely blown away by it – so beautiful!" Until Lieven Corthouts, the maker of the documentary The Invisible City (Kakuma), about a refugee camp in Kenya (for which Carlens did the soundtrack), told him that the Omo maintain that tradition for...tourism. "In the book, everything looks so incredibly unspoilt: the Omo look like they come from paradise on earth. But they ask tourists to take photos for money and are quite aggressive in their dealings with them."
"People are creative," he believes, "even if it is only in building a rabbit hutch or a carport to park their car under. One has a detailed plan; the other quickly cobbles together some sheets of corrugated iron. But creativity is a human quality. Do I need something? Well, I'll make it myself. That's great. But, these days, when people need something, they take a quick look online. We must seriously ask ourselves: to what extent can we conjure up that creativity again? Well, you can see that more and more people are already involved in that."
It is well known that the former dEUS bassist has been making clothes for years. "I have lots of books about clothes, especially from ethnic communities. Clothes that attract me, not just because of their fantastic designs, but above all because they are made by people who aren't necessarily tailors or fashion designers. Ordinary mothers and fathers who pass on designs, motifs, and ways of embroidering to their offspring. Things that are handmade, with natural materials, on a very small scale. When you see how we dress today, then you think, guys, where's the refinement? Where is the aesthetic sense?"
Lost in consumption, I suggest, in the insatiable appetite of our over-populated world. "Of course, there are lots of reasons why things like that get lost. But it is interesting to think about what place there can still be for them. What is the value today of those festivals, those dances, and that music? How does it happen that skills like making clothes are disappearing? It's sad that that sort of 'wisdom' is being lost. There is nothing as fantastic as wearing a jacket that is made to measure. It just fits perfectly. Now, you go to the shop to choose between a small or a medium or a large and they never fit right. We have diverted creativity to consumption, while genuine creativity has become something for artists."
And, one, two, step forward and turn, I think, as Carlens and Co. tackle a bizarre mix of a folk dance and something newfangled. "In the piece, we play with traditional inspired dances like Croatian character dance and new stuff like the Jerk and the Jumpstyle, modern 'folk dances' that emerge when kids get together in open spaces and dance to loud, fast music. You could compare it with breakdance or the emergence of hip-hop culture in the Seventies. We take it to slightly absurd lengths, just short of making ourselves look ridiculous," he says with a laugh.
Carlens is really intrigued by that era. "Laban organised dance camps on Lago Maggiore, on the border between Italy and Switzerland. Writers like Hermann Hesse, Hugo Ball, one of the founders of Dada, and the psychoanalyst Carl Jung gathered there to discuss philosophy; people went in for naturism and vegetarianism and went back to nature. While the world was exploding, they were looking for an idyllic oasis. Pollution was beginning to become a problem; there were great tensions between the people and the elite; people were being economically exploited. It's incredible how many parallels you can draw with today. And you start to see systems, mechanisms that aren't haphazard."
Carlens is animated as he shares his knowledge. Can art just be pure beauty, I wonder? "That is a question I don't want to get into," he replies with a laugh. "Already the word art, I find a big, almost obstructive word. As a musician and artist, I chose at a particular point to employ a sort of naive idiom, one in which I didn't feel inhibited. What interests me above all about The Ballad of Erol Klof is the interaction between the people on the stage and with the audience. Like during a concert, when musicians and the audience are striving for a concentrated energy."
Carlens will be going in search of that energy again soon. For the first time since the 2007 Zita Swoon album Big City, he is going on the road with a pop repertoire, under his own name. "No concept, no masks, no dancers," he grins.
> The ballad of Erol Klof. 16/12 & 17/12, 20:30, Kaaitheater, Brussels