Many of the audience in the crowded club in Hamburg had heard about a wierd new band from Oberammergau, a village way down south, that’s suddenly a big hit across Germany. They might have even heard a song or two.
But when the band Kofelgschroa got up on stage with their battered instruments, traditional Bavarian shoes, scruffy jeans and conspicuous lack of cool, people did wonder a bit.
Then, for a while, nothing at all happened.
It seemed to take for ever in Hamburg’s Mojo Club till front man Maxi Pongratz, who claims to be “a bit slow,” managed a guttural “Good evening.”
“So you’re the people we spent all day sitting in a train for,” he said.
But a quarter-hour later, the ice was broken. Kofelgschroa’s music is all about erratic texts between subway trains, cellular earphones, rooftop solar panels and time – which only goes quickly when you try to stop it – all accompanied by melodies unworthy of the name.
Their melancholic songs are hard to describe – maybe analog techno or totally funky folk music, perhaps. In any case, it’s not the sound you imagine coming from the Bavarian town of Oberammergau.
Five days after the concert in Hamburg, Mr. Pongratz and fellow band member Michael von Mücke, who plays guitar and various wind instruments, sat on a crooked bench on the Hebammberg, a mountain high above Oberammergau, looking down at his famous hometown.
Even people who have never been to Oberammergau know it's the essence of Bavarian tradition. Nowhere will you find so many religious carvings; there's probably no other town with so many shops selling traditional costumes.
Every 10 years, the town swings into focus as a half-million guests come to the Passion Festival in Oberammergau, a world famous play that has been performed every decade since 1634.
But on this day, up on the Hebammberg, the performances, religion and pilgrims seemed far away. Across the valley, the snow-covered Alps reached into the sky. In front, a meadow glistened in the warm light of the late afternoon.
“That’s ours,” said Michael von Mücke, still wearing the same carpenter pants and floppy hat he wore onstage in Hamburg. He cultivates the meadow with his brother Martin, who plays the brass helicon tuba that makes the band’s pumping techno bass sound. In the summer they raise goats here.
Mr. Pongratz, wearing a baseball cap today, points to a barn farther downhill. “That’s where we used to rehearse,” he said.
Among the locals, they were known as nice boys. “When we first started to go a bit crazy, we didn’t dare show ourselves in public,” he said.
That was some seven or eight years ago, when the group was still called Kofelmusik, named for a local mountain. But as people pretty much agreed in the village that what they were playing was not music, they made up their new name – which translated out of the regional dialect into standard German is “Kofelgeschrei,” – “mountain scream.”
For their first album in 2012, they rapped out a tribute to their conservative hometown – “Oberammerüberammergau.” Their second record, which brought enthusiastic reviews and sold-out clubs all over the country last fall, boldly features the Oberammergau logo on its cover.
“Well,” said Mr. Pongratz , “we certainly wouldn’t have produced this music in some new North Rhine-Westphalian town.”
“They might not have a traditional costume association there, jealously guarding traditions,” he said. “They also wouldn’t have hundreds of years of folk culture to draw on as we have.”
It may be the big passion festival in Oberammergau makes things possible that might be unthinkable in other places this size. There are huge displays of splendor and piety, of course, but also an urban-type village culture.
The town has a small theater with cafe also hosts annual cattle auctions; it has traditional beer taverns that are not just for tourists. The modern fair-trade shops, galleries and jewelers coexist alongside traditional craftsmen – joiners, turners, glaziers and painters – all of whom still seem to be able to make a living here.
The town has a cosmopolitan spirit that's not usually seen elsewhere in Upper Bavaria. Take the old man shoveling manure in front of a farmhouse, just by the famous carving school: When asked in English by a tourist couple where they could get a bus to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, his spontaneous reply was, "No problem, I walk you.”
In the ice cream café Paradiso, where the whole Kofelgschroa band met the next morning, they even speak Russian.
Paradiso is on a street between souvenir shops selling cuckoo clocks and Moravian stars. At 10 in the morning this is busiest place in all of Oberammergau. There are young people hanging out, housewives stopping by on their way to shops, restauranteurs stirring cappuccinos on a quarter-hour break before going back to set the tables for the day ahead.
