Friday, August 29, 2008

Global Raver

Global Raver is a new blog promising 'social commentary on global dance music' by Anthony D'Andrea.

D'Andrea is the author of 'Global Nomads: Techno and New Age as Transnational Countercultures in Ibiza and Goa', a work examining 'the social life of mobile expatriates who live and circulate within a global circuit of countercultural practice, which paradoxically overlaps with political economies of tourism and entertainment in semi-peripheral "paradises", such as Ibiza and Goa'.

The blog has some interesting content, including the pre-history of Goan sub-cultures, reflections on the Berlin Love Parade, and an article reminding us that Joe Biden, Barack Obama's running mate, was the author of the 2003 RAVE act (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy). The law 'cracks down on rave promoters if drugs are found in their events, even if they have provided effective security, and even if they have no relation with individuals who consumed or traded drugs in their events. Moreover, based on former "crack house statutes", the law also criminalizes the venue owner (club, bar, warehouse etc.) just for renting their space. Again, landlords don't have to be related to - or not even aware of - those dealing or consuming drugs in their venue, in order to be heavily prosecuted... The original bill proposed that the sales of water, glowsticks and even telletubbie bags were to serve as criminal evidence. This disposition was soundly removed'.

Westering Home

Away this week from my usual London habitat, I have instead been (re)visiting the ‘ancestral homeland’ of the Isle of Islay in the Hebrides. To my resting urban ears, listening to the waves and the seabirds has been music enough, but still as always I am curious about what’s happening musically.

Well, yes there are bagpipes in the form of the the Islay Pipe Band, an earlier incarnation of which my father played in before he left the island. He bequeathed to me his chanter, but I have never yet learnt to play the highland bagpipes – still time, still time. By the way, does anyone remember Acid Folk by Perplexer, mid-1990s slice of bagpipe sampling techno? I remember dancing to it at a party at Taco Joe’s in Brixton. But I digress.

We went to a music session at the Lochside Hotel in Bowmore, the main village on Islay. In a bar overlooking Loch Indaal, people turned up with a banjo, accordion, guitar, fiddle and mandolin. There was a really good singer, Norma Munro, with a set including The Gypsy Rover, Yellow’s on the Broom, and inevitably on Islay, Westering Home. This oft-recorded song about returning to the island is probably the best known Islay song, not excepting Donovan’s Isle of Islay, the latter a nice enough song but committing the crime of mispronouncing the island’s name to make it rhyme with ‘play’ – it’s actually pronounced ‘Isla’.

I am always interested in a pub session, it’s a different kind of musicking from the gig format – open in the sense that the line up is fluid depending on who turns up, and the set list is usually not determined in advance. It is performative, but not necessarily dependent on an audience. Every session has its own unwritten rules, and no two sessions are therefore ever the same.

Anyway if you’re ever visit Islay – and I recommend you do – you can check out a session yourself every Wednesday night at the Lochside Hotel.

(Just to be clear though, it's not all folkiness up here - at the fairground it was strictly Euro-bounce-core, while in the swimming pool the lifeguards in control of the sounds put on the rockist breakbeats of Granite by Pendulum).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers

Native moments - when you come upon me - ah you are here now,
Give me now libidinous joys only,
Give me the drench of my passions, give me life coarse and rank,
To-day I go consort with Nature's darlings, to-night too,
I am for those who believe in loose delights, I share the midnight orgies of young men,
I dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers,
The echoes ring with our indecent calls, I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be one condemn'd by others for deeds done,
I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself from my companions?
O you shunn'd persons, I at least do not shun you,
I come forthwith in your midst, I will be your poet,
I will be more to you than to any of the rest.

Walt Whitman, Native Moments from Leaves of Grass, 1855. Photo from The Paradise Garage (legendary 1980s New York gay club) sourced from The Bowery Boys: New York City History

Monday, August 25, 2008

Arthur Weinstein

Glamourbrain alerted me to the death last month of New York club face Arthur Weinstein.

Weinstein opened HURRAH, a club at Broadway and 62nd Street, in 1976. When it closed down he ran a number of ‘illegal after-hours clubs downtown that mixed the fashionable and the young and artistic. The kids had radically odd colors of hair, and the coat-checker was a transvestite’ (New York Times). The clubs included the Jefferson in his apartment on East 14th Street (1980) and the Continental on West 25th (1981-83). His partner 'Colleen gave the Continental a characteristic look, at once kitschy-retro and futuristic. She put up several dividers, creating little rooms, and pasted them with wallpaper from the Fifties and Sixties. She had Futura 2000, the graffiti star, cover a wall in the former loading dock and put a giant aquarium tank in the main space' (Observer 2004).

As recalled in the Observer interview, running these clubs involved dealings with corrupt cops, mobsters and the FBI- one night at the Jefferson 'the Public Morals Squad raided us. With axes. That was some night. A guy who was part of the sanitation police was there and he started fighting with them. And they beat him up. He went to jail. He had a gun on him.'

Later Weinstein ran a legal Lower East Side club called the World and in the 1990s designed lighting for clubs including The Tunnel (1990-1998), The Limelight (1990-98) and Club USA (1993-1996).

Brooklyn Vegan has a nice appreciation of his life, with lots of interesting comments from people remembering seeing bands at his clubs (including Jesus and Mary Chain and The Pixies) and Fred Giannelli from Psychic TV recalling a 1988 PTV Halloween gig at Weinstein’s The World.

Weinstein was also an artist, photographer and sometime resident of the famous Chelsea Hotel – there is an interview with him at the Living with Legends: Hotel Chelsea blog. The Hotel Chelsea blog is fascinating by the way – everybody knows about William Burroughs and Leonard Cohen staying in the Chelsea, but did you know about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Banning Babyshambles

I was incredulous when I heard that Wiltshire Police had banned indie-wastrels Babyshambles from headlining the Moonfest festival scheduled to take place next week. Given shamble-in-chief Pete Doherty's propensity to not turn up when expected, I assumed this was some story cooked up by the festival organisers to blame a non-appearance on 'The Man' and boost Doherty's outlaw credentials into the bargain.

