Techno: Escaping from political chaos

Techno formed out of a landscape of thriving political tension and economic poverty. Detroit, Michigan, the motor city once a symbol of economic greatness, saw a drastic decline that particularly impacted the black community. How did such bleak circumstances pave the way for such a groundbreaking new sound? 

From Underground Resistance and Drexciya to Juan Atkins and Derrick May, an abundance of talent surfaced in the midst of this inner-city decay. Beginning in the mid 80s and really coming to prominence in the early 90s, these artist’s futuristic sonics were an audible representation of protest, a form of escapism that revolutionised the music world. It is no coincidence that shortly after the Detroit techno scene began to flourish, another politically turbulent region adopted this underground movement which had initially set out to liberate the poor back communities of suburban Detroit. 

Derrick May in Detroit

It might be the what most people think of as the world’s techno capital as we know it today, but the collapse of the Berlin wall seemed to almost perfectly coincide with the emergence of techno in the newly unchained urban metropolis. Just as the people of Detroit were doing, Berliners were now using techno as a form of hedonism, an expression of freedom from the chaos of their political reality. After being divided for so long, east and west Germany were united under this captivating sound. Be it intricate drum programming, pounding four-to-the-floor warehouse stompers or spacey synthesised melodies, all different aspects had been gradually drawn into the now recognisable style of Detroit techno in Berlin.

These raw industrial soundscapes were fittingly accompanied by Berlin’s industrial settings such as abandoned buildings and warehouses. Clubs and parties like Ufo (now tresor), Love Parade, and E-Werk were all responsible for hosting memorable nights that cemented the music in the established urban subculture that so many people are familiar with today.

E-werk New years Party, Berlin, 2016

While the techno sound is pushed forward by each new location it finds itself in, the environments from which it emerges aren’t too different from its first home back in Detroit. Like Detroit and Berlin, Ukraine too has been the victim political turbulence and oppression from higher powers. But every cloud has a silver lining, and cutting-edge creative output inspired by the political climate has continually been channeled out of the country. Post-industrial venues are ever-present in its capital Kiev, which have housed some of the most hotly-tipped parties in the scene. 

Cxema is a night which has gained this kind of reputation, and kicking off in 2014 at the same time as the revolution in Kiev made for a perfect way for the frustrated Ukrainian party-goers to channel their energy. Booking only local talents and bringing in over 1000 ravers to each event, Cxema is known for high intensity crowds who dance throughout the night to an eclectic range of styles from 4/4 techno through to early trance productions. What makes Cxema so special is the integrity it provides with the emphasis on local hidden talents as opposed to big international headliners, making way for stunning leftfield productions and open-minded crowds. Artists like A-Body recognised how switching from experimental ambient to brutal pounding techno was greeted with equal appreciation while Kiev local John Object takes a keen interest in the stranger and less conventional side of techno, claiming that these Cxema nights were where he first honed his trade. 

Cxema party, Kiev, 2017 

Not too far from Kiev, Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula posed a new challenge for the area’s pleasure-seeking party kids. Once housing the Republic of Kazantip festival, ravers would gather at the unfinished Crimean Atomic Energy Station using a turbine hall as a memorable dancefloor. Although Russian interference has forced the festival to relocate to Georgia, this has not defeated Crimean party spirits as locals still manage to find a way to let their hair down in spite of tight curfews and military presence. Staying true to its origins in illegal raves, it seems that rebellious culture has been embedded in dance culture right since its inception.

Crimean Atomic Energy Station, Kazantip Festival, 1999

Despite the similarities between all these places, the techno movement doesn’t fail to pop up in perhaps more unexpected regions. Still political tension is the one feature that binds these area together in dance music culture. The Arab world has not failed to escape the crutches of political turbulence and accompanied with it a stunning array of creatives that have instigated a flourishing electronic music scene. Moroccan label Casa Voyager has manipulated classic Drexciyan Detroit style electro to give it its own vibrant feel that has made it stand out on an international stage. Artists like Kosh and OCB incorporate this superbly in the vast majority of their releases on the Casablanca imprint that have worked to establish Morocco as a the party hub of north Africa. The sound at Moroccan parties is said by locals to be a nod to Detroit that was also inspired by their own traditional music known as Gnawa. Local artist Unes commented in an interview for Dazed that “it’s the rhythm of the south of Morocco and the music of the nomads, and it’s a very repetitive, almost tribal style of music. So automatically we’re drawn to the sounds of Detroit, because it’s music that’s very similar to our own”. 

Ramallah, Palestine, Boiler Room, 2018 

But arguably the most fascinating and appropriate link between the dance music scene and political tension occurs in one of the most politically vulnerable areas of the world. A recent Boiler Room DJ set and documentary exposed the world to the wealth of Palestinian talent that exists on the West Bank. Jazar Crew are a Palestinian collective who made their name throwing techno parties in the Israeli city of Haifa, gradually spreading throughout the rest of the region.  But Palestinain artists face significant challenges to performing and, lacking the required permits to enter Israel, some DJs went as far as jumping the wall that segregates the two communities just to play a gig. 

Once again testing the limits that we so often see in the dance music world, Jazar Crew sought to create a scene in the West Bank that would alleviate this problem. It is no small feat that, against the odds, ravers in the West Bank city of Ramallah are described as euphoric and energetic. Ramallah resident and pioneer DJ  Sam,a (who gained international attention for her set in the Palestine Boiler room showcase) says she also put on some of the first techno nights along the West Bank and now, thanks to her and the Jazar Crew, half a dozen techno venues exist in the area. 

All these places, as different as they are, share struggles that lead people to similar situations. They all use techno and dance music to escape from their problems, really showing how powerful of a tool music can be. Misinformed critics of the genre should maybe think again when they say that it goes no further than ‘repetitive emotionless machine music’. 

Jacob Paul

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