Turning the tables
Dutch dJs rule the dance music. but back in holland, an even more vibrant underground scene is pioneering a whole new sound.
IF at some point this summer you danced in a field surrounded by people in UV paint pointing ecstatically at screensaver visuals, chances are the DJ on stage was Dutch. Tiesto, Afrojack, Hardwell, Armin van Buuren – these DJs and producers are the backbone of the global EDM industry, commanding crowds of thousands by blending the twinkling trance they pioneered a decade ago with the thrilling asymmetry of dubstep.
Away from this fluorescent kitsch, however, lurks an underground Dutch scene that is even stronger than ever, with as many as eight dance music festivals in a single weekend in Amsterdam. The one I visit is Dekmantel, held in a giant woodland clearing on the city’s border, and there’s a bold shaft of daylight between the music being played here (subtle shifts of mood, a strong narrative thread pumping through it) and Tiesto’s blandly utopian oeuvre of predictable builds and drops.
Tom Trago’s afternoon disco set is floozily fabulous, the Amsterdam native chucking on crowdpleasers such as Evelyn “Champagne” King while wearing a child’s party hat on his bald head. Less than eight hours previously he had been behind the decks of Trouw, a club at the heart of the scene (Amsterdam’s mayor spun the first record at its recent reopening).
“There’s a tsunami of new people coming up,” he says excitedly after he comes offstage. “There’s a positive development going on in young kids, and their consciousness about what is good or not. Kids are punky – at 17, 18, 19, they say no, I’m not going to just do what this other guy is doing.”
His Voyage Direct series of releases champions this new generation, featuring local producers such as Awanto 3, Maxi Mill and Dexter who make melodic, probing house music.
These, as well as his own tracks – including the ones on new album The Light Fantastic – show the treering growth outward from the core of Chicago house and Detroit techno that arrived at Amsterdam clubs such as The Roxy in the early 1990s.
“Back then, it was much more like a typical harbour,” says another local producer, San Proper.
“People had the information, but they didn’t really own it.” In other words, they aped the imports of the American and British scenes, with labels such as Bunker and Outland driving the first wave of Dutch underground dance.
“Maybe the 909s were really cheap,” wonders Trago as to its popularity. “The ecstasy was good too. But that was all before we were born, of course!” he laughs.
The arrival of Rush Hour, a label, shop and party promoter team, cohered the scene further.
“House, Detroit techno, disco – we really got into that as a result of Rush Hour,” says Thomas Martojo, one of the three founders of Dekmantel, which has grown from club nights for 100 friends to fes- tivals for thousands, plus a record label of their own. “Rush Hour has a massive influence on the people who are buying records.”
It was also important for Juju and Jordash, the Israeli duo Gal Aner and Jordan Czamanski, who make jazz-inflected techno and moved to Amsterdam seven years ago.
“It definitely played a role,” says Czamanski. “All the parties when we moved here were Rush Hour stuff.”
The city seemed impossibly fertile for the pair, coming from techno-starved Tel Aviv and Haifa where, as Aner drily notes in a nod to his partner, “Jordan was the scene”.
“Amsterdam is the complete opposite of Tel Aviv – life doesn’t necessarily mean struggle here,” continues Czamanski.
“Tel Aviv is a happening city, but politically it’s very tense and stressful. There were one or two clubs that brought DJs we were into, and that was every few months, unless it was cancelled because there was a bomb on a bus. And then moving to a place like Amsterdam where every week there was something different going on, it influenced our music.”
The difference between now and the past is that, as San Proper says, “there’s an identity to it now – people are claiming something. People are saying there is a Dutch sound. Me, I can’t distinguish it at all.”
“There is no Dutch sound!” Trago explodes in agreement. “There’s too much sh** going on to give one identity to it.”
Their working methods are varied too – whereas Trago primarily uses one piece of equipment, the Akai MPC2000XL sampler and drum machine, Juju and Jordash use analogue synths and jam for 40 minutes at a time to generate a single idea. When performing live, they frequently improvise.
Falling between the two are Legowelt and Xosar, lovers and collaborators who each work on their own cosmic takes on house. Where Xosar (US expat Sheela Rahman) mostly uses Korg’s Electribe unit to make tracks, Legowelt (The Hague resident Danny Wolfers) has a love affair with vintage synths that has got massively out of hand.
“It’s disgusting, it’s perverse – he’s addicted to synthesisers like a crackhead,” says Rahman. “They’re oozing out of closets – any drawer you open up you find drum machines.”
“The kitchen and the bathroom, those are the only rooms that don’t have synthesisers in,” admits Wolfers.
“In our house we can make music anywhere we want – I can attach a synthesiser in the garden.”
Their tracks are transcendent pilgrimages through electronic sound, “trying to subliminally relay the message of our intention to help humanity raise its consciousness levels,” as Rahman says. “For advancement of the human population, (to remind them) to not be pedestrian,” continues Wolfers. “And to just be freaky.”
For them, too, this is a scene that is absolutely not nationalistic, thanks to the global village online.
“It’s cyberpunk, information overload, but we can pick the good things out of it,” says Wolfers of the new dance pluralism.
“In the 1990s in The Hague you had the scene around (producer and DJ) I-F: raw electro and raw acid that went into techno, and it was very, very local. Even Utrecht had their own house scene. But nowadays it’s international.”
Rahman chimes in: “When I was living in Los Angeles, it was more to do with a scene as opposed to the actual music, that jugular feeling of energy and power. But there’s a lot more emphasis placed on those feelings here.” Looking out on the crowd at Dekmantel, identical in ponchos and cutting shapes through the dry ice and rain, you can see what she means. – Guardian News & Media
Deeper underground: dutch deejay/producer Tom Trago reckons that despite the global success of Tiesto, afrojack, hardwell and armin van buuren, there is too much music going on in the dutch dance scene to merely give one identity to it.
Jazz musicians Gal aner (right) and Jordan czamanski met in their native Israel, bonding over a mutual fascination with underground house and techno, and eventually moved to amsterdam to pursue their nocturnal hobby in earnest.