BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Germany’s Bad Mouse Orchestra just may be proof that time travel is possible. Nattily dressed in vintage attire, Charlotte Pelgen, Stefan Poessiger, Peter Jung, and Jake Smithies transport listeners to jazz’s golden age. Within hours of meeting each other at central Germany’s SommerMusikFest in 2015, Charlotte, Stefan, and Peter discovered a shared passion for the music of the 1920s and ’30s, so they decided to start a band. A knock-off T-shirt owned by Stefan depicting a tattooed Mickey Mouse tough-guy inspired the band’s name.
Although the BMO is a few instruments shy of being a proper orchestra, they do feature two first-chair ukulele players, Charlotte and Stefan. Peter plays guitar, and Jake holds down the low end on double bass.
Shortly after Stefan decided to form BMO, the organizer of the Berlin Ukulele Festival invited him to play as a solo act. A severe case of stage fright prompted him to ask Charlotte and Peter to join him. So, armed with “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” “12th Street Rag,” and a few other songs, the Bad Mouse Orchestra made its debut performance at the Berlin Ukulele Festival in 2016.
In the five years since, the group has discovered it’s not just their shared love of jazz-age music that bonds them into a single musical unit. They also love the clothes. The Bad Mouse Orchestra looks the part of hip 1920s jazz cats in their vintage apparel. Says Stefan, “My grandfather was a tailor, and I spent a lot of time in his shop when I was a kid. All his suits were tailored in an old-fashioned style. So for me, the clothes and the music of that era have an intense connection with my grandfather.”
Stefan has another deep connection with the ukulele’s jazz-age techniques through his love of Roy Smeck, the famed “Wizard of the Strings” who helped popularize the ukulele in that era. Stefan took online lessons with Vincent Cortese, who studied with Smeck from 1981–1990. And the BMO is carrying on the spirit by playing original Smeck arrangements given to them by Cortese.
Cortese says, “If I remember correctly, I shared Roy’s arrangement of ‘12th Street Rag,’ ‘Tiger Rag,’ ‘Music Box Waltz,’ ‘Limehouse Blues,’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ with them.” Cortese is pleased that the BMO is carrying Smeck’s musical legacy into the 21st century. “I love anyone carrying on the Smeck tradition,” he says. “I have tried to share my knowledge in the same way Roy shared his with me. Roy was a gentleman from a different time. Regarding BMO, there are no geographic or cultural boundaries to music when it speaks to the individual. As far as Roy goes, I am fully that confident he would have been very pleased with them playing his arrangements.”
Another aspect of the songs from the jazz age that appeals to the “Mice” is their lyrical component. Charlotte says, “In the beginning, it was the melody side of the music that captured me. But recently, we’ve started looking into the historical aspects of the lyrics. Lyrics often give you better insights than any historical text.”
The ’20s and ’30s were a fascinating time, with waves of feminism, fashion changes, and social and political upheaval. BMO’s latest recording, titled Drunk with Love, is an exhaustively researched homage to queer musicians of that period. Charlotte says, “We became very interested in the work of mostly forgotten queer composers.” The recording features 15 tracks and an accompanying booklet profiling such performers as Bruz Fletcher, Gene Malin, Ma Rainey, Tony Jackson, Gladys Bentley, Cole Porter, Ray Bourbon, and many more.
“After a very liberal period in the 1920s, everything got extremely conservative, and the work of many of these queer artists got swept under the rug,” Charlotte notes. So, what started with the BMO’s interest in the song “Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song)” turned into a full-fledged recording project. Written in Berlin in 1920, with lyrics by Kurt Schwabach and music by Mischa Spoliansky, “Das Lila Lied” is considered by some to be one of the first gay anthems. Stefan says, “Even in the LGBTQ+ community, nobody knows about this song. It was a challenge to bring this music back to people’s minds.”
One thing becomes crystal clear when speaking with the Bad Mouse Orchestra: They are fully invested in the music they perform and are not just playing dress-up. Charlotte comments, “This music has always been an essential part of my life. And not only do I want to get better playing the music, but also develop a greater understanding of the historical aspects of that era.” For Stefan, delving into the music of the jazz age introduced him to a broader personal history. “As a gay man, I see I have a history and a connection to these people from 80 to 90 years ago; a greater history than I had expected.” And for Peter, playing the Berlin Ukulele Festival introduced him to an entirely new music community: “We met so many people that were into the ukulele, and they liked our music. Afterward, we got invited to festivals in the Netherlands, Czechia [formerly known as the Czech Republic], and other countries. Before this, I had no idea there was a ukulele scene or that so many people liked this type of music.”
You could call the folks in the Bad Mouse Orchestra musical archeologists. They are digging into our collective past, searching for clues that will lead us to a more enlightened future. Stefan puts it best: “Art happens when you find some way to express yourself. We are not just copying. We have to change some things. We have to make it our own.”