Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Red Light Reverie

Sam Baker

Sam Baker asks if the electro swing can play a similar role in combatting toxic politics as the original sound.

As we envelop ourselves in the re-creation of a genre long thought dead, reviving fashions, songs, and slang, it’s brutally important that we do not ignore the deeper meanings and the historical parallels, as well as the differences between our world and those of ages past.

Swing has meant many things to many people throughout it’s century-old history. To many Americans, it represented the opulence of the Twenties, and later an escape from the desolation of the Thirties. For blacks in Harlem, it meant a means to own their own personage in an era where most minorities were kept from owning land and exercising their right to vote. In Europe, it was a cultural travel-agent, allowing people to leave their homes and scoot across the Atlantic and the English Channel by means of the short-wave radio and innumerable local dance halls. Even the Nazis couldn’t quell the thirst for swing’s syncopated rhythms and blasting brass.

The music known today as electro swing is often very much apart in terms of performance from the genre we celebrate. Today it is mostly DJ/Producer-centric, albeit with a handful of stellar live bands and live-electronic hybrids; however, the early days of swing and jazz in general were a free-for-all of wild improvisation and musical conversation. What it’s lost in spontaneity though, it has made up for in community forged through means never before imaginable. Early swing made a world tour by way of the radio, and to this day has continued to step in time with the forefront of technology.

Swing bands, once eschewing even amplification, have now taken up the mantle of electronic bass and digital performance. DJs freely meld together sounds from the early years of jazz and swing with sounds so forward they sound as if they’re from a future which has yet to come. And somewhere in this tug and pull of yearning for the past whilst reaching for tomorrow, something is cooking the likes of which haven’t been seen since the hot houses of New Orleans’ Red Light District on the eve of the Great War and the birth of the modern era.

Swing is distinctly American, and yet it is not. The rhythm and the melodies came largely from traditions rooted deeply in Africa, fuelled by Hindu cannabis spread by the Spanish, and nurtured at the breast of a largely French city before steam boating up the Mississippi and out through the arteries of a nation still searching for it’s voice and identity. Today, we see and hear the results of it’s curation to and by the rest of the world and the results have been astounding.

Unlike many other popular musical movements, such as hardcore rock and mainstream EDM, the progenitors of electro-swing and neo-vintage connect across borders and disparate cultures, almost instinctively. This reminds us all of the fact that we are global citizens first, and national citizens second.

In the era of European fascism, swing was a bridge between increasingly separated worlds. Men like Günter Discher risked life and limb to collect and share the sounds and styles of swing, eventually spending three years in a concentration camp for his brazen defiance of the Nazi’s cultural control.

Swing wasn’t outright banned, but was controlled and scrutinised, it’s patronage punished. It was “nigger-kyke” music in the eyes of the Nazis so those who enjoyed and proliferated it were identified as enemies of the state, routinely being beaten, arrested, and thrown in concentration camps.

Now, we face a wave of democratic nationalism which threatens to undo more than a half century of multicultural integration and democratic advancement. As people seeking power aim to split people across ethnic divides, it’s all the more important to highlight what we share with our fellow humans.

We are not, as many people like to claim, at the gates of fascism. Fascism took hold as a reaction to a very real threat of communism, in an age where Bolshevists had just violently stripped entire classes of people of their land, wealth, and titles and in which Communists clashed with authorities in the streets of Germany using guns and grenades. Hitler, for example, was able to play off these fears and invoke Article 48, allowing for suspension of democratic rule in the face of a state crisis.

Things may seem grossly divided, but we aren’t embroiled in the often-fatal political violence of the 30’s. We are; however, seeing a rise of ethnic nationalism which threatens to undermine and unravel the European Union, as well as the relative peace enjoyed in America. The far reach of this is hard to predict, but it would certainly lead to less stable markets and more polarised populations. Unlike the fascists, the modern nationalists seek power through democracy, as opposed to trying to unseat it. It’s a crucial difference and important to avoid alarming sensationalism which only further divides us. This still doesn’t bode well for free and prosperous societies, as even those nationalist surges which do well by economic indicators leave behind those they characterised as out-groups to scapegoat in the pursuit of power.

So here we are, swinging into the future with our hearts in the past. As we, strap on our suspenders, don our stetson hats, and groove to house beats beneath the swing-era hits, let’s remember where we come from and keep close to heart where we can grow from here. As the swingjugend of Germany did, we must strive to highlight what we share in common, and express ourselves through voice of art and dance, transcending class, creed, and borders. Those who seek to divide us don’t stand a chance if we continue to come together over what we love — building bridges instead of walls.

