Thoughts from the Pettah Interchange
Promise, it moves in strange ways.
In a rare interview, David Sumner and Karl O’Connor of Sandwell District, the seminal transatlantic techno collective, recall (with unusual candour) the thrilling electricity that simmered at the height of New York’s early-90s dance music underground. Sumner documents the subsequent death of the intimate venues in the city, partly due to a Giuliani-lead crackdown of its night-time underbelly, whilst punters inevitably got older and caught up in life. He goes on to highlight a parallel phenomenon across the Atlantic, which played an even bigger role in shaping the future of electronic dance music—the collapse of the Berlin Wall—and with it, the rise of Tresor, Basic Channel and the Detroit Connection: a fresh blueprint for the future of electronic music.
‘Promise’, it seemed, moved like a sine wave through time, across continents and across seas, connecting cities.
Okay, let’s track back a little: Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, is no New York or Berlin, or marginally comparable to those cosmic cities in musical scale or breadth. But if Faulkner taught us anything, the promise captured within ‘the locale’ is best measured by not its scale or breadth, but the relative impact created within its boundaries. In the last three years, Sri Lanka, and Colombo to somewhat lesser extent, has undergone a resurgence of sorts, the barriers of both the nation and the capital coming in to terms with their flawed un-necessity. For this reason alone (and a few more), ‘Pettah Interchange’, the culmination of a two-week long ‘jam session’ of a group of global musicians was a landmark event of sorts, at a symbolic venue of equal significance.
The ‘jam session’ was in fact Sound Camp 2012, an yearly collaboration between German electronic musicians and their South Asian counterparts, organized under the Border Movement of Germany’s Goethe Institute and held this year in the tropical seclusion of Sri Lanka’s Ruskin Island (off Bolgoda Lake). The symbolic connection of Pettah Interchange was it could reignite the spark between an ignored heart of the city and its people. During a war-time 2009, I remember visiting the Gafoor Building, an old iconic structure alongside the Colombo port, after a lengthy process of gaining Defense Ministry clearance (building was deep within a High Security Zone)—its ambiance bleak, walls time-tested (yet standing) and roof trusses squeaking like a flock of bats out of hell: Not your ideal venue to host a gathering of international musicians.
This rain-soaked Saturday night however, the Gafoor had been transformed in to Colombo’s Berghain—not quite—but perhaps the closest we have come to replicating Big Room Atmosphere, with its half-naked basement spaces lit-radiant, morphing the whole backdrop into a Panorama Bar-blue haze; A steel gargantuan with a high archaic roof: a stark and (unapologetically) industrial setting for the music, and the cavernous space the music-makers craved for.
‘Makers’ here was an apt distinction: The Sound Camp artists were about to perform their own music in a live setting. And the performers were of high pedigree: Stuttgart’s Michel Baumann (popularly known as Soulphiction or Jackmate), a diverse house-music veteran hailing from the golden era of Perlon and Playhouse (two pioneering German record labels) playing anchor, to a ship which included Bangalore’s Kini Rao and Yashas Shetty, Delhi’s Ish and Gaurav Malaka, Pondicherry’s Max Turner, Dhaka’s Rahul Ananda and Colombo’s Asvajit Boyle. Berlin’s Jahcoozi, Khan of Finland, Raumagent Alpha & Gebrüder Teichmann, one of the masterminds and curators behind Sound Camp, completed the line-up. It was a far cry from the hodgepodge of ideas and decade-too-late artists who headlined the recent dance music affairs of the city.
Colombo’s sole torch bearer, Asvajit, has been a step-ahead of his Lankan counterparts, his cutting-edge sound design straddling a tense rope between rubbery microhouse and atmospheric techno. Before the gig, Asvajit spoke about the interesting time in Ruskin Island, and the parallel effort that went in to successfully pulling out the event, especially in the Sri Lankan context. He was more than genuinely excited about his vinyl debut, soon to be pressed on a critically-acclaimed German record label—looking back 5 years from now, perhaps a pivotal moment in the country’s electronic music history.
