There are half a dozen volunteers in a shed in Calais on a grey February morning, gathered round a table peeling vegetables for the refugees — piercings, dreadlocks and baggy fatigues, heads nodding to a crackling hardtek rhythm coming from the transistor.
Ravers on a humanitarian mission. Not very surprising, if you look back at the history of techno. The music of gay minorities in Chicago and New York, the young Brits fighting against Thatcherian individualism, and the heirs of the hippy movement in Goa, techno has, from its beginnings, promoted openness to the Other, brotherhood and challenging the system.
The last twenty years have seen it enter into a period of mass consumption, structured by marketing and the world of celebrity, but its humanist, liberal roots — its political roots — are currently resurfacing all over Europe in the face of the migrant crisis. And if you dig a bit deeper, you can also find collections for the homeless, DJs denouncing neo-liberalism, and eco-friendly festivals… Could techno be finding its conscience again?
'Warehouse', the jungle and broken ankles
In Calais, it’s the old guard that has rung the alarm. Steve from Bedlam, one of the flagship soundsystems from the English free party scene in the early 90s, opened Community Kitchen with his team in the Auberge des migrants, also known as Warehouse, a huge depot-like building where his organisation comes together alongside Help Refugees, Refugee Community and Artists in action, an initiative led by the old members of Spiral Tribe with DJ Jeff 23 at the helm..
The whole of this little world, including free party activists but equally humanitarian missionaries with nothing to do with electronic music, has concentrated its efforts on the refugees in the Jungle, a camp on the side of the motorway where 5-6000 people are trying to survive. To give you an idea of the situation, imagine a muddy central path, flanked by makeshift tents, little afghan grocery stores with stalls protected by wire netting, an amazing Eritrean church, a translucent plastic meeting dome and a few satellite buildings with humanitarian workers inside.
The migrants hang around there all day and, come nightfall, they try to clamber onto a van that’s about to set off for England. In an attempt to stop this, the authorities have put up tall barbed wire fences. Nonetheless, they take their chances, fall, and break their ankles. Alternatively they’re pushed back by the tear gas that’s fired into part of the camp…
The Warehouse volunteers also help out in a camp a few kilometres away in Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, where 2500 people are rotting in even more dramatic conditions. The state has prohibited the migrants’ use of wooden slabs to construct cabins, which constitute long-term housing in the eyes of the authorities. The tents — and the families who “live” in them — are submerged in mud as soon as rain falls and are exposed to the freezing cold at night. At the end of last winter, temperatures plummeted as low as -7 °C.
There were only 200 cold showers here in the month of December, as harsh gales hit the whole of the shantytown. With the exception of Emmaüs and a small presence of Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins Du Monde, small independent associations are left to fight practically alone on the front. So in the Warehouse, no one is without work.
"I'd prefer to be here, unemployed, than back home working for some knobhead" Blaise, DJ
Several work groups are lined up alongside each other. Next to the kitchen, where between 1500 and 2000 meals are prepared every day, huge shelves are filled with piles of jumpers, coats and underwear which the volunteers fold and tidy all day long. Outside, they are building wooden shelters with sheet metal roofs for the camp that will replace Grande-Synthe in two weeks time.
The majority of the volunteers are English, all ashamed of their government which has worsened the situation in Calais by refusing entry to their country. There are also Spaniards, Germans and of course French men and women, like Blaise, a DJ who is more than happy to be able to help out. “I’d prefer to be here, unemployed, than back home working for some knobhead. You clean a jumper, and it goes directly to a refugee. You peel a potato, the same. You work 100% directly for the people, and that does a lot of good. The positive energy is astounding — you’d think we were planning a party.”
Everything started up last summer, when Jeff 23 and Simone Simmer, the singer on mythical Spiral Tribe track ‘Forward the Revolation’, which called for a revolt against the authorities in 1992, heard about the thousands of people in Italy with nowhere to go.
“With Jeff, we decided to use our connections,” recalls Simone. “We started got Artists in Action off the ground and we began by recovering some clothes in the small town where I used to live in the Var, south of France. Then we threw a party in a small club called Molotov in Marseille where we raised 700 euros and collected some clothing. Next we worked with Samuel Raymond of Freeform and Blandine from Ornorm Soundsystem to throw a big party on 14th November just outside Paris, which was cancelled due to the attacks. We had to drop the convoy destined for Greece with Ninja Kitchen to have the food distributed on the road, but the mobile kitchen project is still in the pipeline.”
The activists then collected donations and hit the road as a team of ten to spend the new year in Calais and eventually stay there. They released three successive ‘Artists in Action’ compilations, which raised 600 euros, and got their whole crew involved.
"We're on the front line. MSF are putting up a camp at the moment, but they want us, the small independent groups, to do the next." Simone Simmer (Spiral Tribe)
“We have links with other soundsytems which organise charity events in Strasbourg, Berlin, Rome… The guys at Boomtown festival also raised £1000 and their carpenters are building shelters. We are doing all we can.” Their energy is great to see, but there is an enormous amount to do and they are only one hand in the efforts.