But no, it's absolutely true! As reported in NME 'Chief Superintendent Julian Kirby, divisional commander of Wiltshire Police, said: "We carried out an analysis of what Pete Doherty and his band does. What he does as part of his routine is to gee up the crowd. They speed up and then slow down the music and create a whirlpool effect in the crowd. They [the crowd] all get geed up and then they start fighting." Police presented their findings to North Wiltshire Magistrates on Monday (August 17), who ordered festival organisers to cancel any appearance from Doherty or Babyshambles. It is believed that the case represents the first time police anywhere in the country have used Section 160 of the Licensing Act (2003) to get a performance stopped'. The festival has now been cancelled.

The police apparently based their findings on an analysis of Youtube footage of Pete Doherty's gig last month at London's Albert Hall - a gig that ended in a stage invasion and some scuffling with bouncers, but was hardly a riot. Although the sight of Wiltshire's finest panicking about a load of skinny indie kids is farcical, there is a serious point here. In London we've already had the police dictating what genres of music clubs can play, with grime nights in particular coming under the spotlight. Now a specific band has been banned on very dubious grounds. Thank god Kurt Cobain is dead, Nirvana were prime offenders in playing quiet then loud songs and would never have got another gig on the M4 corridor. As for the ultimate quiet/loud band, The Pixies, we can only hope that they never try and play anywhere west of Reading.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Township Funk

This track is Township Funk by DJ Mugava (pointed to by Lower End Spasm). Sheffield's Warp Records are releasing this in the UK.

I don't know much about DJ Mujava - apparently he's from Pretoria in South Africa and his real name is Elvis Maswanganyi. Fact is I know very little about African takes on house music like Kwaito and Mzansi House from South Africa or Kuduro from Angola, but I am happy to know they exist and would like to find out more. There's a fair amount of the music and dance around on Youtube and elsewhere, but I would also like to know more about the scenes, what are the parties like, where do they have them, who goes to them, what do people wear etc.

Any good blogs/sites out there covering this sort of stuff? So far I've come across Kuduro Files and

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ronnie Drew & The Dubliners

Ronnie Drew, founder of The Dubliners, died yesterday at the age of 74.

When I was growing up my parents only had a handful of records, mostly albums of folk songs and ballads recorded by The Spinners, The Corries and The Dubliners.

These were three bands who had apparently fallen foul of some folk purists for crossing over to a mass audience: 'The Spinners, The Corries and The Dubliners... have entered the cabaret and concert arenas with great success and have, as a result, largely lost their original folk following' (Fred Woods, The Observer's Book of Folk Song in Britain, 1980). In doing so though they achieved what some folkies had only theorised, the creation and dissemination of a body of English/Caribbean (Spinners), Scottish (Corries) and Irish (Dubliners) songs that large numbers of people sang in pubs, homes and in their heads. I doubt it if my parents ever went to a folk club in the 1960s and 70s, but thanks to bands like these on TV, radio and record, I did grow up knowing some great old songs - apparently my dad used to sing The Wild Colonial Boy to me when I was a baby to stop me crying.

But The Dubliners were in a class of their own, with raucous voices and broad accents quite at odds with some of the effete renditions of Irish songs that preceded their fine example. They popularised a huge repertorie, including not just older traditional songs like Whiskey in the Jar and The Black Velvet Band, but rebel songs, workers' songs (the wobbly anthem Joe Hill and Springhill Mine Disaster) and bawdy drinking songs - their version of The Seven Drunken Nights was banned in Ireland. Their Dublin song Take Her Up to Monto features the Queen being told to "Póg mo thóin" ('Kiss my ass'), the original name for The Pogues (Pogue Mahone), a band whose existence is barely thinkable without The Dubliners.

Here they are singing McAlpine's Fusiliers, Dominic Behan's London Irish ballad reflecting the experience of Irish workers on English building sites (MacAlpine's being a British construction company). In the early 1990s I used to play in a session with Irish and Scottish musicians in a pub in Lambeth (opposite the Imperial War Museum), and this was one that used to get sung nearly every Sunday lunchtime.

I haven't got time to post on some of the other musical legends who' ve died recently, so check out Bob from Brockley for an appreciation of Isaac Hayes (Pop Feminist has the best photo) and Jerry Wexler (a man who once said he would like the words 'more bass' written on his tombstone - so say all of us).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Berlin, Bangalore, Shoreditch: Immaterial labour on the dancefloor?

Despite my earlier scepticism about the so-called malaise in dance music, some interesting points are being made in the related discussions about the demography of dance floors and the impact on party dynamics.

One notion seems to be minimal techno as the soundtrack to the nightlife of people working in media/creative industries, with Berlin as the paradigmatic example. Owen Hatherley talks of parts of the city becoming ‘a playground for an international of 'creatives'’ for whom nothing much is at stake: ‘pure pleasure becomes boring after a while, as does the constant low-level tick-tock of a techno designed seemingly for little else than just rolling along’.

Simon Reynolds explores this further, noting that ‘'Creatives' have a different relationship to work and leisure than people who work in manufacturing or the service economy. There is a sense that they are rarely fully at work or fully at leisure. Because their jobs are more fulfilling, there is not the same sense of your-time-is-not-your-own, enforced boredom, nothing like the same alienation’. As a result the explosive energy of the working class weekender packing a week’s worth of living into night’s raving is diffused, ‘because the division between the ecstatically heightened timezone of "party" and normal existence is not as drastically demarcated’.

I think the phenomenon they are describing does have some basis in reality, and is certainly not confined to Berlin or particularly minimal techno. In London the Shoreditch/Hoxton nightlife expansion from later in the 1990s has similarly been viewed as providing a playground for people involved in arts, fashion and media (or who want to be), with no single dominant soundtrack other than a mash up of dance musics with indie and retro-kitsch. I was struck in reading reports of recent protests against dance restrictions in Bangalore by the similar social composition.

I am not sure ‘creatives’ as a description fully covers this global fraction of the dancefloor population. A more useful concept, as developed within the milieu of post-autonomist Marxism, is ‘immaterial labour, that is, labour that produces immaterial products, such as information, knowledges, ideas, images, relationships and affects’ (Negri & Hardt). Those involved in immaterial labour include not just workers in the arts and media industries, but for instance people working in information and communications technology sectors.

