The drummer and songwriter Leslie Mandoki won global attention as a member of the music group Dschinghis Khan.
As a producer, he has worked with Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, the No Angels and the German rapper Sido, to name a few. In his then communist homeland, Hungary, he was arrested more than a dozen times on political charges.
On the side, Mandoki, 64, writes theme music for auto companies, makes safety sounds for electric cars and writes campaign songs for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Der Tagesspiegel: You were a drummer who wanted to play jazz rock. But in 1979, you ended up with producer Ralph Siegel and his German pop music band Dschinghis Khan. That must have been…..
Leslie Mandoki: … excruciatingly unpleasant.
What was so bad about it?
Everything. There wasn’t a thing that wasn’t embarrassing. I had studied music and performed at festivals in Hungarian stadiums. When I came to Munich, the Munich Sound had just started to boom. Elton John, Queen, Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones recorded there. [German jazz saxophonist and a film music composer] Klaus Doldinger helped me get into the studio scene. My friendship with [German pop-rock singer] Udo Lindenberg also began then.
I applied to Ralph Siegel’s record label as a songwriter and told him I’d like to record my first album. He offered me free use of his studio for 30 days if I’d record this one song, “Dschinghis Khan.”
What became of that promise?
Because of Dschinghis Khan, I got to know a lot of people who became friends or helped me – Peter Maffay, for example, and the founder of [music publisher] BMG, Monti Lüftner, who later took me to the U.S.
You performed bare-chested and with a handlebar mustache as a wild Mongol. Was it hard also to learn synchronized choreography?
I suffered like a dog. Musicians don’t usually dance, so I was really miscast. Of course we were trained, but that didn’t make me a ballerina.
Despite that, the band was very successful.
We came in fourth with “Dschinghis Khan” at the 1979 [Eurovision Song Contest] Grand Prix and the single is still the biggest-selling Grand Prix title ever.
“We thought two Lászlós were too much for the Munich music scene. So we tossed a coin – our first DM coin – and I lost.”
You have to have had a few drinks to sing “Hey brothers! Guzzle brothers! Brawl brothers! Again and again! Let more vodka come, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, because we’re Mongols, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Wouldn’t you agree?
No. It’s better to be a refugee like me who doesn’t know much German yet.
In 1975, you and two friends fled Hungary across the Slovenian-Austrian border. Adventure or a horror trip?
Both. We had our IDs as musicians, which got us into Yugoslavia. I even had a state license as a bandleader. Toward the end, we had pass through the eight-and-a-half kilometer-long, guarded Karawanks railway tunnel. A friend who fled a year earlier told us to carry raw meat to distract the guard dogs. Along the way, we spread the meat, which the dogs ate, but they barked anyway.
Did you fear for your lives?
You bet. There weren’t any self-firing systems, but the guards were armed. The tunnel became torture. We were wearing East European sneakers that fell apart piece by piece on the crushed rock between the rails. Every step hurt. Not to mention the rats and bats. And we didn’t know that in such a tight tunnel, you only hear a train when it roars past you, but not when it approaches you from behind. There were three of us, and there was a recess in the wall every 40 meters for just one person, the track worker. So if we had noticed a train too late, two of us would likely have died.
Didn’t you see the light at the end of the tunnel?
Much worse than that. There was a light in the middle. That’s where the border was, luckily unguarded. From there, we had to go back into the dark to walk another four kilometers. When we finally got out of the tunnel, we hugged a little transformer housing. Only later, after we’d learned German, we understood what the sign on it said: “Caution – risk of death!”
What did you feel being in the West?
A mix of happiness, triumph and exhaustion. But there was also this inner voice that told us to keep going, don’t stop. At the time, Austria was neutral and hadn’t signed up to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You were put in a camp, where the Americans, Canadians, Australians and Swedes picked the best-educated academics as migrants. Musicians had no chance. So we moved on through Passau to Germany and Denmark, intending to get to the U.S. through Stockholm.
Two years ago Passau became a bottleneck for the refugees from the Middle East.
Yes. I’m also an illegal immigrant. We were caught at night on a country road in Denmark. Under the Geneva refugee convention, we should have been expelled to Austria. Luckily, the border official had been an East German frogman who fled himself. He got us a permit and access to the central camp for asylum seekers in Zirndorf.
You changed your given name from László to Leslie. Did you ever regret this?
A thousand times. My friend from the conservatory, with whom I still play music, was also called László. We thought two Lászlós were too much for the Munich music scene. So we tossed a coin – our first German coin – and I lost.
These days you work as a musician for automakers and….
… together with a team of engineers and acousticians to design the sound of new Audi models.
How should such a car sound?
