Bjorn Ketels sees himself as the middle man; a broker of cultural exchanges.
He sells himself short.
For a non-artist, his role in the development of contemporary art and electronic music in Sri Lanka has been immeasurable. He is one of the Goethe Institut’s greatest assets in this region at present, perhaps sent by mere chance, to an island whose shores now vibrate at a higher frequency for having had him.
Bjorn became Director of Colombo’s Goethe Institut in autumn 2010, shortly after the nation’s 30 year long civil war had finally come to a close. Sri Lanka was poised to regain her lost identity instead of being known for suicide bombers, tea and cricket. The island was in the throngs of an infrastructural change on the one hand, while rising phoenix-like to her former glory as a breeding ground for underground aesthetic on the other. In an ideal world, these are coupled concepts that allow for a healthy regeneration process, one the island so desperately needed.
In this case however, the opposite was true. Jarringly so. But this was the Sri Lanka Bjorn encountered, managing to find within it a vast amount of unrealized potential. It took a stranger’s eyes to see that Sri Lankans had what it took all along – the ideas, the passion, the story – maybe they didn’t know how to bind it together again. Perspective is an outside thing. You see someone for their best possible selves just before you fall in love with them.
And over the span of five years, Bjorn has fallen in love with Colombo, in lust with the Goethe cafeteria’s rice and curry, and now calls the city his home. But he will leave this September, going on to Munich where we are told a desk awaits him – one can only hope, not for long. Bjorn needs to constantly be out there, not merely moving and shaking to the pace of things but also insightfully directing its form and raison d’être. He is able to see what an insider can’t. Perhaps he was meant to be a great fit with any country that was not his own.
Bjorn joined the Goethe team in 2006 and spent two years training in Egypt before taking up his first assignment as Director for the Institut in Sudan and was instrumental in reopening the Goethe office in Khartoum. Two years later, he landed in paradise; staying there for the next half decade.
At that very moment, the burgeoning contemporary arts scene was just about ready to take off with the Goethe Institut already finding its purpose as a launching pad. “The Goethe Institut was very active in some fields – they had just supported the Colombo Art Biennale for the first time, funded some good photography projects and created the framework for contemporary dance activities that continues now as the Colombo Dance Platform” says Bjorn.
This year’s edition of the Colombo Dance Platform invites performing artists to focus on the performing body – as it performs through its history, its inheritance, its stories and secrets, its many subjectives and politics. The theme is an impulse for reflection on the body, and its codes. The body is understood neither as essential and singular nor as static.
When it came to electronic music however, less progress had been made. Both the rock and fusion genres were booming since their arrival to the island in the 70s, but dance music focused on pop covers, commercial house and chart topping hip-hop ad nauseam. The musicians would derogatorily call DJs glorified jukeboxes and console operators – little did either party know how much potential the craft held at the time. Colombo’s nightlife was laced with the mundane, making no attempt to expand the human mind or experience.
Bjorn’s recounts his own first encounters: “I went to a couple of clubs and live music events when I got here. I found the live music much more interesting. The clubs didn’t have much variety and were catering to a very general taste. It was about having a good night out instead of focusing on the creativity of it. While that is fine, it is not interesting enough unless you address music as an art form and not treat it as just the background to a good night.” While this was the case with the heavy metal underground, Colombo’s party needed to find a space between entertainment and aesthetic but hadn’t imagined it yet.
Chronicling the journey for electronic music from this moment seems equivalent to chronicling Bjorn’s time in Sri Lanka. Five years since his arrival, Colombo is literally electric – a handful of solid producers, a massive following and even a dedicated record label have culminated in a movement, arresting the city’s senses in a manner the Arts Center Club and the ’43 Group did in generations past.
“Personally, I like to listen to electronic music, so I was interested in discovering what was happening in this field in Sri Lanka. In the beginning, what I saw on the surface was very commercial. When I went looking for producers there was hardly anyone to find. It took a while for me to find the handful of people who were actually producing music with a sophisticated approach. Soon after the Teichmann Brothers were here on their South Asian scouting mission, we got in touch with Tareeq Musafer of the DJ Academy who then introduced us to the Bang-Bang collective and we established a relationship with them. We launched some very successful contemporary electronic music events together soon after.”
The Teichmann Brothers’ visit became Sound Camp South Asia, oddly enough hosted in Sri Lanka where the development of electronic music was at an embryonic stage at best. This culminated in Pettah Interchange and created the framework for Border Movement, that continues to house and grow what began on Ruskin Island 3 years ago. The fact that Sri Lanka became the birthing place of such a revolution at this ideal moment of time in the country’s creative revival, hints that Bjorn knew potential when he saw it.
The momentum continued with many Border Movement Lounge sessions, Bang-Bang Events, the Musicmatters Festival and others following in these footsteps. Colombo has finally become that little city you wanted to stand up and pay big attention to. This paved way for the rise of Asvajit a guitar player turned producer and Sri Lanka’s best original electronic music asset to date. “I think he understands what electronic music is about and while knowing what the emerging scene of EDM lovers in Sri Lanka want, will still push those borders a little bit further. He is going to be one of the driving forces for EDM in Sri Lanka,” says Bjorn. Asvajit, Geve, Sunara and others have since gone on to workshop and perform across India, London and Berlin. Many musicians and producers from Germany and South Asia have arrived to expand the Sri Lankan mindset. More producers have risen in Colombo, all wanting to be the next Asvajit.
Bjorn’s other work in Sri Lanka has included being on the advisory board of the Colombo Art Biennale, Goethe’s successful Colombo Dance Platform and Colomboscope, an annual urban arts festival that he was instrumental in setting up. He has seen Colombo for both its turbulent past and defiant future, finding its much needed middle ground between the two. The result is a coming together of artists who are re-defining Colombo by creating holistic, interactive experiences for audiences. While a few hangers on still cling on to Colombo’s nightclubs and commercial entertainment, the Goethe’s alternative has created a new benchmark for how entertainment should operate.
While Bjorn isn’t single-handedly responsible for all that’s occurred since his arrival, it is his vision that has helped drive it. From hiring the right team to knowing which creative forces to employ, Colombo’s current creative outlook will remember Bjorn’s contribution to it.
But what comes next? What does Colombo need to continue this new-found energy in the coming years, I ask him: “It’s about finding a home for well produced electronic music from Sri Lanka; a space where the producers are taken seriously as artists, where music is the focus and not the general interests of commercial nightlife. There are enough examples from around the world where artist driven initiatives get their audiences. It becomes the nucleus for new people to come in and contribute to the scene. Where the music journey goes – that’s very much up to the artists. Electronic music is in a transition period; Germany’s dominant minimal house and minimal tech environment has seen a lot of producers finding their way back to instruments, dabbling in folk, pop, and other influences. It’s up to the producers in Sri Lanka to include whatever they want. The music cannot stay static; it needs to evolve to stay interesting.”
People define a sense of time and place by its aesthetics and artists, not merely by its politicians, history books and statistics. Woodstock will define the 60’s better than the Kennedys did. In the same way, no one will be reading history books to distinguish this new Sri Lankan metamorphosis; they will be listening to the music, reading the books and pouring over the art of this time. Bjorn has helped create this new Colombo and encouraged a generation’s defining moment in history. His strength comes in being able to pick up on the real pulse of a place, before anyone else does.
These aren’t the achievements of a middle-man; rather the hallmarks of a visionary.