This year, Berlin’s CTM Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary with a truly diverse lineup of innovative club and experimental music. FACT’s John Twells endured the entire 10-day marathon and witnessed a seismic shift in the global dance continuum.
I first visited Germany in 2002 and had little travel experience. I was embarking on a short-lived career as a low-level IDM producer and had been invited to spend a couple of weeks on tour, performing alongside artists I idolized. When I arrived in Berlin it was icy cold and vast, pocked by characters who would dip in and out of my field of vision for the next couple of decades, but I was uncomfortable. Maybe it was the notorious British aversion to German humor, but I felt lonely, distant and isolated. At the time, it felt as if Germany, not touring, was to blame for my crippling anxiety.
In the following months and years, I found myself in Berlin frequently and never warmed to its charms. As friends settled in the city, I kept it at arm’s length, troubled by its avoidant level of comfort. The self-flagellating bleakness of Birmingham or, later, Manchester felt more familiar and when I relocated to the USA, Berlin’s UV strobes dimmed further; I had the perfect excuse to detach. I haven’t been back to the city in years.
Setting foot in Berlin in 2019 feels like interacting with San Francisco a decade ago as the tech symbiote dug in its tendrils, choking out humanity’s sensual chaos. Berlin has its own booming tech sector now, accompanied by all the slick, American-global fast-casual culture we’ve come to recognize, expect and patronize. If you want a poke bowl to accompany your nitro cold brew and sourdough toast, you’re in luck – Berlin has everything the twentysomething e-worker needs to momentarily slake their thirst for easy-access, just-authentic-enough experiences. But this is an observation, not judgement. The city is neither particularly good or particularly bad, and that’s a problem: Berlin now exists in a numb state of permanent adequacy.
Three million clubbers visited the city last year, spending a jaw-dropping €1.5 billion, and the big draw is that Berlin’s club scene is so deeply embedded into the city’s DNA that it feels somewhat dangerous, albeit in a controled, conservative way. Back in Boston, where I live most of the year, venues are forced to close at 2am, prompting an off-grid after-hours party scene that’s always vulnerable to law enforcement. In Berlin, you can technically rave as long as you want to, but make sure you dress right, make sure you have the right friends and make sure you’re on the right drugs: you might not be worthy of partying with the European techno aristocracy.
CTM festival turns 20 this year and, fittingly for me, its theme is “persistence”. The annual expo started in 1999 – the year I graduated high school and began to consider a life in music – and runs for 10 days, with concerts, panels, workshops, club nights and art installations spread across some of the city’s best venues. Maintaining an experimental music festival for two decades is an achievement in itself and studying the lineup from that first year, the festival’s outlook has evolved drastically.
In 2016, CTM presented a program entitled “New Geographies”, charting a course that would take the organization into fresh territory. “New Geographies examined today is rapidly collapsing borders and emerging new hybrid topographies,” explains the festival’s website, “and aims to provide the tools needed to approach the complexities of a polycentric, polychromatic, and increasingly hybrid (music) world with greater openness.” This wasn’t just a performative gesture: the festival’s programming has been noticeably different since 2016. This year, CTM presented its most ambitious and wide-reaching program to date, showcasing a broad, challenging selection of collectives and artists that stand in opposition to targeted political violence across the world, and a growing throng of musicians who represent a wave of innovative, explorative experimental and club music from the Global South.
When I arrived at Berghain for opening night, the mood in the club was predictably intense. A flexing, masculine dancefloor dripped with sweat while Machine Woman, Buttechno, Temp-Illusion and Anastasia Kristensen performed alongside Bassiani residents, filling the room with deafening percussion. But the mood was flattened by the crowd’s emotional disengagement. Upstairs at Panorama Bar, meanwhile, my heart began to flutter.
Norwegian DJ SVANI provided early entertainment with a fusion of romantic R&B, pop edits and snippets of reggaeton and mainstream rap, but the night belonged to Chinese club producer RUI HO, who upset the mass of Northern Electronics T-shirt models with a riotous set that connected gabber, fast trance, Southern rap, global pop, noise, jungle and hard techno. A handful of dedicated ravers danced themselves into anti-aesthetic bliss, but as the chosen few moved at 190bpm, it was impossible not to notice the minimal techno dads ‘n lads looking on in disgust. By the time Qween Beat’s quest?onmarc took to the decks and dancers dwindled further, I wondered whether Berlin’s dusty cobwebs had become a permanent fixture.