“We’re on the front line. There’s Emmaüs, but Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF] and Médecins Du Monde are barely present. There’s no Red Cross, no HCR. MSF are putting up a camp at the moment, but they want us, the small independent groups, to do the next.”
The free party scene on the front line
It’s no accident that the Spiral Tribe guys are so invested in the plight of the refugees: ravers have a long tradition of humanitarian action. The Breton scene, the most hectic in France, is the most active in this area. For years the Epsylonn-Otoktone soundsystem have been mixing their partying and humanitarian exploits, as Charlotte Noël, one of its members, explains:
“We wanted to do more than just put on raves when we went to eastern Europe. In Romania, we did mixing workshops, games, and dress-up activities in the orphanages; we took school books and medical resources; we organised film screenings… At one point, we were making crèpes at all of our parties to help finance the construction of a little school with blackboards and chalk in Peru. We also collaborate with a group from Quimper which organises outings and runs juggling and makeup workshops for both able-bodied and disabled people. And we sent school books to Gabon, clothing to Morocco and fishing instruments to Libya.”
For some weeks, her team has also been helping in Calais with Artists in Action, giving French lessons and distributing warm clothes. They ended up forming an organisation, A-Galon, whose name means “with heart” in Breton. “Today, 80% of the members of the soundsystem are more invested in humanitarian action than in raves,” adds Charlotte Noël. “And we’re not the only ones: there are a lot of other Breton collectives involved, like 716, Krispies Company, Rêves Ephémères…”
What is it that drives the free party scene to be so involved in humanitarian action? For Charlotte, “we are naturally united. In our raves, everyone talks to each other, meets one another… We care for the needs of others spontaneously.” For Simone, “every nationality, every colour, is connected on the dancefloor — we’re all humans. We also come from a DIY culture, and we’re used to getting by on our own, to difficult conditions. And we don’t have any confidence in the state. The majority of soundsystems feel rejected by this unfair society, like the refugees. We understand them in that respect.”
"We know all too well this blind and stupid suppression, which has affected us too. We are shocked but not surprised. Solidarity with the refugees." Blandine Roy (Ornorm)
An explanation shared by Blandine Roy of Ornorm soundsystem: “We know all too well this blind and stupid suppression, which has affected us too. We are shocked but not surprised. We feel solidarity with the refugees.” For Blaise, the principle behind helping the rave and humanitarian action aren’t so different: “we go back to the original free party values. The goal isn’t to promote drug abuse or keep your bar afloat, but to make noise freely and for free — to give. That’s what we do here.”
The clubbers too?
Today, the phenomenon has transcended the realm of the free party. In Paris, the La Horde collective has collected clothing for Christmas and the Fée Croquer crew is organising donations for the homeless at each of its events.
“I like to help people. It gives more meaning to what we do,” explains Alexandre Button. “During a party, people bring tinned food, clothing, soap, toothbrushes, tampons… They draw cartoons, write a nice message, and then we load up the vans and I distribute it all in the migrant camps or to other homeless people. We don’t take the party-goers with us because we don’t want this to be a kind of social event, but we might start playing a bit of music to make it slightly more upbeat.” The people that come to our parties have really responded to this initiative, with 10 to 15% of them making a donation. The public is happy to do some good and the homeless are touched to see that young people of the new generation aren’t bastards. Techno is happy and open, it’s about sharing… Although I do think that was more the case in the 90s, even though i wasn’t old enough to experience it first hand. Eventually, I would like to organise days when people with mental and physical disabilities can be introduced to DJing and street art.”
This type of initiative isn’t very common in European capitals, although charity nights like Dance For Refuge have proved popular in London, and in Paris La Machine De La Moulin Rouge’s debates on the place of women in electronic music have also garnered attention. In Berlin, Plus1 asks those on the guest list to make a 1€ donation.
The funds are then donated to charities such as Moabit hilft, which helps refugees looking for housing, Der Flüchtingsrat Berlin, which defends their rights, or Sea-Watch, which aims to reduce the risks involved in crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat. Chalet, Griessmühle and About:Blank have joined in with the scheme, among other clubs.
So could 2016 be the year that electronic music regains its political conscience? Beyond the caricature of the Ice Bucket Challenge competition, which in 2014 saw Skrillex, Richie Hawtin and Dubfire tip buckets of ice cubes over their heads in aid of research into Motor Neurone Disease/ALS, several big names have sought to promote social, or even explicitly political, causes. A case in point: on Brute, her latest album released on Hyperdub, Fatima Al Qadiri defends the right to protest and, sampling sirens and demonstrations, denounces American police brutality.
Singer M.I.A, the daughter of a Tamil separatist, got on the wrong side of the Qatari board of Parisian football club PSG when she wore the club’s shirt in her video for ‘Borders’, with the slogan “Fly Emirates” rewritten as “Fly Pirates” in protest against Qatar’s treatment of migrants. And in Poirier’s latest album Migration, the Canadian artist also addresses the migrant crisis.