It should convey a feeling of dynamism, but also of safety. We’re currently working on a sound for an electric car. The engine makes hardly any noise, so you wouldn’t hear the car at all. Years ago at the Paris Autosalon, where Audi’s electric model was presented, a cameraman was almost run over in the final rehearsal. That’s why electric cars need a running sound or one that starts when a person approaches. Another problem is that newer cars no longer have a dashboard in the conventional sense, but a screen. That takes four seconds to load up and the car should use this time to welcome its driver.
With a few sounds or a soundscape that conveys the feeling: “I’ve arrived in my mobile home.”
Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do?
It’s a bit more complex than that. We call these soundscapes, which are positive sound aesthetics. Acceleration is to be felt acoustically. The driver wants to drive, not be chauffeured in the back of a limousine.
You’ve worked for VW, BMW and Mercedes. The currently most successful VW ad shows laughing horses and a driver trying to park his Tiguan with a horse trailer in tow. Are we supposed to laugh away the Dieselgate scandal?
There’s absolutely nothing to laugh about in this crisis. What happened at VW is shocking, socially, ecologically, economically, politically and ethically.
Because of the lies?
Not only authorities and customers were deceived, but hundreds of thousands of workers too. I grew up under communism and thought I knew all about lying. When I fled, I thought rules and laws always applied in the West. In Hungary, I was charged with “recalcitrance and inciting subversion of state power with artistic means.” I’m still a rebel.
The American-Russian researcher, Martin Malia, wrote that the socialist system is not an attack on capitalism, but on realism. It is an attempt to do away with the real world to replace it with a surreal one. Inefficiency, scarcity and violence are presented as rightful sovereigns.
It was a make believe world. In Hungary everything real was under the heading of “anti-capitalism”. But everyone knew that the slogans were meaningless.
Let’s go through the terms: inefficiency.
From age six, I was treated as a musical prodigy. I studied later at the Budapest conservatory. Young talent is fostered, not only in sports. Six days a week, only two weeks holiday per year. At 15, we did internships in factories to make contact with the workers. Once we were sent to the Palma air mattress factory. I was assigned to the design department where lots of well-trained engineers sat who didn’t design anything. The product for the coming 40 years was already produced, thanks to the centrally planned economy. Every table was built so that employees could read a book in a drawer during working hours without being noticed. Hungary was a cultured country; reading was work. On the side, people worked on their own things. One made rubber pads for record players, much sought-after rarities. We had a privately made slide projector at home.
Did you also make money on the gray market?
No. Money wasn’t involved; it was all about bartering. There was a lot of human interaction and creativity.
Everywhere. For example, a shortage of music instruments. Officially, you could only get drum sets from Amati in Czechoslovakia. But in Budapest there were still two drum set makers. You went to a backyard and ordered one. That was allowed. Unlike in the GDR, in Hungary more small firms stayed legal. But my set wasn’t quite complete. I got the bass drum pedal half a year later from friends who had a relative in the West.
Third point: Did you experience violence?
Subtly. Jazz rock was regarded as western and elitist. Mikhail Gorbachev once confirmed to me that in the eastern bloc, jazz rock was seen as a hostile, oppositional genre. Anyone who had a Jethro Tull album on tape could feel like a king. In 1973, I stood on stage when the power was switched off. The squad leader of the secret police came up to me and apologized. “László,” he said, “I really wanted to hear the whole concert, but my chiefs are relentless.”
Were you ever arrested?
Seventeen times, if I remember rightly. In the station, an officer once gave me a bollocking. He said: “My kids go to your concerts, but do you always have to overdo it? If I catch you again, you’ll get three years in jail.” And then he let me go home.
Mikhail Gorbachev once confirmed to me that in the eastern bloc, jazz rock was seen as a hostile, oppositionist music genre.
Dschinghis Khan disbanded in 1982, but there was still one TV show in Japan as well as gigs in Kazakhstan, Ulan Bator and St. Petersburg. Where did this enthusiasm come from, in the former U.S.S.R.?
I have no idea. I was along only for the farewell in Japan to launch my new band, Soulmates. For all the time I was a member of Dschinghis Khan, I wanted out as soon as possible.
For the last German federal election campaign, you wrote the song “An jedem neuen Tag” (On each new day) to support Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats. And what about the election this September?
I will support Angela Merkel again. We haven’t spoken specifically about a song yet. The chancellor acted humanely in the refugee issue. For that, I respect her, as a refugee myself. Germany is so livable and lovable because women have equal rights, because religious freedom prevails, because we leave no room for homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. The Herculean task will be to defend this canon against hate preachers in mosques and against the far right as personified, for example, by Bernd Höcke [a prominent figure in the far-right Alternative for Germany party].
In 2013, you ran as Christian Social Union candidate for a seat in the Bavarian state parliament. What did you learn from politics?
Mainly that I’m not cut out for that. I’m an artist. I’m too impatient for the slow decision-making slog in committees and parliaments. That said, having done no campaigning, I missed out on winning a seat by only 800 votes. And it’s a good thing I did.
Christian Schröder is an editor with our sister publication, the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com