The next evening, the party moved to Griessmuehle, a grubby, druggy space that feels like a cross between a basement and a summer camp. Sarah Farina’s Through My Speakers crew handled the main room, presenting members LeFeu, Qumasiquamé, Walter Vinyl and Farina herself alongside Kenya’s Slikback, Ghana’s Gafacci and South Africa’s Sho Madjozi and Phatstoki. And whether it was Madjozi’s rap-flecked gqom exuberance or Gafacci’s shuffling, wobbly bass explorations, the room buzzed and bounced, captivated by a rotating cast of dancers and performers. By the time Slikback took to the stage, the room was mentally prepared enough to receive a transmission from the future. Since last year’s Nyege Nyege festival in Uganda, Slikback has been working alongside a host of different producers in Kampala at Nyege Nyege’s incubator and hearing his music critique established Western experimental club forms was shocking and important. His set wasn’t quite like anything I’d heard before: it was the egotistical, problematic dream of “intelligent dance music” evolved, inverted and remodeled as a soundtrack to utopian sci-fi liberation. For an hour, I caught a glimpse of genuine progression; it was nothing I’d ever witnessed during my long tenure as an IDM C-lister, Boomkat scribe and FACT editor.
Downstairs in room II, LSDXOXO presented his “Floorgasm” concept with additional performances from Wallis, Juliana Huxtable and Pangaea. As I absorbed Juliana Huxtable’s psychedelic compound of euphoric pop, searing noise, fractured club music and neon queer bounce, it dawned on me why this particular soup of influences felt so perfectly mapped to my brain. Back in 2000, I started DJing with my art school bestie Arash Moori. We had a concept – embarrassingly called “Left Handers Disco” – that was intended to fuse all our favorite music into one all-encompassing genre-free landfill. At the time, this was sloppy cuts of Missy Elliot, Kelis and Jill Scott blended awkwardly with Roulé 12″s, ambient LPs, pitched-down techstep, SND, Basic Channel, Boards of Canada and Autechre; of course, it collapsed before it had even really started. In trying to find a mid-point between our experiences – my background growing up alienated and traumatized in the Black Country and his growing up detached and anxious in South Africa – we instinctively pushed everyone away.
I was never the right person to perfect this precarious fusion. My experiences only allowed me to go so far – to hit a certain note colored by self-hatred and nowhere near enough self-awareness, humility or reflection. Huxtable shifts wildly from one sound to another, but challenges her devoted flock without antagonizing them, welcoming newcomers into her spiky, unfathomably beautiful dreamscape with a bright guiding light. When we woke up, the small group of ravers I was dancing with were almost speechless; a few needed to leave, not wanting anything to shake the experience we’d just witnessed. Thankfully, I had enough energy to stick around for LSDXOXO’s triumphant extended set, in which he ran through the very best of US queer club music, honing in on the dancefloor’s gooiest spots and weaving slippery hooks (an edit of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ was a particular high point) into hardcore rhythms as if toxic Western musical hierarchies had never existed in the first place.
One of CTM’s most ambitious projects to date is Nusasonic, an ongoing scheme that engages with the experimental music landscape in Southeast Asia. It sprung to life last October in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and a selection of artists and innovators from the region were invited to this year’s edition of CTM. On Monday, I attended a “hacklab” where Andreas Siagian and Lintang Radittya invited attendees to hear more about the world of Indonesian electronic music. Siagian explained that the idea of hacking was initially confusing to him; after being labelled a hacker, he looked up the term and wasn’t sure it was accurate. Instead his mind was drawn to the concept of “jugaad”. A Hindi word, jugaad loosely describes the art of frugally improvising to creatively overcome harsh constraints. A quick Google image search gives plenty of examples of car seats attached to pedal bikes, trumpets on tail pipes, bottles used as shower heads and vaporizers made from car batteries. Siagian went further into the concept, explaining how it related to his process of building instruments and working with new technologies to flesh out his ideas, using anything at hand.
