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Berntholer \ Biography

In 1983 a tiny Belgian independent label called Blue Feather released without fanfare a single, My Suitor, by Berntholer. My Suitor was exceptionally well received in Europe, championed by esteemed BBC DJ John Peel, and went on to sell over 10,000 copies. Two accomplished flipsides - Lunacies and Emotions - proved that My Suitor was no fluke. The sleeve gave little away, save that the band was a quartet fronted by gamine singer Drita Kotaji. In fact the group were completely unknown outside Brussels, yet in My Suitor created one of the most memorable songs of the decade, which continues to enchant and seduce like no other.

Some history. Berntholer formed in October 1981 with Albanian-born singer Drita joined by Simon Rigot (guitar and saxophone), Manuel 'Manu' Poutte (keyboards), and Pol Fourmois (bass). The name was borrowed from a line spoken in Attention Stockholm, the single by kitsch Swedish chanteuse Virna Lindt, and the first significant band projects were videos for the songs The Choice (aka Adrian & Jonathan) and Exterior Nuit. Early material was heavily influenced by the prevailing 'cold wave' sound of the time, drawing from the likes of The Cure and The Stranglers.

The group recorded their first single in May 1982, pairing Japanese Garden with The Others. Lacking a drummer, the group relied on a primitive Roland rhythm machine, and although a charming record, it revealed little of the group's potential. The single was released on the tiny Putovsky label on 7" only, in a sleeve designed by Joel Van Audenhaege. A video for the a-side was also filmed in June. By the time the single was recorded the core quartet had been joined by expatriate Irish guitarist Perry Rose, although he would leave in October.

Drita had already written My Suitor: "I created the song in my bedroom, and first recorded it on a small cassette recorder. No music, just the melody and the lyrics I wrote. It came very naturally. Originally the song was inspired by a piece of music by Wim Mertens/Soft Verdict called At Home, which I loved to listen to at that time. Things are strange sometimes, because two years later I had the chance to work with him. Simon immediately loved My Suitor and played a keyboard line to accompany my 'complain'."

In March 1983 friend and producer Gilbert Lederman, then a sound engineering student, asked the band to record a demo of My Suitor and Images for his degree project. The tape subsequently caught the ear of a local music publicist. Convinced that the heart-ached torch song My Suitor was a hit, he arranged a more formal recording at Daylight Studio in August, where the group hired an Emulator to create the haunting cello lines, Drita's bewitching vocal adding further to the song's unique mystique. Released on another small label, Blue Feather at the end of the year, it became a staple on the John Peel radio show, even though the single was not available in British shops.

The cult success of My Suitor in Europe coincided with the foundation of Blanco Y Negro in London. The boutique label was in effect a WEA-funded 'super indie' run by Geoff Travis (Rough Trade), Mike Alway (Cherry Red, el!) and Michel Duval (Les Disques du Crépuscule). Duval's contribution to the new London-based label venture was to be singer-songwriter Anna Domino, and My Suitor on licence, now with an added coda (Pardon Up Here) arranged by Belgian modern composer Wim Mertens. In July 1984 Berntholer played a string of cafe shows in St Tropez, and when Blanco released the single in October the band was invited to perform live on cult British music tv show The Tube. However Berntholer baled out of this crucial appearance and relations with the label turned sour.

Demos for a third single, including folky ballad You Grabbed Me By The Hand, had been recorded in July, and drummer Pierre Sorvil recruited in September. However, no more records appeared, and faced with management and other problems Berntholer began to implode. A final studio session was recorded in December 1984, by which time Simon, Pol and Pierre were heading in progressive and jazz directions, paths that Drita didn't want to follow.

On 30 April 1985 the band played their last proper concert, an ill-starred date at Le Beau Bruxelles venue which coincided with a terrorist bombing by the CCC. Drita then quit, and with one final show contracted in Liege her place was taken by Niki Mono, then also working with Tuxedomoon singer Winston Tong. It was a sad end to a highly promising band.

Since then the cult around My Suitor has grown steadily. In 1999 radio show Studio-Brussel even organised a song contest based around different cover versions of My Suitor, including a drum n' bass version by Buscemi and a pop take by Das Pop. More interesting Berntholer facts can be gleaned from Dirk Houbrechts' dedicated page (with soundbites) at the Belgian Rock and Pop Archives.

Post-Berntholer, Drita combined bookselling with discreet musical activity, working on various projects with Marie Delier, Hector Zazou and Harold Budd, among others. In 1998 she returned to recording as one half of Ink with Stephan Barbery, whose album Ever Now appeared in 2003 on their own label.

James Nice