Music for the Masses

Melissa Perales on bringing down barriers and curating culture for all

Words By Alex Rennie
Photos By Mario Heller

The following statement might be a teeny bit subjective (especially coming from us), but you can’t really quibble with the fact that Berlin is a city blessed with an incredibly rich cultural calendar. That said, look a little closer and every utopia has its blemishes, and our cosmopolitan capital is no exception to the rule.

Few people have more clout to comment on the status quo of Berlin’s cultural scene than Melissa Perales, the brilliant mind behind the Humboldt Forum’s bustling open air festival, Durchlüften. Having moved here in the mid-90s, the US-born promoter has decades of experience curating events and driving initiatives, such as  Torstraßen Festival and the EU-funded Music Pool Berlin respectively.

Now, having curated Durchlüften for two years on the bounce, we wanted to get the inside scoop on Melissa’s motivation for programming the festival, and hear how her approach is close to home. We also cover some of the challenges facing Berlin’s cultural scene, why the arts are such a potent vehicle for driving social change, and how free entry for all holds the key to democratising culture and creating unity in a seemingly fragmented world.

Hi Melissa. You’ve been in Berlin since the 90s. What was it about Berlin that drew you here back then?
At the time I was a film student in Chicago and I wanted to have a year out of the country before I began my “adult” life. I had just turned 25 when I moved here and the Berlin of the mid 90’s was perfect to dive into the city culturally. I was very excited in general about the layers of history, the musicians who lived or played here. I was also an absolute fan of Der Himmel über Berlin and most of Wenders films. I guess I was also after parts of my missing biography –  apparently on my mother’s side one Jacob Eimer born in Berlin sailed over to the U.S.

I was a young American being flooded with the amazing things happening around me and that I was able to take part in – the streets where I lived, the people I met — I felt very much alive. I also felt very connected to the east side of town where I spent most of my Berlin years (and still do, against the norm).

You’ve got decades of experience organising festivals like the Torstraßenfestival, did your approach to curating Durchlüften differ in any way?
I think that the process is the same after one decides on the direction or concept, but of course with Durchlüften it was the first time that I approached the curatorial process with a very personal and emotional connection. I wasn’t sure that I was the right person, but while I was deciding on whether to take the job, I stood back and asked myself for whom I would be creating this festival. What came to me first and foremost was that varied voices were what was needed. The one I heard clearly was my father, and then my ancestors. They were migrant farmworkers living in Fresno, California and before that Delicias, Chihuahua, Mexico. Being able to act as their voices was very empowering for me and gave me a lot of strength to say yes to the job. The artists I had the honour of working with both last and this year also carry a very strong emotional tie to their people, their culture, and language.

I felt that living my whole life in and out of various worlds finally gave me a perspective that meant I could take on a job like this despite the controversies. I didn’t feel that my voice would be put to better use in boycotting the building. It was standing and now the question was: how do I interact – or not – with it? But I do feel that change is necessary and if I am given an opportunity, then I choose to take the space which did not exist before and make sure my foot is in the door. Then I can bring as many voices and stories with me that deserve to be heard, let them be re-centered and interpreted on their own terms. I spoke at great length with many of the artists and all of them received my curation approach with hope to answer some questions up front. This process was new to me, and I will continue using it in my practice into the future, because I feel that it is an element that makes what I am doing feel more human. I had grown weary just before the pandemic about making traditional shows. I really see so much of my job as making sure that all parties involved are getting something out of it, beyond money. I wish I could bottle the magic when the evening runs just right or even better than expected – it’s the g -spot of every curator, booker, and promoter’s dreams.

What is about the Humboldt Forum that makes it the right platform for a festival like Durchlüften?
I would like to say first of all that I have been treated really well and with respect as far as developing the festival the last two years goes. There was no plan they gave me that said “we want this and that”, apart from that it should be a program for both locals and tourists of all ages, have a good summer atmosphere with an urban feeling, and support local artists. It was my decision to see it as a platform which was about taking up space, seeing it as an act of resistance and protest at the same time for some, or for others a chance to cleanse ground and speak to their own ancestors.

I believe institutions in general should dig deep and look at who they are not speaking to and move away from programming which caters to particular audiences and instead consider society as a whole. How can my Grandma and the 15 year old teenager next door get something out of it? The Humboldt Forum is in its early stages. It has been open for just over a year and still has a chance to develop the programming and space the way it claims it wants. There are still many questions to be answered and they didn’t make it easy on themselves or for people on the outside to exactly understand what is actually going on.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that bringing down barriers to access culture is a passion of yours – how important was it to ensure that Durchlüften is predominantly free to attend?
Yes, it’s definitely a big theme in every event I do! Access to spaces is something I have fought for for many years. Deciding that the festival would be free of charge was a crucial aspect for me this year and I’m so happy we were able to realise it. Growing up without a lot of money I wasn’t surrounded by the opportunities we have here in Berlin to discover all walks of culture. I found my way to it through films, music, books and food –I  was a kind of weirdo. I know so many people who if they had only had a fraction more exposure to what possibilities lie out there for alternatives, ways to express themselves, or just for pleasure, then they would be leading more enriched lives. Having low barriers, whether academic or financial, is a great place to start to give society an element that can change so much.

