Mr Raoul K: Between Here and There

Asylum seeker, German carpenter, soccer player – Raoul Konan, born in Côte d’Ivoire, has already had several reincarnations. Residing in the northern parts of Germany, under his alias Mr Raoul K he nowadays produces a unique style of house music, which is as much a hybrid as his personal story.

The old lady from Africa gazed out of her son’s window, and her verdict was harsh. In front of her laid a German neighbourhood of 19th century blocks – green, quiet and neat. She was standing in a cosy flat with wooden floors and gentle colours. But somehow the old lady felt, while staring out the window, like she was in a prison. How could her son live in a place like this? Behind closed windows and doors, having no contact with his neighbours. The streets were devoid of human beings, inhabited only by trees and parked cars.

“For the last few years, this Ivorian-born man has been releasing deeply rooted house music whose soul originates from the true birthplace of dance music.”


It didn’t come as much of a surprise. There could hardly be more of a contrast between Lübeck, where the lady visited her son, a picturesque city with little more than 200,000 inhabitants in the North of Germany, and her home, Abidjan, metropolis of the République de Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, twenty times as big as Lübeck and twice as densely populated. You have to look hard to see any resemblance between the cities. Maybe rain? It isn’t an uncommon occurrence here and there. However, the rain at the Gulf of Guinea has a tropical warmth, whereas the German Baltic seashore creates cool drizzles.

But what could she do? Her son arrived in Lübeck 20 years ago, and he wasn’t leaving soon. So she came to see if everything was still fine. Upon his birth in 1976 in Côte d’Ivoire, she gave him the name of Konan N’da Kouassi Raoul. In Europe, he is referred to as Raoul Konan. Or, more briefly, Mr. Raoul K. For the last few years, this Ivorian-born man has been releasing deeply rooted house music whose soul originates from the true birthplace of dance music. It’s a seemingly obvious connection, but mastered by few people as coherently. Exoticism is as far away from Mr. Raoul K as is the distance between Abidjan and Lübeck.

Nevertheless, or maybe because of all this, he is a unique entity within the world of dance music. His house tracks are loved by the real connoisseurs. He might be a professional DJ and producer, but is certainly no scenester. He has been remixed by US-house legends like Ron Trent and Joe Claussell, but for a long time he did not even have proper management. All his activities are directed from Lübeck, on the edge of Germany, where he had landed at some point because of a woman, and where he now lives with his son, who is still finishing school.

In some ways Raoul does love the isolation and the concentration it affords, calmly and steadily working from the outskirts. “Let us chat,” he says while sitting down in his living room kitchen. He pronounces this in a mix of North German twang and an Ivorian accent. His voice is a truly hybrid composition of local dialect and an imported accent that postmodern migration movements are now producing all over the world.

On their own

Raoul Konan was only sixteen in 1992 when he and his twin brother Modeste arrived in Germany as asylum seekers. Both brothers were born in Agboville, a city of 200,000, where their father had lifted the family to the middle class with his job as a teacher. In the early ’90s President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had ruled the country since its independence, became ill and weak, his power crumbled, and unrest was in the air with schools and shops closed. One of Raoul’s older brothers, who accidentally had ended up in Germany, booked flights for both twin brothers. A journey into the unknown. “We didn’t know anything about this country when we arrived here,” Raoul remembers.

“Everybody was in such a good mood, it was an amazing and friendly atmosphere. That was the moment when I said I wanted to become a DJ.”

But one week after his arrival Raoul had already found a girlfriend, a German woman. Five years later, they married and he finally was allowed to stay and look for work. His new in-laws told him that he needed to learn a craft in order to be part of the local culture, so in 1998, Raoul began professional education to become a carpenter. Meanwhile, he also played soccer and was discovered by a talent scout, leading him to play at the highest amateur level in Germany for provincial clubs. In this way Konan integrated himself into the North German countryside.

Mr Raoul K. Image credit: Katja Ruge Photography

 

The next reincarnation

In 1998, Konan’s girlfriend took him to the famous techno carnival Love Parade in Germany’s capital Berlin, his first contact with electronic music. “It felt really good,” states Konan. “Everybody was in such a good mood, it was an amazing and friendly atmosphere. That was the moment when I said I wanted to become a DJ.” This raised eyebrows from his girlfriend, but nevertheless Raoul bought his first turntables, a mixer and some house records. While working as a carpenter during the day, he took his first steps as a DJ at a disco in Lübeck. He also interned in a studio to learn the skills of a musical engineer.