I am sceptical of some of the claims made for immaterial labour, particularly the notion that it amounts to a new social subject with some kind of vanguard role in social transformation. Less people may be working in manufacturing and agriculture in the West, but elsewhere in the world this is not the case. And the category of immaterial labour can hide huge social differences between for instance, self-employed professionals with their own companies and call centre workers.

Nevertheless it does seem to at least partially describe a real phenomenon; it does seem true that ‘common conditions of labour in all sectors place new importance on knowledge, information, affective relations, cooperation and communication’ (N&H). Some of the characteristics of immaterial labour are precisely those mentioned by Simon Reynolds; Negri & Hardt identify the tendency ‘to blur the distinction between work time and nonwork time, extending the working day indefinitely to fill all of life’. Immaterial labour tends not to be confined to particular place, the work can move around the world (e.g. to Bangalore) and so can some of the more mobile workers. Although physical working conditions may be less unpleasant than in factories, and wages relatively high for some, immaterial labour is often precarious with short term contracts and commissions – hence perhaps the importance of social networking.

So perhaps immaterial labour on the dancefloor lacks the desparate edginess of the hardcore raver, giving rise to a smoother and increasingly homogenous global clubbing experience, what Mark Fisher has termed ‘nomadalgia: a lack of sense of place, a drift through club or salon spaces that, like franchise coffee bars, could be anywhere’

On the other hand, Negri and Hardt would argue that through a process of globalisation from below, transnational ‘cooperative and communicative networks of social labour’ are emerging, the basis for a more co-operative form of society that is developing within the shell of the old: ‘the future institutional structure of this new society is embedded in the affective, cooperative, and communicative relationships of social production’. If so, then it is in nightclubs as well as in offices that the ‘multitude’ is taking shape.

In the 1990s UK a clear divergence emerged between raving and clubbing, the former characterised by ‘an assertion of the local’ (Reynolds), with the endlessly debated 'Nuum (post-hardcore continuum) strongly associated with a fierce attachment to place (‘it’s a London thing’) and a self-image as an illicit urban underground.

Clubbing on the other hand has often involved a cosmpolitan self-image of being part of a global derritorialized house music/techno culture, linking dancefloors in London, Manchester, Berlin, Detroit, Chicago, Berlin, Manchester and beyond – even if most people didn’t get any further than Ibiza. If we accept Atali’s notion of music prefiguring new social relations, then perhaps house music has prefigured the emergence of immaterial labour, not only in the social composition of the dancers, but in the affective, co-operative, communicative relations of the dancefloor.

At the same time it is arguable that one of the weakness of the immaterial labour as key social subject thesis is that it neglects the needs and experiences of the global poor whose living is precarious in a much more fundamental sense than the journalist or software engineer. Likewise, to the extent that clubbing often excludes the same people it can be characterised not only by a lack of genuine social inclusion (the dancefloor community only extends so far), but by a diluted sense of musical energy - beats with the rough edges smoothed off.

Just following a line of thought here, not completely convinced by the immaterial labour thing - comments welcome as always.

Reference: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire – Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Voilà notre nuit!

Au Petit Rocher (also known as Chez Dinocheau after its owner) was a popular tavern/restaurant frequented by Parisian 'bohemians' such as Charles Baudelaire in the 1850s and 1860s. It was situated in a cellar at the corner of rues de Navarin and de Breda.

Among the drinkers was the writer Fernand Desnoyers who would regularly sing there, his songs being published in his 1865 collection Chansons parisiennes('Parisian Songs'). One of his songs, 'Les rôdeurs de nuit' ('The prowlers of the night') is a celebration of staying up all night:

Quand le bourgeois dort,
Il fait soif encore,
Passon la nuit a boire!
La rue est toute noire;
Mais les vitraux des boulevards
Sont en feu, comme des regards.
Atmosphere enflammée,
Filles dans la fumée,
Eau-de-vie et bruit,
Voilà notre nuit!

(When the bourgeois sleeps,
We are thirsty, still;
Let's drink the night through!
It's quite dark outside;
But the windows on the streets are
Ablaze like people's glances.
Burning atmosphere,
Girls in the smoke,
Brandy and noise,
This is our night!)

Source: Paris: The Secret History - Andrew Hussey (London: Viking, 2006)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

War in Georgia

Matthew Collin, who has been reporting for the BBC during the recent terrible events in Georgia, is also the author of 'Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House'(1997).

His blog, This is Tblisi Calling, hasn't been updated since the war started, but there are some interesting reflections on the use of music in the simmering conflicts leading up to this week's violence. For instance, in May the Georgian government held a patriotic song contest: "The deputy culture minister, Mirza Davitaia, who’s running the show, says the state initially started the song contest for very practical reasons: 'When our friends were in the army, in the reserves, they found out there were no army songs,' he explains. 'Soldiers, when they run, they don’t have good Georgian songs [to sing]. In Soviet times they had Russian songs, and now they have nothing for this'."

More surreal has been the Georgian government's use of 70s pop acts in its campaign to rally support, including a concert by barely-remembered English band Smokie and sending Boney M in to play in South Ossetia with the Georgian president dancing along.

Sadly, Georgia's 2008 entry for the Eurovision song contest - Peace will Come by Diana Gurtskaya, does not seem to have been heeded by either side - even if the singer, a 'blind refugee from the separatist war in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia who now lives in Moscow... has been awarded medals for her cultural endeavours by both Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili'. The lyrics might be fairly banal but still true: 'Look, the sky is crying cold bitter tears, weeping for the people lost in fear, While we fight for nothing... Kids with guns are always too young to die'.

Some background information on the conflict at Flesh is Grass; Bob from Brockley has links to various discussion. Must admit I am not particularly interested in various leftists/ex-leftists trying to decide whether to support 'plucky little Georgia' or 'anti-imperialist Russia', both states are implicated in this war and both seem to have targeted civilians.

Bangalore: 'Today they are saying we can't dance and tomorrow they'll say we need a licence to go out with our families'

'Bangalore's socialites and pub-hoppers were out dancing on MG Road in broad day-light in protest against the city police's strict clampdown on late-night parties. It seems that partying at night in the city may not be the same anymore as the new police commissioner has initiated curbs on pub life in the city. One of the protestors said, “What we need is a healthy society to come out and express themselves and tell the world that we are all lovely people and we should just be left on our own to have a good time.”

