© Grant Harder

© Grant Harder



"In the basement of my parents’ house in West Dover, Calgary, Alberta, Canada hangs a decorative bronze tray.

On it, in shiny profile, a rooster balances on a cat, who in turn is balancing on a dog, who himself is bal- ancing on the back of a donkey. They all face an un-seen foe, apparently ‘singing’ away an evil group of thieves who’ve come in the night while the animals’ beloved masters were out. The tray’s iconic image portrays the climactic scene from Der Bremen Stadtmusikanten, (The Bremen City Musicians) a popular fable originating from the city of Bremen, Germany, the birthplace of my Oma, Mariechen Käthe Lienhoop.

Her husband, Franz Wilhelm Hammerling, was an Austrian carpenter who, upon first spotting her on her bicycle called out,“Why, Fräulein, you’ve got no air in your chain!” They were married in no time flat, and settled in Vienna. Their first daughter, my mother (whom they chris- tened Waltraud, continuing the fine family tradition of picking names that few people outside of Europe can actually say properly) was born just as Carol Reed and Orson Welles were filming The Third Man in a demolished Vienna. When she was all of seven years old, they moved to Canada, bringing with them knick-knacks and remembrances of old Germany – including my Oma’s favourite emblem of her home city, the Bremen City Musicians.

In my memory, as I only knew them as senior citizens, I can’t possibly imagine my Oma and Opa having been anything but old. The Mariech- en and Franz that I knew loved German Shepherd dogs (all of whom they named Rexi), wore clothes bought in multiples and stored in the attic (just in case), and fed me foods at lunch time that no-one I went to Kindergarten with even knew about. And they also loved music to the point where it seemed their house was never really silent. In the house that I remember, the record player was always spinning, and the radio was always tuned into the weekly German broadcasts.

My first instrument, no doubt inspired by the listening habits formed at their home, was the accordion, which I took up at the age of five, obsessed to the point of even practicing while on the toilet.
Two separate forces in my life pushed me in the direction of writing the songs of Die Stadt Muzikanten, and the first was the influence of my Oma and Opa, the second the sudden loss of this distinctly different world they helped bring me up in once my Oma died in 1984. Cancer struck her down, quicker than even her doctors assumed it would, 23 days from diagnosis to death. My Scottish grandmother Isabella MacDonald Hamilton died within a few days of her, in the same hospital. I thought that was how it worked. Your grandmothers got you up to the age of five, and then their work was done. The Bremen City Musicians stayed up on our wall, but didn’t seem to have much effect on the family besides making us sad.

(Franz Hammerling died in 2002, a couple of weeks after I’d moved to Edinburgh, but a debilitating stroke in 1991 had left him a changed man from the one I knew. The night of his stroke, he and I were alone in his big old house, watch- ing old Three Stooges shorts. He got up for bed, climbed up to the top step, had the stroke then and there, and fell back down to the bottom. When he died, the manageress at the record store where I was working as a Christmas temp allowed me 20 minutes in the back room to “collect my thoughts.” I still don’t think I’m finished).

Flash-forward to 2006, and I’m working as a writer on a creative team, brain-storming on advertising campaigns to sell stock photography. I ask my superiors (in part because I can barely stand them at this point, in part because I’m going overseas on a music tour anyways) if I could spend some time at the company’s Berlin office. Upon arriving in the city, the sounds and smells trigger automatic recollections of my childhood, of two people who were endlessly fascinating to me, but whom I never really got to know as well as I would have liked to. I start thinking in terms of couples, of people coming and going, of walls and windows. I slow-dance on top of the Reichstag, and kiss on Unter den Linden. Images of boating across the ocean to an unknown new life, and how so many of the movements I took run in the opposite direction from theirs. And each night in my small apartment, the songs came.

But the songs aren’t strictly about Berlin, or my Oma and Opa. Instead, it’s as though a consideration of the lives they left behind gave me an extra little push to look back at the things I left unresolved in all of the other cities I’ve found myself. I know they always thought of the life that they left behind for Canada, and of the importance of leaving a document of not only where you were going, but where you’d been – and above all else, where you’re from. With that in mind, this album is for them, and in my parent’s basement, there’s one corner that I’m claiming for Austria."


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