Home is where the heart is, people often say, and this rings true for reggae artist Sebastian Sturm as well.
“As a musician, home is nowhere and everywhere,” he says with a laugh. “But I usually say that wherever my wife and daughter are, that is my home. The word ‘home’ has always been somewhat irritating to me.”
Sturm was born in 1980 as the second son of a German father and an Indonesian mother and grew up in Eschweiler, a small city near Aachen.
“My mother originally comes from Nias, from the small harbor town of Lahewa in the northern part of the island, to be exact,” he says. “It was there that she first met my father in 1975 who was a church worker. In 1977, they went to Germany together and got married.”
Sturm has only traveled to Indonesia three times since then, the last when he was 13 years old.
“My Indonesian roots are still a mystery to me,” he admits.
Yet there is one thing he remembers distinctly about his last trip to Nias — it was on this island off the western coast of Sumatra that he picked up a guitar for the very first time.
“At the time, the electricity was turned off at 7 p.m. at night, and the young people of Nias used to gather in front of their houses to play the guitar and sing, accompanied only by candlelight — also in front of my grandparents’ house,” Sturm recalls.
“I will never forget these lovely evenings. They helped encourage me to learn how to play the guitar. After I went back home, I learned my first chords, with the help of my older brother.”
Two years later, Sturm began to play in punk bands — it was, after all, the early 1990s, a time when the Seattle sound and grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were making huge waves in the music scene.
“I am a child of the ’90s and was a huge fan of the band Nirvana,” Sturm says.
“In my circle of friends, everybody listened to punk bands like NOFX, Bad Religion and Sublime. Of course I knew who Bob Marley was, but his big hits like ‘No Woman No Cry’ or ‘Redemption Song’ weren’t of any interest to me yet back then.”
In 1999, however, he discovered the old Wailers songs and was really fascinated by the three-part singing of Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Songs like “Simmer Down” and “Mellow Mood,” Sturm says, were the determining pieces that opened his eyes to reggae.
“I also liked the quintessentially positive message: love is stronger than hate,” Sturm explains.
“Musically speaking, a whole new world opened up to me as an artist, and I began to compose reggae-skank songs on my guitar.”
At the same time, he was looking for like-minded people in Aachen who wanted to start a reggae band, with himself as the lead vocalist. When he found enough people, the band Jogit Beat was born.
“We tried to play 1960s ska, rocksteady and roots reggae,” he says. “Roots reggae always was and still is the ‘king-size discipline.’ For someone who has a punk and rock background, it’s quite a big change to play those difficult and slower beats.
“One could say that in these days, I started to study reggae music, and until today I still haven’t graduated,” Sturm adds.
“My transition to reggae changed my whole life. My attitude toward life changed completely, and last but not least, my audience grew. The band was cool, and the shows were a lot of fun.”
In 2006, Sturm signed his first contract, with the label Rubin Rockers, and released his first album, “This Change Is Nice.” Together with the Jin Jin band, he went on tour, also beyond the borders of Germany.
After the second album “One Moment in Peace,” the Jin Jin band and Sturm went separate ways, and he founded the band Exile Airline.
Together with his new band, Sturm released a third and then a fourth album, “Get Up and Get Going” and “A Grand Day Out.”
“The last album I released with Exile Airline was a collaboration with Jamaican producers Steven Stewart” — of the storied Harry J Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, where Marley played — “and Samuel Clayton Junior, for which I traveled to Jamaica with the whole band.
“It was a dream come true for all of us,” Sturm recalls.
The band has various gigs lined up across Europe for the rest of the year, and is also working on a live session, recorded at the Harry J Studio and expected to be released in 2015.
When it comes to the creative process between Sturm and the rest of the band, he says that each member has an enormous creative output, which makes the writing of a song a very lively and intense process.
“I usually have an idea for a song which I bring to the studio, and then we experiment together with different arrangements until the song is finished and groovy,” he explains.
“Since all of us have various musical backgrounds, we deliberately want to incorporate different styles.”
Although Sturm doesn’t know as much about his mother’s home country of Indonesia as he would like to, he is certain of one thing.
“The music in my blood comes from both my father’s and my mother’s side. My Indonesian cousin Fati was for a long time the successful lead singer of a Yogyakarta band,” he says.
Quoting from “Buffalo Soldier” by Marley, who sings, “If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from,” Sturm says he is eager to discover his Indonesian roots and hopes to be able to travel to Nias as soon as next year.
“I often ask myself how my life would have turned out had I grown up in Nias,” he says. “I hope that when I travel to Indonesia, I will be able to discover more about myself. Better late than never.”
He also dreams about coming to Indonesia for a tour with his whole band.
“If there should be any opportunities in the future to do that, we would be over the moon,” he says.
On YouTube, Sturm adds, he has watched the video clips of local reggae artists such as Toni Q, Joni Agung, and Steven & The Coconut Treez, and he is also in touch via e-mail with Resha Stromp.
“It would be great to meet all these people personally and perhaps, in the future, collaborate for some projects,” he says. “[I was lucky enough to already collaborate] with Harrison Stafford of Groundation, as well as Jamaican singers like Kiddus I and Albert Minott of Jolly Boys for my previous albums. It would be an honor to record a song with Clinton Fearon, who is, in my opinion, one of the best contemporary roots reggae songwriters. But if I should ever have the chance to tour in Indonesia, it would of course be very helpful and exciting for me to collaborate with Indonesian reggae bands.”
To find out more, visit sebastian-sturm.com