... However, it seems doubtful that the new Government would amend the law as the ban came after a police raid on a rave party in the city's outskirts early Sunday morning. Thirty people were arrested and drugs seized and this gives police additional ground on their stand. Nevertheless, it hasn't stopped people from campaigning for a better nightlife... “It's about our freedom. Today they are saying we can't dance and tomorrow they'll say we need a licence to go out with our families,” added another'.

Source: IBNLive, 11 August 2008

'Amid protests over the ban on playing live music and dancing at pubs in the city, police said they have ensured that 32 discotheques, which were "operating without a valid licence," remained closed. "The discotheques did not have the required licence," Bangalore Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari said while explaining the intensified crackdown on illegal discotheques since the beginning of this month. "Once they get the licences they are free to operate", he said adding that the licences were similar to those required by live bands to ensure operation... The commissioner said that these outlets were permitted to play recorded music but they needed to ensure that the volume was not very loud. On Sunday, people from various walks of life including films, art, music, and disco jockeys employed in the city, staged a protest against the police "imposing a ban" on playing of live music and dancing at pubs'.

Source: Times of India, 11 August 2008

See also: A Plain Truth, Churumuri, Life & Thoughts of Thomas. Bangalore is in the state of Karnataka, whihc is ruled by the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP. I liked this comment posted by Vinod, one of the protestors, to an article at Daijiworld: "Now, all you proponents of 'Indian Culture', tell me - can the definition of Indian culture be left to the cops? Can decisions which are so closely entwined with our personal life be left to the whims and fancies of politicians who can't do their basic jobs without having their palms greased, but deign to decide how we live our lives. So, are you ready to put your trust in a police state to preserve this mythical elephant called 'Indian culture?'". The law used by the authorities is here (see particularly section 31).

Friday, August 08, 2008

Powwow - the Dream Dance

An account of the Powwow ceremony- also known as the Dream Dance or Drum Dance - which spread amongst Native Americans from the 1870s. It apparently went into decline from the 1950s, although it is still performed today - the photographs are from a Shinnecock Nation powwow festival in 2004 .

The introduction of the Drum Dance was the work of a Sioux girl who, in 1876, whilst fleeing from the white soldiers who had killed all the other members of her band, concealed herself for about twenty hours in a lake. Eventually the spirits offered her help, and told her that she must teach a new dance to all the Indian tribes. The girl apparently went from tribe to tribe teaching the dance, enjoining Indians to put away the small drums they had used and to use larger ones, and to discontinue their war and pipe dances in favour of the new dance. Only the new large drum would be sufficient to keep away bad spirits. The dance appears to have spread to the Chippewa in the late 1870s, and from them to the Menomini. To the original story there was an accretion of various myths-of the girl acquiring invisibility and so escaping the soldiers, for example- but the more important aspects are the organization of the cult, the rituals and the ethical injunctions.

The central rituals of the Powwow consisted of both weekly and seasonal performances. The drum, which was invested with power from the spirits, was the central object of the cult. It was itself sacred, and was a symbol of the supernatural, much as the cross or the altar in Christianity. It was also a symbol of the world. In the rituals the beat of the drum, undertaken in unison by the principal officers of the cult, was all-pervasive. To this beat the dances were performed. The officers of the organization symbolized different spirit beings. One, usually the drum-owner, impersonated the Great Spirit; others the thunderbirds who were protective agents for the tribe; yet four more represented the spirits of the four cardinal points of the compass...
....The drum chief was responsible for selecting the other members of the organization, all of whom had important ritual functions- drumming, singing, dancing, offering sacrifices, attending to the dancing ground, and looking after the pipes which form so important a part of the sacrificial system. Women participated as helpers to the singers, and one, the drum woman, represented the Sioux woman to whom the cult had been first revealed.

The purpose of the rituals was to strengthen the ties between the members and the spirits. The normal weekly rite consisted of songs, most of which were sung four times. It is possible that the first songs which were sung were intended to discharge bad spirits, with later ones that expressed the joy of living, although this does not appear to have been formally established. Special handshake songs are included… The dancers danced as each song was sung, although over the years the dancing became less ecstatic and more of a formality. There were prayers and the drum chief usually preached, both on the ethical injunctions of the faith and on the original myth of the acquisition of the cult. The pipes were smoked by the officials as an offering to the spiriits, they symbolized a pipe of peace among mankind. Like the drums, the pipes were embellished with symbolic designs. The seasonal rites secured the the help of the spirits for the forthcoming season.
Gatherings on these occasions used to last several days, until the influence of the white man’s working week made such prolonged religious festivities difficult to organize. Food was also consecrated (invested with spirit power) and became part of the sacrificial offering in these rites, which also included private songs for the support of the male officials, each of whom danced while his song was being sung. The elaborate belts, decorated with feathers, were used by the men who represented the thunderbirds, and who danced to protect the weaker members of the community: others also danced with the belts, to acquire special protection. Special rites were undertaken to bring individuals who were in mouring back into the community of their fellows, and in the early days of the dance there were customs acquired from the Plains cultures, particularly the divorce songs, in which divorces were solemnized, and warrior songs-although these were somewhat inconsistent with the brotherly ethic of the Powpow… An important feature of the seasonal rituals was the presentation of gifts to people from other tribes who were present. This epitomized the central ethical ideals of the Powwow.

The ethical injunctions recounted as the instructions of the Great Spirit (or the spirits) to the Sioux woman emphasized a few simple propositions, which are remarkable when the warlike virtues of the Indian past are recalled. The dance was given for all Indians, and the drum was a manifestation of the Great Spirit's will to help his people, the Indian people. Indians were not to fight each other or cheat each other. They were not to be angry, nor to be jealous. They were to help each other in every way. The ethic was taught by exhortation and by formal didactic orations in the Powwow. The cult had no specific eschatology but inherited the general pantheon of Indian spirit beings, both good and evil, and accepted the need to make offerings to the good, and to placate the evil (although this last item became in­creasingly vestigial). The spirits themselves, as represented in the drum, were the fountain-head of help for all Indians in all their enterprises, including such common tasks as deer-hunting and berry-picking.

