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