The event started with somewhat subdued tone, with an ambient drone session by Raumagent Alpha and Yashas. It slowly gathered momentum with a hiphop dj set by Smax, followed by perfectly-timed live collaborations between merging groups of artists. By the time the Tea Collective Upbeat and Analog Jam of Teichmann, Jackmate, Raumagent and Asvajit took the stage, the amount of live gear on deck would have made Magic Mountain High turn blue. Post-midnight hours brought the bass assault of Jahcoozi, lead by Sasha Perera‘s live-from-the-bomb-shelter stage presence (which would make Rick Ross envious). An hour later, the graveyard performers, Asvajit and Blot!, had the burners turned on to 101: their reined in studio material morphing in to a brutal peak-time blaze. It was the horseback ride to the build-up before: time to get your head down, and go with it.
From an oddly personal point-of-view, it’s hard to capture the promise of this event without sidestepping towards a personal anecdote: Once upon a time, on a freezing, August-2008 Wednesday morning, Robert Babicz was carving holes in the walls of a crowded little Melbourne venue. There, I was fortunate to bump in to one of the city’s techno pioneers, Christian Vance. Given the hazy state that I was in, Christian was kind enough to engage me on Sri Lanka’s electronic music scene. Drunk by the disillusion of the state of affairs, my answer to him was not exactly full of promise—It was the “7 year theory” (which coincidentally was the theory of 2 Pac’s ultimate resurrection, sadly proven untrue)—I felt a timeline of at least “7 years” was needed for the momentum to kick in (while my overzealous friend argued that we could host Christian within a mere “3”). “Time, man… It takes time,” Christian concluded, the tone of his voice measured, a tinge of his own industry-frustrations ringing in it. I simply nodded my head in defeat.
It seems we were both wrong: A small army of promising young Sri Lankans, forward-thinking Germans and subcontinental neighbors have beaten the Curve at its own game. This exponential progression of the local circuit, especially the rise of the game-changing BangBang crew, is captured with vivid but thoughtful restraint by Dr Tetsu at the Border Movement website: ‘The Rise of Electronic Music in Colombo’ is a perfect primer for those uninitiated to the Lankan landscape.
Genuine excitement is something hard to beat. As much as it’s important not to get carried away, it’s also hard not to get lost in the detail—The future of the country’s bubbling electronic music circuit will depend on a few crucial factors: There’s nothing as tragic as the disintegration of promise, to overwrought expectations, to larger commercial interests, to cocooned complacency and to style over the substance, the music. Equally damaging is a certain ‘scene’ exclusivity, inadvertently preventing outsiders from coming through. There may have been few of these creeping signs present that night: the crowd, however warm and diverse, was predominated by a close circle. Similarly crucial will be providing better access to music education, affordable equipment and more imaginative events, with a focus on nurturing young talent, perhaps the next Asvajits. We may have already found few answers in Geve and Sunara, the latter’s dj work showcasing an off-kilter ear for beats and feel for rhythm.
Even more important for the local, is the value of the global—or the music itself, which will offer our generation (and the next) most of the answers, if we have the zeal to look for them. It is the often overlooked piece of the puzzle, but central to solving it: that certain deepening of knowledge along the historic canon of percussion-based music. At a time when the popular fervour for dance music is not guided in the right direction, exposure to the history of timeless music will be essential: From Detroit Techno to Chicago House, from Jamaican Dub to Kraftwerk, from Jeff Mills to Steve Reich, the can(n)on indubitably becomes wider (and more diverse) the deeper you dig. As it stands, cutting-edge equipment and vinyl is mighty expensive to purchase and incredibly painstaking to clear at Customs. However, blogs, bootlegs and soundcloud do not need clearance. Not yet, anyway.
True to this spirit, as friends and lovers from across continents and across seas came together that night, the flag over the Gafoor Building (I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of, albeit in my hazy state) read as follows:
“Open up the borders, let the drums reign.”
And they did.