The Powwow and its dances superseded the older dances of the tribes in which it gained adherents. The war dance and the buffalo dance, for reasons which their very names suggest, were rarely performed by the early 1950s. The medicine dance still lingered on among the older people… In its early days, the Powwow cult was also known as the Dream Dance and this presumably related to the vision experience of the Sioux girl.
Source: Bryan Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (London: Heinemann, 1973).

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Old Folks Talkin'?

Is dance music over, yet again? There certainly seems to be a lot of online discussion to this effect.

Like many interesting music blogging memes, Simon Reynolds seems to have prompted this with a Blissblog post stating: "I don't believe in beats anymore" and suggesting that he was losing the "quasi-mystical faith in beats as somehow figurative: a belief that the tremors that each breakthrough by auteur-producer or scenius alike sent through the state of pop somehow correlated with or could be equated to tremors through society... After a good decade at full-tilt, that particular structure of affect and belief has faded away for me now, or for now (something could bring it back, possibly, but what that would be I can't even begin to imagine). Beats are just beats again: cool, funky, useful, invigorating, inventive."

At Pitchfork, Philip Sherburne has followed up with a fairly pessimistic assessment of the state of techno, mourning 'the atrophy of a particular sense of optimism, of possibility, that once seemed encoded in particular rhythmic structures and the ceaseless advancement of electronic music's shifting stylistics. Dance music is once again a lifestyle product, a soundtrack for entertainment'.

I think Simon at least is talking about the changing impact of beats on him, rather than making a general pronouncement on the state of electronic dance music. And personally I feel much same the way. It would be very easy to find objective reasons for this - maybe it was true that in the 1990s, dance music scenes (at least in the UK) did feel part of a wider shift in society. With the Criminal Justice Act we had specific laws against raves and mass demonstrations in central London against them. There was a beats-fuelled circuit of road protests, Reclaim the Streets parties and outlaw festivals like Castlemorton. On the other hand, maybe some of us expected too much of mere music which is why some of the more delerious and apocalyptic writing from that time feels quite dated (see some examples I've posted here from ***Collapse and Here & Now magazines).

But there's another dimension here, which involves taking on one of the great taboos of blogging. I am not talking about sex, politics or religion, all of which people seem happy to go on about regardless of how out there their views may be (nothing is occult anymore, in the sense of hidden). The final taboo is age. The internet allows us to create a disembodied virtual self where we can reveal what we think without ever having to reveal what we look like or how old we are. Partially this is a positive thing - we can make connections with people on the basis of a commonality of interest or enthusiasm without prejudging whether they are cool enough to hang out with us (or we with them).

The problem comes when people universalise from their own limited perpective. Let's face it, in terms of dance music anybody who was there in 1988 is going to be at least 36 now - assuming they were a pretty clued up 16 year old. Anybody whose history goes back a bit further to the post-punk period (like me) is going to be into their 40s. A lot of music blogging is done by people in this age bracket, partly because many of us have kids and don't have the time or perhaps the inclination to be going out every night any more.

I am not saying that makes us too old to dance (I am sure we will still have our arms in the air when they play Promised Land in the old folks home) or to have an opinion. But beats no longer have the same centrality in our lives. Our relation to new music is often via the internet rather than hearing tunes on a sound system, even if we are going out more the novelty of throbbing bass and watching the sunrise has certainly worn off. So we need to be careful about dismissing scenes just because they are not primarily our scenes anymore. For teenagers running round East Anglia in search of a free party the beats are still fresh and the summer of love is now, not twenty years ago.

Growing old gracefully means recognising that you are no longer 18 or even 28. If you are not going to be a sad old git (and if a male, a dirty old man) you have to reach a point where you can appreciate that there are young and beautiful people in the world without trying to sleep with them. Equally you have to be able to recognise that there are people dancing and making music without thinking that you are always the best person to judge what it means - sometimes it's better to pass on the torch than to piss on it.

"and we don't care about the young folks talkin' bout the young style
and we don't care about the old folks talkin' 'bout the old style too"

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Twelve dead in Mexican Disco Raid

"Mexico's government is under new pressure to tackle rampant police incompetence after a damning report by human rights investigators blamed police commanders for a fatal disco raid that killed 12 people. Mexico City's police chief, Joel Ortega, and top prosecutor Rodolfo Felix quit on Tuesday after human rights officials said police "brutality" led to nine youths and three officers being crushed to death during a June 20 raid on underage drinkers in a club in the capital. Video images of teenagers being squashed by a wall of police pressing in on the disco's small doorway have triggered furious protests and shone an embarrassing light on police ineptness just as Washington is sending $400 million to help Mexico's police and army battle drug gangs.

Mexico City's human rights ombudsman, Emilio Alvarez, said "concerted" police actions caused the tragedy and accused officials of chopping out bits of video evidence from the disco, which grieving relatives have turned into a shrine... video footage of police pushing on the crowd of moaning youths and then milling around and failing to administer first aid to victims writhing on the ground have dealt a blow to President Felipe Calderon's efforts to improve the image of the country's notoriously bungling cops...

"Police actions, decisions and the true objectives of the operation created a trap that cost lives," rights ombudsman Alvarez said of the disco crush. Some three dozen police have been charged over the deaths, along with the club's owner. Mexicans, who tend to be wary of police in general, were also shocked by the way officers mistreated some survivors, both male and female - taking them to detention centers where they were stripped naked and marked with numbers."

"On June 20, police officers surrounded the News Divine nightclub in a densely populated area of the capital, where some 500 young people - most of them teenagers - were enjoying themselves and drinking beer. The police blocked the exit in order to search those present, which provoked a surge of panic and a crush in which 12 people, three of them under 18, were suffocated to death. The police arrested several young people, all of whom were under-age, without warrants. They were beaten, made to strip and photographed as if for a criminal file. The police then covered up evidence of their actions.

