City Life … 9/11/15
By Walter Wasacz
As he stepped up to her, Emjou Hillary thought the man with long straight hair and floral print jacket looked familiar. She was serving tea — lots of it — in the courtyard of a former East German power plant, now home to Tresor, the storied techno music company. Inside, an international festival of art and music called Berlin Atonal was rolling and raging with experimental sights and sounds.
“The man said he and his band were guzzling the tea we were making and wanted some more brought backstage,” Emjou says. “It dawned on me it was (Jean-Hervé Péron) of Faust, a band I have loved for years. We brought more back to them and saw them perform. It was wonderful.”
Faust is a pioneering group of musicians and artists that helped launch a highly influential scene, called kosmishe muzik or krautrock, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Emjou is telling me the story on a recent stormy afternoon in Hamtramck, in the basement below the Detroit Zen Center’s meditation hall, a commercial space the local Buddhists call Living Zen Organics.
Three members of Hamtramck’s Zen community were invited to Berlin to do a pop up teahouse during the Atonal festival, held in late August. They made the trip at the request of Dimitri Hegemann, who launched Tresor in 1991 and founded a trans-Atlantic group called the Detroit-Berlin Connection (DBC) in 2013.
(Full disclosure: I have worked as an unpaid consultant for the DBC since 2013.)
In April 2014, during a brief stay in Detroit, Hegemann was introduced to the Zen Center by a mutual Hamtramck friend, Aaron Siegel, who runs a music distribution company and label here called FIT Sound.
“We prepared a meal for them and Dimitri said he really liked it,” says Emjou, who has been a resident monk at the Zen Center since the late 1990s. “The meditation hall reminded him of Berlin, he said what we were doing at Living Zen Organics was like a performance art piece.”
Hegemann came back three more times (staying in Hamtramck the last two times) before plans for the Berlin pop up were made good on this summer. He spoke of Living Zen Organics as a model of creative entrepreneurship, Emjou says, the kind of non-traditional, non-corporate, outside-the-mainstream business that can lead (directly and affordably) to community and economic growth.
Once in Berlin, Emjou, Detroit Zen student Majin Luke Niewiadomski and Hwalson Sunim, the longtime abbot at the DZC, worked with Berlin-based French designer Jean-Baptiste Trystram on the look of the teahouse — which was, in effect, a functional art installation made from wood and rice paper. The ingredients for the tea, from a centuries-old Korean recipe, were waiting for them when they got to Berlin.
“There were six suitcases filled with what we needed, including lots of Ginseng,” she says. “It took us 18 hours to set up. We sold over 800 cups during the five day festival.”
Emjou says that the tea was essentially an elixir — by Merriam-Webster definition a magical potion that can cure illness and extend life — a way for Berlin party-goers to get well in a hurry after hours of dancing on end.
“It is a consciousness-elevating tea, developed over the past 2300 years,” she says. “It’s intended to bring on harmony, and help protect the immune system, like a shield. I’m sure it would feel good as a tonic after a night of partying.”
Aside from providing tea service at the festival, the group from Hamtramck got a chance to visit Hegemann’s country home outside of Berlin and to spend time with a Detroit delegation of political and community leaders invited for the long weekend by the Detroit-Berlin Connection.
Hwalson Sunim was also invited to do a Dharma talk, an exercise in Zen meditation, for a group of about 50 people. Emjou says a good foundation has started for repeated visits to Berlin — and for Berliners and other Europeans to come to Detroit (and Hamtramck).
“There is a quality of life there that is compatible with how we live here,” she says. “We can do exchanges with them, and I believe we will.”
A project closer to home for Living Zen Organics is to soon expand its alternative commercial service at the Detroit Zen Center. (Quick note, for those who don’t know: the facilities at Mitchell and Cashmere streets were once part of Plewa Hall from pre-WWII to the 1960s, later a hippie emporium known as the Earth Center in the 1970s before becoming a crash pad and raw practice space for punk rockers in the early 1980s).
The plan is to build out a room off the garden to create a teahouse serving both native and Korean brews, which Emjou learned how to make while studying at a Zen monastery in Korea. There will be seating in the garden, and potentially sidewalk dining, where people can order light lunches or enjoy Sunday brunch. And, of course, consciousness-elevating teas created from ancient Asian recipes.
The Hamtramck teahouse should be ready by the time the next big influx of creative Berliners come to town next spring for festivals and conferences now being planned with kindred Detroit creatives. More on that as the time gets closer.
“There are more young Europeans coming here, that’s been apparent to us,” Emjou says. “When we were in Berlin there was a constant reminder that people had been here or are on their way. There is already love being exchanged. I think 2016 will be a big year.”
Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer, a consultant for the Detroit-Berlin Connection and a former managing editor for Model D. He worked for the Hamtramck Citizen from 1993 to 2004. He lives, works and walks in Hamtramck.