What makes music, film and performance art such powerful mediums to address themes like diversity, equality and activism?
For me they are all magic and the medium or vehicle is secondary as long as the message gets through. Of course, I am biased as this is where I feel home, but I believe that we need to look beyond the arts as well, or rather bring the arts to the people who may not be surrounded by it in their daily lives. This basically backs up my theory that culture needs to be free to the public as much as possible – breaking down those barriers of class, education and equity.

For someone attending Durchlüften for the first time, which artist or event would you say is unmissable?
I tried to have it as cross-genre as possible so each evening new audiences could attend, but also repeaters could jump back into it and discover something. Next weekend is a highlight with Turkish artist Ozan Ata Canani & the munich jazz-kraut band Karaba, followed up by the the screening of the documentary Love, D-Mark und Death (Aşk, Mark ve Ölüm) by Cem Kaya, this unprecedented story of an independent musical subculture of immigrants from Turkey, their children and post- migrant world of their grandchildren in Germany.

And of course the Closing Night on August 20th is the performance of Queer Mass! The premise of Queer Mass is to create an inclusive and queer experience using a church mass and the Last Supper as a backdrop, as well as a nod to Judy Chicago’s seminal 1970 feminist artwork The Dinner Party. Women, transwomen, and non-binary voices are given space at the physical and metaphorical table where there was no room for them before. Countless narratives emerge that have been excluded from the past – stories that would have been of great importance to our future.  Performers* from Berlin’s queer BiPOC scene will use music, poetry, imagery, and storytelling to shift the gaze away from the white, cis-centric perspective and bring FLINT voices from intersectional and marginalized communities long forgotten in mainstream histories into the spotlight. The performance was originally developed and performed at the 2021 Pop Culture Festival for Night School by three queer BIPOC artists*, Breezy, Allia Sadeghipour, and Arielle Cottingham. Today,  Allia Sadeghipour and Arielle Cottingham with the musical embrace of Elsa M’bala a.k.a A.M.E.T, who is creating a new soundtrack, and performers Sanni Est, Sammie Scott, and Maque Pereyra each bring their own spiritual elements to create not just a performance, but a religious experience.

When looking at Berlin’s cultural scene today, what would you say are the biggest challenges when it comes to fair representation and equity?
First of all, Berlin has to learn about intersectionality, haha! But really, in the general debate regarding inequalities and bias in culture, we still see far too few women, trans and non-binary BIPOC artists and behind the scenes workers, despite the last 5 years or so of having these discussions to the point of dizziness. Luckily we have many more young up and coming promoters, directors, producers and event makers and so on who are making sure that they are being seen. I am so happy to see a strong and empowered scene of black and brown artists and creatives who are not waiting around but creating spaces and businesses on their own.

There is still not enough information on how we will change and develop with society in years to come. As demographics change and the world begins its wander to our shores and other places, we need a proper and effective way for people to integrate, to be mentored and included in society. This could help when a practice exists before the fires. I feel really good about passing the torch someday to the next generation, and I hope that others – especially men – are making room in their teams that reflect this. I hope a few of them also pass the torch by creating an atmosphere where continuing education and mentoring plays a big role, especially for underrepresented folks in areas like management where big decisions are being made.

As far as the funding goes, we will have to see what the situation looks like this time next year. Right now, most of us are just floating and making up for what was not going on in the last years, or living on stipends and, but I am not sure what will happen soon. My job, which I have been doing parallel to all the festivals and shows, is Music Pool Berlin. Here, I speak weekly with artists and I know that many are looking to what is happening in fall where they hope to snatch some funding to continue or begin again without giving up. Likewise, cultural producers are also in a state of perpetual crisis – applying for funding to funding, caught in a trap.

And lastly, when Durchlüften wraps up mid-August, what’s the main thing you hope to have achieved with the programming?
I truly hope that all parties are taking away something. For the artists, I wish for more access and that they continue on a journey to the next stages, and for them to have won new fans that they have never reached before. For the audience, I wish for them to have felt that power, togetherness and humanity in all the great music, words and dancing brings for a night or two.

The many woes of this world are not solved simply, and politics and wars will not bring us out of all this, so I believe seeing each other, accepting each other and listening is a good place to start. The smiles and the feedback made me feel that listening to my ancestors was the right thing to do! For Humboldt Forum, I hope they allow more projects like this to happen, even beyond the inflexibility of an institution, and find the ways for these many stories to be told and re-centered. I want the Humboldt Forum to bring the energy we created this summer into the halls and keep asking questions – whose stories are being told and who is telling them?

Durchlüften is running on the weekend of August 11th to August 13th and from August 18th to August 20th. Visit the Humboldt Forum event page for the full program.