Commissioned Works of Global Pop – The Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin between 2006 and 2023

Photo: Ansgar Koreng

The Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin is a remarkable building in Tiergarten down towards the Spree river. For decades, the house has created a forum for contemporary art and critical debate. It’s a unique house with many opportunities for both Danish and international artists.

Read Holger Schulze describe Haus der Kulturen der Welt here.

Last year, the four genre organisations – including Art Music Denmark – and MXD (Music Export Denmark) launched the initiative Neustart in collaboration with the Danish Embassy in Berlin and with support from the Danish Ministry of Culture and the Danish Arts Foundation. Neustart is a broad-based initiative which promotes dialogue and collaboration between the Danish and German music sectors in the wake of easing COVID restrictions. Last year, Art Music Denmark hired Holger Schulze, professor in musicology and principal investigator at the Sound Studies Lab, as a consultant. Based on his vast network and knowledge about the culture and the music industry in Berlin, Schulze offered advice about Danish-German partnerships to musicians working with art music.

By Holger Schulze

We’re outside, right at the river Spree in Berlin. Still, we stand on a rooftop. It is a late summer evening. There are kiosks offering barbecue and vegan treats, cocktails, an assortment of hats and accessories, vinyl records and hot sauces. As soon as you turn around the corner you can join a surprisingly large and diverse audience in front of the huge stage that was built upon this rooftop. As the sun sets, I listen first to the guitarist and singer Sunny War who performed her own approach to the blues through a channeling of Nina Simone; a performance that lets Sunny War’s punk roots shine through and inspire me to ask myself: in what ways can the blues be understood as a predecessor to punk? Sunny War’s intimate performance lets the notes of her fingerpicking style travel out over the vast park of Tiergarten – as well as her lyrics about struggling with police officers and drug abuse on public squares, all of her words flying right behind her guitar tones.

Afterwards I witnessed how the 14 musicians of Kumasi made themselves at home on this stage. They found their place, placed water bottles, a cardigan or pens there, showed off their style and costume; some toddlers and small kids took to the stage, the musicians played with them before getting ready to play their specimen of Afrobeat from New Orleans: the audience cheered, was moved and swayed. You find experienced critics and musicians in it, families with kids, aged aficionados of the musical style being played as well as younger listeners eager to explore the music of this very group. Dancing starts soon, some recline with a cocktail; conversations about the music or the venue or some gossip takes place further to the left, around the bars and seating areas in the sun.


The concert series WASSERMUSIK, WATERMUSIC takes place every summer at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt: right in the middle of the gigantic five square kilometers of the Tiergarten park – and next door to the huge and sharply designed office buildings of the German government. A location right at the center of the nation and yet, a location that easily feels out of space and out of time: an island in the middle of the most police-guarded district of this capital. One can spend hours at the shore of river Spree, with nice walks, conversations, sounds and letting time slowly slip away. Forgetting about the daytime, the weekday, which year is it again? This time, the most recent installment of this series is again devoted to musical cultures around one particular aquatic (or even radically non-aquatic) region: the Mississippi. Previously, the WASSERMUSIK presented artists for example from the Caribbean, the lusophone, the Portuguese-speaking world, the Indian subcontinent, the Black Atlantic, the New Pacific, from rivers on three continents, the Danube, the Amazon and the Nile, and from an assortment of desserts.

The series was one of the first new formats invented by Detlef Diederichsen, director of the section Music and Performative Arts at the HKW as soon as he started in 2006. In 2023 he will leave the house together with a wider range of employees, curators, and project directors. They will be leaving with the current director Bernd Scherer as a new director takes over from January 2023. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung from SAVVY CONTEMPORARY – an intriguingly experimental and explicitly postcolonial project space in Berlin – then moves to the HKW.

Diederichsen’s work centered in the past one and a half decades around one curatorial goal: unlike most venues at the time (and still today), he proposed to invite artists and musicians not simply for single concerts or performances; but for contributions to a longer, thematic weekend and a concert series organized around a shared issue, strand of aesthetics or either historical or contemporary references. By this approach to booking performers and musicians, he started considering artistic contributions from composers and performers in a way similar to curators in the artworld when selecting works for an exhibition. The consequence of this approach was and still is that the HKW invites musicians and performers preferably to commissioned works. Works that have been conceived, developed, and composed originally for one concert series or one thematic weekend at the venue. They are true original works.

With this approach he and his colleagues following suit transformed the Haus der Kulturen der Welt from a venue that was promoting a notion of “World Music” (which music research considers today to be more of historical value – and in general rather problematic in regard of decolonizing the music business) to a venue for contemporary art, research, writing, thinking, and pop music in a planetary and de-westernized sense. Pop music that is, in the vein maybe of what the researchers at the Swiss research group Norient tend to call Global Pop. With this notion a curator like Diederichsen can find, frame and invite performers and musicians not primarily for their role in bringing so-called “original culture”, “world music” or “folk artists” from far away regions to the north-atlantic “center of the empire”, so to speak – but to invite contributors to a discourse where Berlin or any other metropolis in the Northern hemisphere, be it London, Copenhagen or Chicago, indeed is as marginal as any other location on this planet.


The concert series and thematic weekends he curated and developed were part of larger projects of the house. This, however, represents an inherent funding problem of this institution: it is equipped with a fundamental budget to secure all the crafts, all the basic employees to run this house on a daily basis. All programmatic and conceptual efforts, however, are only made possible by major funding – like the two larger overarching projects “Anthropocene” (since 2013) and “The New Alphabet” (since 2019) that director Bernd Scherer and his team conducted. The pioneering role of the HKW is clearly represented in the “Anthropocene”-project. At a time in the early 2010s, when the public discourse still had to catch up on the academic discussions around the anthropocene, the HKW did devote several years of exhibitions, conferences, thematic weekends, performances and publications of all sorts exclusively to this still new concept. The prognostic sense of its director Bernd Scherer and the whole team of curators and artistic directors secured its role as one of the most influential cultural institutions in Germany, always ahead of the discourse and continuously shaping it.

From January 2023, the Haus will now be under the direction not only of a new leadership team, headed by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung – but all the existing sections will also be headed by new colleagues; it is also not unlikely to assume that the existing areas of the sections might then receive new foci. This transformation and exchange of personnel is a moment of regeneration that is inbuilt in the HKW’s fabric. Therefore, it opens up endless opportunities, but also unresolved problems for the new leadership team. But however the new leadership team will organize the curatorial work at the house. It is quite clear right now: the move to a new team is indeed accomplishing a progress that started already in the year 1989, when the HKW in its present form began its work. This movement is a movement towards decolonization, into a broader diversity, and into ever new amalgamations, recombinations, and inventions within the fields of cultural production. There might be no major institution in the heart of Germany that is more ready to conduct its own decolonization than the HKW – and at the same time this readiness equals a radical indeterminacy of its future. This is, therefore, not only a sign of its time, but hopefully also moving ahead of our times.

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