Matthias Meichelböck, the horn player, just got back from Munich where he’s studying architecture. He ordered an espresso and the others took coffee. Mr. Pongratz ordered an ice cream – his “breakfast.” He had been thinking we should all go back up the mountain because it was a perfect day for it.
Mr. Meichelböck preferred a stroll to the sewage plant that, in his opinion, is one of the few examples of successful modern architecture in the village. Apart from that, the wire netting that encloses the complex would go very well with the title song of their new recording, titled “Fence,” which sounds like a church hymn distorted by a double bass.
Walking around with the band and looking at the town, we kept stopping as everybody wanted to chat. An elderly man on a bike stopped by and asked the Mücke brothers about a tractor he had offered to sell them.
“You want to buy it or not?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Martin, but they would have to negotiate a price.
What do two grown-up musicians need a tractor for?
To fetch timber from the woods, said Michael.
Some people might feel cool when they chop wood but for the musicians, it’s not just a sexy hobby but a typical attitude in the region toward physical work. In a village that puts on amateur dramatics known worldwide every 10 years, nobody attaches as much importance to a stage career as they might elsewhere.
“For me it was always clear that I would not sacrifice my work for the sake of music,” said Michael von Mücke. He is a trained blacksmith and needs wood to heat both his workshop and home.
His brother Martin is a sculptor and needs wood for carvings, though he no longer produces religious figures for tourists.
“If you do it well, then nobody can afford it,” he said. “If you don’t do it well, it's no fun.”
It was clear he didn't think much of some of the full-size passion figures exhibited by a couple of the local carvers, including statues of Mary and various saints. According to Martin, many are mechanically pre-milled in the Far East or South Tyrol, then finished off in Oberammergau to justify the four-figure price. It’s not clear how many of Oberammergau’s 120 wood carvers actually still carve entire figures – five, maybe 10, but no more than that, he guessed.
In the band’s early years, they played mostly in barns. But if they wanted to try out a new piece of music, they used to take a half-hour train ride to Murnau.
To this day, they still feel awkward taking out their instruments in the streets of Oberammergau. But they did anyway, for a photo shoot, in front of a small gallery in town. An old friend lives in the house – Ernst Bierling, the graphic designer who created the cover of their first CD, a black mammoth with a white tusk.
Maxi Pongratz started to play a few notes on accordion, then Michael von Mücke joins in on guitar, and finally the horn and tuba chip in too.
A window on the first floor of the gallery opens and a sleepy looking man with curly hair leaned out. “Oh, it’s you guys,” said Mr. Bierling, who laughed and closed the shutters with a bang.
The band later headed to Michael’s forge, because Mr. Pongratz had lost a key and wanted a new one made. Inside the workshop is an ancient anvil with all kinds of tools hanging on the walls. In two minutes, Michael has produced a replacement key.
In the late afternoon, tourist buses formed a line on the street outside the forge. Opposite is the theater where the passion plays are held – a white and pink monstrosity you might expect to see in the Nevada desert.
“Really," asked Mr. Pongratz, “do you think it’s that bad?”
Anyone who has grown up with this building will see it as the place where Oberammergau presents itself to the world every 10 years.
The theater is also a stage for the people of the town.
In 1990, as small children, Maxi, Michael and Martin took part in the big play about the Passion and death of Christ. In 2010, the new director, Christian Stückl, introduced modernized texts, new stage design and younger actors. For the first time, the three were given central roles.
Maxi, the singer, was the brother of Jesus. Michael, the blacksmith and guitarist, was the apostle Bartholomew. And Martin, the religious carver and tuba player, was a temple guard.
Two years later, at the Homesound Festival, they stood again in the famous place, this time playing their instruments.
The people of Oberammergau loved their music, their “screaming.” The boys had to give so many encores that they ran out of songs.
“For us it was like the Berlin Wall coming down,” recalled Michael von Mücke.
“Now, musically, we were also part of the village.”
Video: The band playing in a van.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]