— I would like to thanks Benjamin Studebaker, longtime friend and current PhD candidate at Cambridge, for taking the time to discuss the histories of fascism and nationalism in modern times.—

Monday, 5 December 2016

All Aboard the South London Soul Train

Jack went to the South London Soul Train to catch the Dutty Moonshine Big Band live in concert

It Is a pretty cool time in the UK vintage remix scene right now. With the release of the new Captain Flatcap album just over a week ago, any concern that the scene might be turning in on itself that I may have had started to dissipate. Add to that the imminent prospect of new music from Electric Swing Circus and reports from the festival scene that Jenova Collective are going from strength to strength, plus the arrival on the scene of Tuxedo Junction, and things are starting to look really interesting.

If ever there was an act that I felt could potentially develop a following outside the vintage remix scene it is the Dutty Moonshine Big Band. Having played sets on some pretty massive festival stages (Glastonbury’s Shangri-La and Boomtown’s Town Centre), they have had the sort of exposure that they’d need. But perhaps more importantly their music is varied enough to create an hour-long set that feels at one and the same time part of a unified concept but with enough variety that it doesn’t get repetitive.

I had the chance to put this theory to the test this weekend past as I headed along to the South London Soul Train at the CLF Art Café in Peckham. As you might guess from the night’s name, this ain’t no vintage remix night. Now, Dutty Moonshine might not be the easiest thing to come to terms with if you’re not familiar with them, so I was interested to find out what the crowd would make of them.

As I often do when I’m attending a gig for journalism reasons, I went by myself.  This is a great way to ensure that a) I don’t get too hammered, meaning I don’t have to make up half of the review, and b) it forces me to talk to other people at the gig, which helps to get an impression of what people make of it.

I’d been to the Art Café before for a Correspondents gig a few years ago. It really is one of the coolest venues in town. Set over three floors, it is a far cry from the trendy clubs in Shoreditch that often host Vintage Remix nights – no snazzy sofas, no quirky light fittings, no overpriced cocktails. The concept is simple: put a stage and a bar in, and let the people dance. The bare concrete of the stairwells helps to create an underground-y vibe. Furthermore, it is conveniently close to my house, so that’s a big tick.

The next thing to say is that the crowd is undeniably cool and sexy. I lost count of the number of times I had to double-take as some vision of loveliness sashayed past en route to bar or dance floor. The style is very relaxed: unlike many vintage remix nights, I was the only person in the place wearing a trilby, so far as I could tell. What’s more, everyone was super-friendly, being more than happy to chat to me. Of all the people I spoke to, maybe six or seven in total, not one had heard of the Dutties before, and no one was there specifically to see them.

Read Syed's interview and post about Dutty Moonshine

When the band came on stage shortly after midnight they got a warm reception, and if there were any doubters, once they’d played their first couple of numbers the doubts were banished and the dance floor was jumping. There’s no doubt in my mind that if you really want to make a vintage remix night pop you need MCs, and in HypeMan Sage Dutty Moonshine have one of the finest. His delivery and presence on stage are fantastic, as is his appreciation for the original sound. Tracks like ‘Caravan’, ‘Bonklet’ (for which Captain Flatcap stepped out from behind the decks, where he was deputising for Dutty Moonshine’s regular disc-botherer, and gave his flute a tootle) and ‘SuperSharpSwinger’ were definite favourites with the crowd. My personal favourite Dutty track, “Yeah, Yeah” was received with similar enthusiasm. By the end, the chant of ‘one more song’ shook the floorboards, and for an encore the gang delighted the crowd with a Game Of Thrones / Mary Poppins medley that was weirdly heavy and amusing at the same time.

Once the set was over I hung around for a short while. If you’re a vintage remix fan and you’re in London but can’t find a specific vintage remix event, the South London Soul Train is as good an option as anything. It has a certain griminess to it that’s very appealing, and if you like old tunes in modern contexts like I do you’re laughing. It’s a welcoming, fun crowd, the drinks aren’t stupidly expensive, and getting home (at least, if you live where I do) is easy. The atmosphere is similar to one found at a vintage remix night – no aggro, no posing, just people dancing and having fun together. The next Soul Train pulls in on 17th December with a James Brown special… I’ll be there with (Crimbo) bells on.