Elsewhere, female:pressure, the international network of women working in electronic music and the digital arts, recently came out in public support of the Kurdish fighters involved in the conflict against Daesh in Rojava, Syria, working towards “building a new society from scratch, with built-in social, racial and ethnic justice, religious freedom, ecological principles and gender equality.”
More recently, British garage revivalist DJ EZ played for 24 hours street to raise funds for Cancer Research UK. In Detroit, pioneers such as Moodymann, the Saunders brothers and Detroit Techno Malitia organised a fundraiser party in aid of the victims of a lead contamination in the water in Flint, Michigan.
This is all a step in the right direction for Jeff Mills, who recently told us that “techno should be more political. We have the ability to question the world with techno, and there aren’t enough examples of people doing that. We will always be marginalised as long as we fail to exploit that political purpose.”
"The music is completely depoliticised: it has become a product. But for me it's worrying to think I might be sharing a dance floor with someone who think that there are too many Arabs in France." Paul de Chabalitosse (Cracki)
While Mills is right to encourage techno to rear its political head more frequently, it does appear that the electronic music scene is leading by example in terms of engagement. But this engagement remains largely in the margins, and outside the alternative scene it is rare to find an artist using their position to present a particularly thought-provoking discourse. What’s more, for some of them, ostensible political engagement is nothing more than a front.
For the better-known DJs, who make sure to maintain a polished image so as to keep as many fans as possible happy, philanthropy often comes with an after-taste of marketing… (Carl Cox releasing a turtle into the ocean in front of a load of cameras, anyone?) And that after-taste becomes especially apparent when we consider that the industry, with its celebrity DJs, often excessive fees, and hordes of volunteers at festivals, is not really too inclined to redistribute its profits fairly.
The most famous artists are not the best proponents of solidarity and unity, recalls Matt Black, half of Coldcut and label boss at Ninja Tune: “When a DJ receives a load of money while others get nothing, it’s just like when bankers hoard all the profits.”
A few months ago, Matthew Herbert said that DJs have a muzzle put on them when they go into a festival or a club: “You have to play by the rules; you have to self-censor. This world is a slave to consumerism. […] This idea that, as an artist, you have to retreat into this territory where you can’t talk about things that might make people angry: I find that very sad. […] No one is prepared to turn off the music in order to suggest a protest, or to remind people to vote.” Frabrice Rackam, who did dare to turn off the music, is an exception, then. The Parisian trance promoter once botched his own club night in 2002, announcing over the PA that Jean-Marie Le Pen — then leader of the National Front — was standing in the second round of the election, as a reminder for people to vote the following weekend.
“And when you you guys did an article on traxmagazine.com that asked artists to share their views on the rise of the National Front, none of them really wanted to engage with it,” Paul de Chabalitosse adds. “By combining activism and electronic music, you risk getting on the wrong side of part of your clientele. So the music is completely depoliticised: it has become a product. But for me it’s worrying to think I might be sharing a dance floor with someone who thinks that there are too many Arabs in France. How many DJs would be ready to take the risk and “sacrifice” their popularity by expressing their beliefs?”
Matthew Herbert is one of those DJs who has made the sacrifice: “I know all too well that by talking about politics I am bound to lose certain listeners along the way. But that’s a choice that I had to make at some point in my career. Of course people have reproached me for spoiling the mood in the kind of environment where everyone just wants to lose themselves. But I don’t really want to do that — I want to keep myself!”
To help out
POLITICS: PART OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC'S HISTORY
Electronic music has a long political tradition. In Detroit, Underground Resistance’s militant techno was inspired by the radical stance of Public Enemy. In Chicago, house anthems evoked a political utopia, harmony between every community, while in England, the Summer of Love brought together various different social classes under one roof and in Berlin, techno was the soundtrack of reunification.
London duo Coldcut were one of the most active groups in the scene, as Matt Black, one half of the group and label boss at Ninja Tune, explains: “We talked about arms exports from the UK, deforestation in the Amazon which robs the indigenous people of their land, protests against the destruction of houses to be replaced by motorways in South London, the negative uses of nuclear energy, GMOs, marketing in the electoral process, police surveillance, and the influence of materialism in our lives. We try to contribute to a positive societal change.”
Bristol’s Massive Attack also didn’t shy away from using their compositions as a vehicle for political engagement. Having attracted media attention for his opposition to the Iraq war, the group’s frontman 3D even paired up with Damon Albarn to buy a whole page in NME to denounce the war. He has also shown his support for Palestine with illuminated messages during his concerts and is an advocate of the cultural boycott on Israel.
But many artists prefer to keep their political messages in the margins. This is the case for Moby, who for 20 years has used press conferences and books to defend animal rights with PETA, speak out against domestic violence and promote equal rights in Western societies.
So, electronic music is no stranger to political engagement and controversy.
This article was originally published in Trax #191 in April 2016.