... a report by the Mexico City Human Rights Commission accused the police and prosecution services... of being responsible for the News Divine tragedy, because the operation was badly planned, even more badly executed, and marred by abuse of authority. The Commission’s investigation found that the police were carrying out a crackdown on beer-drinking youngsters. It is illegal too sell alcohol to persons under 18 in Mexico, but many bar and nightclub owners ignore the law. On the afternoon in question, high school students were celebrating the end of the school year. The report said that the investigations into the matter were biased with intent to blame the owners of the disco for the tragedy. "

Sources: Reuters; Police in the Dock Over Disco Deaths (11 July 2008)

Dancing by The Docks

London's decline as a port city in the second half of the twentieth century also saw the end of a transnational nightlife near to the docks of East and South London, with clubs and dance-halls frequented by sailors on leave as well as the migrants from all corners of the globe who settled nearby. There is a fascinating account from 1872 (published in The Metropolitan) of one such dance hall near Ratcliff Highway in East London:

"Not far from Wellclose-square is a large tavern known by the Teutonic sign of the "Preussischer Adler," and into this palace of dazzling light our custodian led us... We could hear the strains of music and the rushing of many feet coming from the floor above, and turning to a staircase on our left, we prepared to ascend. But a placard posted at the foot of the steps attracts our attention, and we pause to read it - this is the substance in brief:- "All persons are requested, before entering the dancing saloon, to leave at the bar their pistols and knives, or any other weapon they may have about them." Fancy such a regulation being necessary in civilised London! At any rate, it was very reassuring to us, and with renewed confidence we mounted to the domains of Terpsichore.
It was a long room, with tables and seats aligning the walls, the centre being given up entirely to a crowd of dancers, who were waltzing to the by no means bad music of half-a-dozen German players, who piped away in a raised orchestra close by the stair-head. But what an assembly! There were French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch seamen; there were Greeks from the Aegean Sea; there were Malays, Lascars, and even the "heathen Chinese," disguised in European costume, with his pigtail rolled up under a navy cap. There were mariners in fezes and serge capotes; there were Mediterranean dandies, girt with broad crimson scarves, and with massive gold earrings glistening as they twirled about. No wonder it had been found necessary to collect the knives and pistols from the hot-blooded cosmopolitan crowd. A blow is soon given, and with weapons at hand, who can tell where a quarrel might end? Yet I must say that, while we were present, everything was conducted in the most orderly manner, though the animated impassioned talk in a dozen different languages led one to imagine that a breach of the peace was imminent at any moment.

The waltz, which all alike danced admirably, had something of the heroic about it. Each couple made three or four sharp turns, and then came to a pause with a smart stamp and heads thrown back defiantly. Catching the time to a nicety, they would repeat the movement; and when I mention that there were considerably more than a hundred dancers on the floor, the staccato effect of the stamp, coming almost simultaneously, may be imagined. Of the female portion of the assemblage, I need not say more than that they were, in nearly every instance, foreign, the German and Flemish nationality mostly predominating. Short "Dolly Vardens," scrupulously clean, embroidered petticoats, and neatly-fitting high-heeled Hungarian boots, was apparently the favourite costume. To come suddenly upon the "Preussicher Adler's dancing saloon" out of the crowded streets of the English metropolis has a most startling effect upon the casual visitor, who is unprepared for any thing of the kind. It is absolutely as though one had been transferred, magically, to a casino in the neighbourhood of the docks of Marseilles or Genoa, or to the halls of "Tutti Nazioni" (all nations) on the Marina of Messina.

Another account appears in Twice Round the London Clock by Stephen Graham, published in 1933, with a chapter entitled Dancing Sailors describing a visit to a North Woolwich dance hall: "The interior of California in North Woolwich is something like part of a ship...perhaps that is why an otherwise ordinary public house has become one of the gay spots in Dockland...The sailors ashore looks for something like a boat, and they are almost all sailors who dance there."

There is dancing to "the shabbiest piano, with its top partly removed to let out more noise, and then to a one-man jazz band of the kind that used to be the wonder of children in the streets" and "The barmaids are buxom, well-cared for and independent. Sailors treat them respectfully. But the dancing girls, in their smart stockings and shabby everything else would really be kept out of the public houses except that they bring more custom". However, not everyone is interested in dancing with women - "the men did not get off with the girls at all" but "danced together in the funniest burlesque style...when there is shore leave one may see hundreds of couples of sailors dancing together". The author blames this on jazz, which has "infected ships by way of radio and, as, except on passenger ships, there are no women the 'nancy boys' dance together."
Thanks to Greenwich Phantom for the Stephen Graham quotes and image - I must try and get hold of this book.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dance and Social Fantasy

The following extracts are taken from an article ‘Dance and Social Fantasy’ by the sociologist Angela McRobbie, published in the collection Gender and Generation, edited by McRobbie and Mica Nava (London: Macmillan, 1984). McRobbie has written a number of works about popular dancing and was groundbreaking in taking dancing seriously – a few years later, once academics had started taking ecstasy, they all seemed to be writing about it. I particular like her focus on what goes in people’s heads – the fantasy element - as much as on how their bodies are moving.

Her observations seem to be largely based on late 1970s/early 1980s discos and clubs in Birmingham and London, but much of what she says surely still holds true. The timing of this writing is significant though, as it demonstrates that some of the changes sometimes lazily attributed to some 1988 acid house/ecstasy year zero – such as the increasing participation of men in dancing as a pleasurable end in itself – were already being commented on several years beforehand.

For women and girls, dance has always offered a channel, albeit a limited one for bodily self-expression and control; it has also been a source of pleasure and sensuality. Even though it has often been directed towards men, the spectacle of women dancing has been linked unambiguously with female pleasure...

Dance’s status as a prime vehicle for sexual expression for women... is by no means a simple function of dance. Rather it carries a range of often contradictory strands within it. There is, on the one hand, the social pressures which direct little girls towards dance as a suitably feminine form of leisure. And dancing here is linked with being pretty, graceful, controlled and an object of admiration. But this conformist role does not deny the way dance carries enorm­ously pleasurable qualities for girls and women which frequently seem to suggest a displaced, shared and nebulous eroticism rather than a straightforwardly romantic, heavily heterosexual 'goal-­oriented' drive.

As a purveyor of fantasy, dance has also addressed areas of absolute privacy and personal intimacy, especially impor­tant for women and girls. And there is I think a case which can be made for forms of fantasy, daydreaming, and 'abandon' to be interpreted as part of a strategy of resistance or opposition; that is, as marking out one of those areas which cannot be totally colonised. Dance and music play an important role in these small daily evasions, partly because they are so strongly inscribed, in our culture, within the realms of feeling and emotion. They are associated with being temporarily out of control, or out of the reaches of controlling forces. Thus we have the experience of dance being linked, linguistically, with the onomatopoeia of the letter F: Saturday Night Fever, Fame, Flashdance - as though, with a quick slip of the tongue, to move rapidly to fever, frenzy, feeling.

