They were country when their country wasn't cool

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 28, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The half-dozen guys hooting and hollering on the midway look like a bunch of outlaw bikers just in from Cecil County, Md., on their Harleys.

They're wearing bandanna headbands, leather vests and elaborate tattoos. They've got chains on their wallets and long-neck beer bottles in their hands. The big guy has a belly that pushes far enough out over his belt to qualify him for the presidency of the Hell's Angels.

But nobody rides a Hawg.

"Sehr teuer," says the guy wearing a T-shirt with a Harley-Davidson logo. "Too expensive."

They're just friends of America, Berliners from Pankow out to have a good time at the 32nd Deutsch-Amerikanisches Volkfest, the German-American People's Festival sponsored by those friendly folks who call themselves the U.S. Military Community in Berlin.

The Volkfest is a big, blaring, neon-lighted carnival that has become enormously popular over the years. About 400,000 visitors are expected before it's over on Aug. 9. But this year the burghers worry that the end may be near. Nobody quite knows what will happen to the Volkfest when the U.S. military pulls out in 1994.

"We come for the hamburgers and Budweiser," says "Mike," who wears a Nike T-shirt and an Indian motorcycle baseball cap. He's got an extremely detailed portrait of a Native American tattooed on his right arm, maybe Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

"We want to drink Bud, have spare ribs and hear country music," Mike says. "Bud is the best. You can only get it here."

These guys get to drink Bud only about twice a year, at the Volkfest and at a rodeo the U.S. military also sponsors.

The United States brings in American Bud for GIs. But regular folks can't buy Anheuser-Busch Budweiser legally except here. It's not brewed according to the ancient German formula of 1516. You can buy a Czechoslovakian Budweiser, but that's another story.

Pauli Gose expects to sell about 5,000 cases at the BASS beer stand, one of four selling U.S. beer. He's got Bud, Michelob and Mickey's Big Mouth. BASS stands for, translated, the Berlin-American Sportsmen's Association, a hunting and shooting club, of which Mr. Gose is a vice president.

U.S. military people can join, get a hunting license and shoot wild boar, which are said to be plentiful not very far away in the Grunewald, the big, domesticated forest of southwest Berlin.

The theme of the Volkfest this year is "Singing USA-Memphis, Tennessee," which generally speaking means cheeseburgers, catfish and country and western music.

But somehow the big stars are the "Young Ambassadors" from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, one of those squeaky-clean student groups that tend to wear white shoes and sing songs by Burt Bacharach.

Volkfest themes over the years have tilted west: the Old West, the Wild West, the Northwest Wilderness, Fiesta San Antonio, Laramie, Dakota Badlands. . . . You get the idea. About the only nod toward urban America seems to have been Broadway in Berlin.

But that probably reflects pretty well German expectations and taste. For many Germans, "Amerika" means Florida, New Orleans, Nashville, Texas, the deserts and the Rockies, Los Angeles and New York, more or less in that order.

Texan Bo Miller thinks so. He has a tent full of kitsch Americana, from good ol' boy straw hats to heavy metal T-shirts to red cowboy bandannas. But his best sellers are Navajo silver and turquoise jewelry.

Down the midway you're in U.S. county fair land: There are hot dogs, milkshakes, candy apples, cotton candy and corn on the cob; bumper cars, a big Ferris wheel and all kinds of rides that spin you around and turn you upside down; and lots of games that take your money away American-style and replace it with fuzzy animals and fuzzy dice.

And in the music tent singing country music in an English flawless except perhaps for a Nashville accent are Brigitta Svarovsky and Peter Wegener, a duo from Chemnitz, which used to be Karl-Marx-Stadt in the old Communist German Democratic Republic.

"In the former GDR," Ms. Svarovsky says, "country music was very, very popular."

The role of country music in the fall of communism hasn't yet been studied very much. The Deutsch-Amerikanisches Volkfest is a good place to start, with a long-neck Bud in your hand.

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