Tanja Ries: “Young people need more participation, more spaces that are their spaces”
I met Tanja Ries at the end of the 1990s in the Berlin nightlife, or rather in her “Nachtcafe”. We were introduced to each other and I immediately noticed her calm and thoughtful manner. In my experience, many MCs are often hyper, edgy characters who feel very comfortable on a stage, regardless of which one, because of their extroversion. Tanja was exactly the opposite. She seemed introverted, thoughtful, and tender. Both on stage and in the backstage, she exuded an elegant strength and quiet assurance that I had rarely experienced in other nightlife eccentrics. We became friends and stayed in touch, both privately and artistically.
Tanja was intoxicating on stage as a singer despite her reserve, her lyrics and music, which were unusual sound melodies, touched the audience, but although we often came to the “Nachtcafe” because of her performances, it was her great passion to introduce other artists. After a few wonderfully prepared words, she would leave the stage to them. Smiling and supportive, she watched the performance from the side lines and came back clapping to introduce the next one. I often watched her, touched by her ability, to recognize others so selflessly inspite of her own talent.
After a few years she called and asked me if I would like to do a workshop with girls from the street. This is how I got to know her new passion: Gangway E.V., an association that took care of people on the street and in which she tried to help young people through music. The workshop I then did was emotionally extremely upsetting because the girls were so neglected that I hardly knew how to help them as an artist. I was on tour a lot at the time, but continued hearing from Tanja and it seemed that she was becoming more and more involved in this musical social work. Then in 2015 I heard that she and Gangway had founded a STREET COLLEGE. This college was intended to offer young people individual and self-determined learning and pursued a radical need-based, strength-oriented and self-reliant approach to education. The approach was new and quite revolutionary. Since then, I have been fascinated by what the institution has put together musically with many participants and I am very pleased to be able to introduce Tanja Ries here today with her incredible idealism.
Danielle de Picciotto: How did you get into music? Are you self taught or did you study music?
Tanja Ries: Somehow the music came to me. I was still living in southern Germany and responded to an advertisement from a swing and jazz band that were looking for a singer. They actually hired me. My naivety, my ignorance, have often helped me. I just wasn’t afraid of anything. My second project was a jazz duo with a double bass player. I didn’t know that it was harder to sing only with a bass – and through this I got to know the real thing and experience dedication in improvisation and communication in music. In the meantime I had landed in Berlin. In the early 90s. I started writing my own songs.
Lyrics and music, and I somehow always learned what I needed to know to continue. Over the years I was fortunate enough to work with great musicians and have a great band, so that the rough diamonds with which I came to the rehearsal room turned into great pieces that we later played at concerts and on CDs we pressed.
You are a wonderful singer – what do you try to express in music?
If you had asked me that a few years ago, I would probably have said something like “Feelings have to get out”. Or: “I don’t try to express myself in the music, the songs just find me.” But since I haven’t been writing or performing for a few years, I can look at everything I’ve done in life from a little distance. Today I would say: What has always interested me is communication. The idea that we are not alone in these moments of togetherness. That we are not alone with our emotions. And that we are all good the way we are. Maybe this is consolation and the possibility of transformation? I think that’s part of my talent: by “showing” others the opportunity and the courage to do the same. To find words in which others can find themselves. What I love is the moment in which I lose myself (the ego), feel connected with everything and at the same time am completely within myself
I met you in your “Nacht Café” – how did this salon come about?
Tanja’s Nacht Cafe was started in 1995 in the bunker. It was during a time where everybody who had an idea simply implemented it. Back then, the bunker was considered the “toughest techno club in the world” and in an adjoining building, the Ex-Kreuz-Club, which barely fit 50 people, there were electronic and SM parties or dubious cabaret evenings every night. When Dr. Seltsam, the previous Sunday event, no longer continued, I started the Nacht Cafe. I wanted a show in which there was also space for soft tones, for weird sound, for the unexpected. So I was on stage as the hostess every Sunday evening for five years. First in the Ex-Kreuz Club, then in the Kalkscheune. It was definitely an exciting time. In the Trompete Bar and later on in the Aufsturz bar as well.
You were the artistic director of the largest chanson festival in Germany – how did it come about and how did you choose musicians for it?
I took over the Chanson Festival Berlin in 2005 from Boris Steinberg. It was founded in 1996 by Gunnar König, Schall und Hauch, Boris Steinberg. It was always important to me to expand the musical limits of chanson. Where does chanson begin? Where does it stop? I found these experiments exciting. I was looking for music that touched me. For personalities that stand behind the songs, who trigger emotions. Are unique. In any case, it was never about being compliant.
How long have you been working at street college? What’s the basic concept?