Dance and fantasy

Dancing seems to retain at its centre a solid resistance to analysis. So deeply have we absorbed its rules and its rituals - the preparation, the mirror, the anticipation, and of course the dancing - that somehow we avoid subjecting all this to the scrutiny of analysis. Even the simplest of conventions have eluded sociological comment. One of the most obvious of these might be the way in which a girl or a woman going to a disco or dance alone is deviant. This does not hold true for men or boys. Where in general they may also go out dancing in groups, to go alone is in no way remarkable. But for girls it means a great deal more. It is a sign either of having no friends, or of being on the look-out and therefore morally out of line.

The second convention which marks out the different experience of dance for men and women lies in the strength of its attraction as a pleasurable activity. Up until very recently dance has been inextric­ably linked with femininity, which has made it either an ordeal or something faintly ridiculous for men to show more than a fleeting interest in. There are a whole string of literary, cinematic, and sociological accounts which offer ample evidence of this. These have shown how men have seen dance as an unfortunate pre-requisite to courtship. Mungham (1976), amongst others, has described how men at the dancehall he studied, would stumble clumsily from the bar towards the end of the evening to strike an often ungainly pose on the floor and to survey the mass of dancing girls.

Recently, as dance has become more popular among men, its connotations of cissiness, triviality or silliness are rapidly disappearing. Men can now demonstrate sophisticated dancing styles with expertise and pleasure without inviting criticism or disdain from their male peers. Black (Afro-Caribbean) culture has done much to bring about this change, with the massive increase in dance technology ('ghetto-blasters’ and walkmen, hi-fi’s and sound systems, 12" singles and pop videos) and dance music style (funk, rap, disco, soul, lovers rock, and pop), advertising its appeal and facilitating its spread. Most new dance styles have come out of black youth culture, with men tending to take up the most spectacular gymnastic and acrobatic variations. Leroy, one of the main charac­ters in Fame, exemplifies this exactly. He started off as a rough street boy who loved to dance. Then, in true Hollywood style, he gradually became the school hero, a kind of hip head boy who will always see justice and goodness prevail. In his dancing, however, he displays a combination of sexy masculinity with controlled half-­balletic, half-gymnastic movements.

There are a few other more general points which can be made about the conventions surrounding dance culture at the present moment. The most important of these is the way in which dance can no longer be reduced simply to the level of promising or providing sexual opportunity. For girls and women it has always been an absorbing and pleasurable activity in its own right. And often, despite the pressures of romance, girls have been content quite simply to dance. The most important shift has been that men are now beginning to participate in dance in a less sexually frantic way; they too have taken up its narcissistic, auto-erotic dimensions, and its features which are predicated more on patterns of friendship than on its possibilities for sex or romance.

But even if it does not have to lead to romance, dance still affords the opportunity for fantasy. Like the cinema, the dancehall or disco offers a darkened space where the dancer can retain some degree of anonymity or absorption. This in turn creates a temporary blotting-out of the self, a suspension of real, daylight consciousness and an aura of dream-like self-reflection. Where the cinema offers a one-way fantasy which is directed solely through the gaze of the spectator towards the screen, the fantasy of dancing is more social, more reciprocated. This is because it allows simultaneously a dramatic display of the self and the body, with an equally dramatic negation of the self and the body. This latter works through the whole structure of the dance-floor. The crowded mass of bodies, the insistent often trance· like disco rhythms and the possibility of being at once there and not there.

Dance evokes fantasy because it sets in motion a dual relationship projecting both internally towards the self and externally towards, the 'other'; which is to say that dance as a leisure activity connects desires for the self with those for somebody else. It articulates adolescence and girlhood with femininity and female sexuality and it does this by and through the body. This is especially important because it is the one pleasurable arena where women have some control and know what is going on in relation to physical sensuality and to their own bodies. Continually bombarded with images and with information about how they should be and how they should feel, dance offers an escape, a positive and vibrant sexual ex­pressiveness and a point of connection with the other pleasures of femininity like gelling dressed up or putting on make-up. But how exactly does fantasy function amidst the semi-darkened space, the mirrors, corners, music and alcohol?... (I should add that since my sources are predominately heterosexual these fantasy scenarios make no claim to represent gay or lesbian experience).

The first is possibly the most obvious and relates to the absence or presence of the object of desire. The presence is awaited, antici­pated, and then acted upon through the use of mirrors, the positioning of the body within his gaze. This allows the dancer to have one partner in fact and another in fantasy. His absence too can generate fantasy-structures based round loss, around what might have been, and of course around a possible future presence, and thus with what it might still be like. Equally, concrete loss of this object of desire can precipitate the fantasy around suffering and pain so familiar in the pages of Jackie. To see him disappear with somebody else! To catch him in an embrace with someone else! To be left alone, to dissolve in tears! And then slowly to plan - to get him back, to find somebody else, to play hard to get, or simply to wait!

It is in terms of these small theatrical tableaux that so much of women’s culture can be made sense of. The last dance, the waltz, dance as memory, dance as sexual expression. Like all fantasies, dance signifies in these contexts as something to be lingered on, referred back to repetitively and imagined as future pleasure. This means remembering precisely minute details or dress and appearance, another seemingly trivial, but nevertheless stubborn and recurrent feature of women's experience. Dance and the excite­ment of going out dancing, retains a special place in the female memory for the very reason of its dispersed, fluid and often ambiguous pleasure.

This is particularly the case for working-class women for whom getting married, settling down and having children marks such a decisive break in their patterns of leisure. Many of the young working-class mothers interviewed by Dorothy Hobson recalled with nostalgia and more than just a hint of regret the days when they were able to go out dancing whenever they felt like it (Hobson, 1978). What they said had a particular poignancy because as married women their desire to go out occasionally to a disco was inevitably destined to be misconstrued by their husbands as a desire to go out on the town with the idea of picking someone up. Neither did the husbands welcome the notion of their wives being the object of other men's gaze.