“My own first productions sounded really general, really ordinary,” Konan remembers in his kitchen/living room. “Not bad, but also nothing special.” But where would he find anything special? He decided to fly back to Abidjan, record some African instruments there, and incorporate these into his productions. In 2008 Mr. Raoul K released his first EP, Le Cercle Peul, named after the Peul people, from whose culture he borrowed instruments and melodies. Raoul also established his own record label, Baobab Music. Following were releases on famous labels like the legendary Still Music from Chicago or Mule Music from Japan, where his debut album Introducing My World was released in 2011. Then everything moved quickly, with his third and latest album Still Living In Slavery released in 2014.

Throughout all these releases Konan’s music displayed a distinct progression: further and further away from the European and American sound and away from established house music rules, back to Africa and out into open waters. For example, Konan turns down the bass kick in his productions further and further, filling the gap with sounds he records in Abidjan but without stepping into, as he puts it, “neocolonialist-folkloristic traps.” There’s no kitsch, no simple “Afro House” with ornaments draped over a bass kick: It’s electronic music that sounds deeply rooted in West African sounds and rhythms.

In the attic

Raoul produces his music in a small studio located in the attic of the house with his apartment, where his mother had once felt like she was in a prison. It’s screaming hot up there in summer and bitter cold in winter. In the middle of the room, an old computer is set up with a mixer and some synthesizers, surrounded by West African instruments like a water drum, Koras, Mbiras, Sekeres and five Balafons. Konan knows the basics of how to play these instruments, but when more difficult parts have to be recorded, he calls in the help of musicians from Abidjan.

Of course, Raoul is also a DJ, travelling from Amsterdam to Paris, from Berlin to Greece, a vinyl purist. To further his DJ career Raoul even gave up his nationality in 1997. “I became a German as soon as I knew that my career would cross international borders,” he says. A Schengen passport is beneficial, even though he would have loved to keep his Ivorian one. But the German national citizen law demands unambiguousness – which in reality, of course, does not exist.

“Raoul sometimes misses Côte d’Ivoire. So he sees himself living back in Africa again one day. On the other hand, he might not be able to leave Germany as easily as he thinks.”


“In my heart I am still Ivorian,” Raoul emphasizes, “But at the same time I have become quite German, so by now I’m keeping an eye on the clock when I have an appointment.” It’s no big surprise considering he has spent more than half of his life in Germany. Similarly, his music is caught between two continents. A European might think it sounds “African,” but to his relatives in Abidjan it sounds too machine-like, too “Western.” “But what am I supposed to do then?” Raoul asks with a grin on his face: “My education is that of a house musician.”

Raoul sometimes misses Côte d’Ivoire. So he sees himself living back in Africa again one day. On the other hand, he might not be able to leave Germany as easily as he thinks. Raoul has planted roots after all these years. He raves over how beautiful the Baltic Sea beaches are in summer, and talks about his son being courted by a professional German soccer club. Also, Raoul is working as a youth-trainer at the long established local soccer club. It was another training day. So house producer Mr Raoul K quickly put on his training jacket with the soccer club’s name embroidered in old school Gothic print. Waving the dreadlocks out of his face and giving a last warm hug, he disappeared in the heavy North German mist towards the old, time-honoured Lübecker Lohmühle stadium.

A version of this article first appeared in Spex Magazine #361, May/June 2015.

Translation: Rik Jacobs + Florian Sievers. Feature image: Katja Ruge

About the Author

Florian Sievers, based in Berlin/Germany, is a trained journalist for economics but writes as well about music and art. He is an avid record collector and has delved deep into the African roots of Northern hemisphere dance music genres from Hip-Hop to Techno. He has published articles about music scenes in Nairobi/Kenya, Luanda/Angola, Lagos/Nigeria, Addis Ababa/Ethiopia and Dakar/Senegal in Germany’s most renowned culture magazine, Spex. At the moment he is working on a movie about Addis’ Azmari culture, runs a party series in Berlin titled Bomaye! with contemporary club music from African cities and is co-editing the book Ten Cities about the history of club culture, public sphere and urban spaces in five African and five European cities.

 

This article is published as part of Music (That) Matters, an initiative of Goethe-Institut Lagos in commemoration of the 2017 World Music Day. The series is aimed at documenting personal memories and social histories relating to the power of music. All rights reserved by the author.

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