I’ve been involved with the STREET COLLEGE since its inception, including the original brainstorming. In 2013 there was an event that marked the official starting point. Around the turn of the millennium, I discovered artistic work with young people and cultural education. Since then, the Gangway e.V. has been my home. At Gangway, among other things, I accompanied a number of musical projects and got to know many colleagues and socialo workers. And learned a lot from them. What we noticed is that many young people can blossom in projects or in settings, in which they pursue their true interests and for which they make self-determined decisions. These are often the same young people that regular educational institutions would certify that they can’t do anything. Or little. Or are somehow wrong, displaced.
We were sure that this was not a problem caused by the young people but that it is the system that is not dealing with them in a positive fashion. And so we asked ourselves: What kind of setting do young people need in order to be able to learn with enthusiasm and joy? How is it possible to implement the principles of Gangway – self-determined, needs-oriented, voluntary and towards personal responsibility – in the area of learning and education. This is how the idea of STREET COLLEGE came about through many joint learning processes. A platform where the students (all young people at the SC are students) decide for themselves WHAT, HOW, WHEN and with WHOM they want to learn. This means that the students express a – and we try to make what they need possible. Over time, this has resulted in courses, some of which have been taking place for several years, such as fashion design, grafic design, Film production, electronic music production or the learning laboratory. In the learning laboratory, students prepare for school-getting qualifications for the BBR or, more recently, the MSA. Or they simply come by because they need tuition in a particular subject. At the moment the number of students here is increasing strongly.
In the artistic fields, music has become very prominent and diverse. Singing, songwriting, piano, artist-based audio engineer, music theory … and there is always something new. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, a “Voice & Mediation” course has emerged and another in which the students exchange ideas about their creative processes and blockages. All students also have the opportunity to deal with themselves outside of their specialist courses. Self reflection. They can explore and recognize their own strengths.We also have a social worker who has an open ear for all the needs and worries that exist. It is a holistic and strength-oriented system. We have now also had a home base for two years. We have rooms in the Graefestrasse in Kreuzberg where interdisciplinary work is possible. They can be there or just hang out. Play a round of table tennis or have a barbecue together. At least when there is no pandemic.
How do you finance the college?
At the beginning Gangway practically supported us. In September of this year (2021), our three-year funding for the Skala Foundation will expire. This support made many developments possible for us, including renting the location. So we are currently desperately looking for public and private financing options to be able to maintain the STREET COLLEGE.
My impression during the pandemic have been that such projects have never been more important than they are today. The pandemic magnifies the weak points of our society. Sadly, this includes poverty, a lack of equal opportunities, increasing educational injustice, an education system that is in many parts very deficit-oriented and leaves little room for individual development. The consequences cannot yet be foreseen. It just seems like adolescents and young adults are somehow the “forgotten generation”. Recently a young person said to me: “It should really be the best time of our life. And now we’re hanging out alone at home and don’t know what to do next. ” I am very much in favor of giving young people the freedom to find themselves once more after we have the pandemic under control. To create space in which youngsters can find out what interests them and how they want to live a life without pressure.
What role does music play for young people?
Music can play many roles for young people. It can be an expression of belonging or a means of expression. It can be a filter, a valve and a frenzy to get into. Music can be a companion or a calling. It can be exchange and wordless communication. Meditation and prayer and the air to breathe.
What do you think could be done better at the Senate level for youth & music?
I would be happy if the areas of youth social affairs, education and culture would think and act more together at the senate level and thus focus on young people and their concerns. In recent years, especially in the field of cultural education, young people have had the opportunity to apply for low-threshold funds for projects. That is good. But that is temporary. Overall, young people need more participation, more spaces that are their spaces. Over which they can control and rule. Youth centers, rehearsal rooms … all of that. And free time when they are not under pressure.
What are your future plans (both as an artist and for the street college)?
The artist in me is hibernating. Let’s see what else is coming.
As soon as the pandemic is over, we will definitely celebrate a lavish STREET COLLEGE GALA, make art like crazy and hopefully celebrate that the STREET COLLEGE has long-term and stable funding. Basically, it is important to me that educational processes serve people and are geared towards them and their personalities. That we transform the experiences from the pandemic into something new & constructive. That we have a benevolent, strengths-oriented view of one another and that there is more freedom to discover, reflect and develop ourselves. I don’t know where all this will lead us. There are plans to open up our internal training “Trainer for (cultural) education” … but first of all I will be happy and relieved when the STREET COLLEGE financing is secure.
How and where can we support the Street College?
You can donate on our website: either once as a gift or regularly, and thus become part of the circle of friends. We are also happy about any political support, about wild ideas and are not averse to nice and cool millionaires * if they want to give something back to society or just “do good”.