From getting down to getting home

While the private aspects of dance, the self absorption and the fantasy might have a special place in the rituals of dance culture, it would be quite wrong to pay less than equal attention to its more explicitly social dimensions. And the observations I offer here focus on precisely those more material and concrete actions which characterise dance. Generally I am restricting these comments so that they refer, not to all kinds of discos, but rather to two fairly typical 'scenes'. These are 'respectable' city discos frequented by young single people usually under twenty-five-years-old and for whom Saturday night dancing, though extremely pleasurable in its own right, is still nevertheless a stop-gap between youth and settling down. My other area of interest is what could be described as the subcultural alternative. Here I argue that what this 'scene' offers is a suspension of categories, there is not such a rigid demarcation along age, class, ethnic terms. Gender is blurred and sexual preference less homogenously heterosexual, but I'll expand on this later.

There are a number of features which recurred so frequently during the time I was researching these mainstream discos that they seem worthy of comment. The first of these hinged around the problem of how to combine the enjoyment of dancing with the real prospect of romance, and two features here seemed to take on a special significance. These were the maintenance of some notion of 'respectability', and the minimising of the danger of sexual violence. Each of these were grounded in a real fear of assault by a stranger (i.e. a dance partner) on the way home from the disco and this fear resulted in a set of codes relating to 'getting home'. Basically this meant not accepting the offer of being 'seen home' by someone unknown, no matter how 'juicy' he was. In the discos I visited it was customary instead to suggest a mid-week date as though to prove his 'real' rather than fleeting interest. This was a practice adhered to by the majority of girls attending city discos regularly. To ignore this code or to break the rules not only put oneself at risk but also the other girl or best friend who would have to find her way home herself. This was seen as a kind of betrayal of trust and could result in the end of a friendship. Indeed, the city late at night, and the lonely suburban streets held great fears for these respectable girls and also for their parents who would frequently give them the taxi fare home rather than have them walk the streets. Even then the evening frequently ended with one girl 'stopping over' with her friends. In every way this meant that a Saturday night's dancing was more expensive and more perilous than it was for their male peers. And whilst in one sense their mothers' advice about taking care and not accepting a lift home in a strange young man's car is an excellent example of feminine good-sense, often its other side was offered implicitly as a solution and was actively advocated as such by the mother. This was simply to find a reliable steady boyfriend whose company would make unnecessary these costly and time-consuming practices. And such a partnership would also mark the end of dangerous jaunts into the city centre dancehalls. But these mothers too regretted the loss of their own dancing days, and so their advice was also tinged with sadness, and offered, if not reluctantly, with some cynicism.

Still, if in contrast to the fun and excitement of the earlier part of the evening, these difficulties seemed more like a headache, they certainly were not sufficient to keep anybody at home. Apart from the dancing itself, these straighter, more ‘respectable' discos provided a forum for a number of other games and rituals. Many of these were played by the girls at the expense of the boys. First they would set out to chat up a couple of lads and get them to buy, or 'con' them into buying, a round of drinks, then disappear rapidly with the gin and tonics, into the ladies. Some minutes later they would slink off in the opposite direction. The next strategy was a little more demanding. Here two friends would pretend that they were French and working as au pairs in Birmingham to improve their English. This allowed them the pleasure of masquerade; their temporary identities as French or Spanish returned them to the narratives of schoolgirl fiction where the 'Mam'zelle' was allowed to be extravagant and extrovert in all kinds of ways. These games also entertained a fantasy of travel and a desire for something else, somewhere else. And following this it is not surprising that the other favoured fantasy was to pretend to be either a model or an actress, or to be terribly 'posh', living in a large house in Sutton Coldfield with horses and a swimming pool.

In subcultural, or more specifically, punk discos, the rules were quite different. Ideas of being cool and of being seen 'posing' were internalised to the point of becoming automatic response. Yet strangely this was balanced out by the girls in fact being allowed to act much more extravagantly without being penalised. Thus where respectable girls fearful of losing their reputation or of losing their way home would restrict their alcohol to a couple of drinks early in the evening, punk girls would frequently go out with the objective of 'getting smashed'. In every way they were more fearless than their straighter peers. Less time would be spent here on traditionally 'chatting up' boys and more emphasis was placed on dancing, drinking or simply hanging around talking. Frequently there would be, in discos like these, large groups of people who all knew each other. This minimised the problem of getting home, and anyway having chosen to take up a subcultural identity implicitly meant also being deviant enough to gladly wander through the streets at all hours, drunk or sober, in groups or in pairs; as though to be punk was to refuse to be intimidated into submissive femininity. This did not make dancing unromantic or lacking in fantasy. It is more that the nature of fantasy was displaced into all those precious gestures of sub-cultural lifestyle: into style (wearing the right clothes at the right moment); into the pleasure of being illicit or deviant, or at least of entertaining this self-image; into dancing in the right way to the right kind of music.

Punk, new wave or 'alternative' clubs do not preclude the idea of romance. It could even be argued that the 'alternative' dance circuits are more romantic, certainly more utopian, than their more respectable equivalents. This stems from the core desire at the heart of the subcultural discourse, that it will not stop. It may get boring but nonetheless the choice has been made and the associated lifestyle has become rooted. It is not that subcultures seek to prolong adolescence or singleness but rather that they seek to overturn the relations marking out singleness as a short period of excitement before real life, hard work and settling down sets in. Which is to say that what a subculture like punk expresses is a breaking with such normative definitions and expectations altogether. This has a definite effect on the aura of the 'alternative' or punk disco. It takes out all the edge, the slightly desperate quality which Mungham (1976) describes in his study. Gender in his Mecca halls is tantamount, where in The Tincan, The Duma, The Hacienda, The Camden Palace, or wherever, it is either parodied through perversity, taking up the earlier shock effects of punk and parading them (as in leather-night at The Batcave or The Mudd Club), or else it is simply subordinated to the music. One way or another it is nothing to get frantic about - class, race, and sexual preference are all at once there but not there. Punk might be risky. it might represent a stepping out of line, but on the dance floor and on the road home it inoculates the girls both against some danger by giving them a sense of confidence, and against the excesses of sexual discrimination by giving them a lifestyle which adamantly refuses the strictures of traditional femininity.

Photo from The Batcave (early London goth club in Meard Street, Soho, opened 1982)