It's safe to say that Achim Bergmann of Trikont, Germany's oldest independent record label, has an affinity for the underdog. From his favorite soccer team (Munich's best-loved losers, the 1860 Löwen) to his favorite musicians, it is outsiders who attract Bergmann's attentions, personal and professional, rather than the heroes of the mainstream. Of course, outsider music comes in many variations, and somehow Trikont manages to embrace them all. From Finnish Tango to American yodeling, German-language reggae to Turkish techno, British punk to Black Panther soul, the label's eclectic catalog has been transcending language boundaries and international borders long before "world music" became a Billboard buzzword.
First founded in 1967 as a radical publishing arm of the SDS, Trikont started publishing books of political and philosophical ideology collected mainly from the so-called "third world" (Trikont, short for trikontinentale, is a colloquial expression for same), including the Bolivian diaries of Che Guevera, the incendiary Revolution in the Revolution by Régis Debray, and the ubiquitous Little Red Book or Quotations from Chairman Mao. In 1971, Trikont released its first record album a compilation of neoprimitive folk and radical "self-made music" titled Wir Befreien Uns Selbst or We Free Ourselves, a phrase that could stand as the label's unofficial motto even today.
"It was very simple, very rough, not polished at all," Bergmann tells me as we sit at a wobbly kitchen table in Trikont's Munich-Obergiesing headquarters. His youthful exuberance belies his bushy, white Ernest Hemingway beard. When Wir Befreien Uns Selbst sold 20,000 copies, for Bergmann it sparked the realization that "music was the non-dogmatic part of left-radicalism, a way to connect with the working class." It also provided the radicals with music beyond the endlessly circuutf8g MC5 and Rolling Stones albums they could call their own. Trikont's official motto, "our own voice," reflects this ideal to this day.
And what a range of voices call the label home. After splitting from the book publishing side of the business in 1980, Trikont's focus shifted from being a mouthpiece for the radical German left to being a conduit for what Bergmann terms "popular music" from all over the world. Not popular in the MTV hit-parade sense, but popular as in sphere-of-influence: from the emblematic zydeco of the Louisiana Bayou to the dramatic excesses of Mexican bolero, the label excels at tapping into that particular cultural zeitgeist expressible only through music. It does so through exactingly executed compilations curated by DJs, music journalists, and fellow aficionados of the slightly askew. Their ranks include a veritable who's who of luminaries from the European music scene John Peel, Jon Savage, Jonathan Fischer, Thomas Meineke, Bernadette La Hengst while from our side of the pond, Greil Marcus provided the liner notes for Christoph Wagner's harrowing 2002 compilation Prayers from Hell: White Gospel and Sinner's Blues
Like the best mixed tapes, Trikont's compilations are elegantly cohesive while still retaining the essential element of surprise. My first Trikont album, 1997's Dead and Gone #2: Songs of Death which I scored from a department store bargain bin while living in Munich is an unlikely amalgamation of Serbian requiems, chilling soul tracks, avant-garde moaning provided by Lydia Lunch, Lou Reed, Nico, and Diamanda Galás, a suicidal lament by Bushwick Bill and the Geto Boyz, and an astonishingly moving funeral hymn from South Africa.