This made a lot of sense and has a wider application; artists in developing countries are using Western digital audio workstations such as FL Studio or Ableton Live that come saddled with decades of established dance music’s most recognizable signifiers. In Europe particularly, we know these sounds and templates almost instinctually and we know where they sit in the canonical hierarchy; some of us even helped establish that hierarchy. But when these tools are used outside of the bubble, hierarchies can be flattened. When performative traits that signal class, race, gender and sexuality are flipped, we’re left with a form that isn’t just new, but one that shows us exactly what we’ve done wrong, often completely without spoken language. If you listen carefully, you can hear a loud, confrontational critique of our narrow understanding of freedom.
This thought colored my listening for the rest of the evening as I lost myself in Iranian duo 9T Antiope’s hour of immersive noise and drone. I was privileged to have the chance to sit and talk with both artists, who connected me with other members of Iran’s experimental music scene, brought together by CTM’s collaboration with Tehran’s SET Festival. As I received tales of secluded, psychedelic raves and shared experiences of community, art and activism I thought about my own biases about Iran and its underground music scene. These weren’t issues completely unique to Iran; the problems highlighted in fact were chillingly familiar: policing, lack of space to assemble, lack of funding and oppressive, opaque travel restrictions. In the US, the same roadblocks exist, they’re just obscured by safe, corporate platitudes and the deceit of relative comfort.
On Tuesday, Berghain assumed a different form. It felt smaller and more intimate as a live music venue, but sets from John Bence and Croatian Amor left me unfulfilled. Both performances rested on a set of sounds and ideas I’ve heard too many times before. Vocal ambient fuzz, post-witch house, knackered IDM, club drone – call it what you want, it’s numb, anxious and surplus to requirement. But then came Zoo. A four-piece rock band from Yogyakarta, Zoo had the whole club awestruck in just a few minutes. Their fusion of Indonesian folk styles and global rock tropes was breathtaking: more technical and challenging than Battles’ masturbatory math rock, more charming than crooning easy listening and more percussive and visceral than breakcore.
I was back in Berghain on Wednesday just in time to catch Manila’s Caliph8 & Nonplus. Both artists have been active in their local scene for the last 20 years and have perfected a woozy synthesis of turntablist techniques, harsh noise and innovative percussive exploration. It was a virtuosic display, familiar in some ways (illbient, anyone?) but bizarre and beautiful, warming the audience up for a cataclysmic event: Moor Mother and DJ Haram’s 700 Bliss. The duo were responsible for FACT’s favorite track of 2018, but that hardly prepared me for what I was about to see. The two performers towered over the audience on an elevated stage and their set was empowered, energetic and deeply nuanced. It felt like the discarded, broken pieces of Berlin’s Digital Hardcore Recordings, industrial music and rap, bonded with urgency and glazed with corrective political power. The despondent groan of Western frustration was absent; this was a broadcast from a USA in crisis, assuring an unapologetic Europe that what they ignore is eviscerating real human bodies. When the duo reached ‘Ring The Alarm’ the room exploded in a mixture of fear and adoration. It provided the soundtrack to a new kind of revolution, where the audience’s job was to listen, learn and stand the fuck down.
That wasn’t the end of the night, even if it felt like the end of an era. I ventured down to Säule – a more intimate space underneath Berghain’s main room – to check out Kilo Vee, the co-founder of Shanghai’s excellent Genome 6.66 Mbp label. Like his label mate RUI HO on the Friday before, Kilo Vee traversed styles with seemingly no attention paid to expected dance music aesthetics. The “deconstructed club” label has never felt more dishonest: this wasn’t a deconstruction of anything, it was a reconstruction of dance music forms that knowingly avoided club norms. This was a place where eerie pads and anxious, distorted beats would easily brush up against Chinese pop or twee gabber; it wasn’t intended to confuse or annoy dancers, but inspire them. Infinite Machine’s Ani Klang followed and dedicated ravers were treated to a cybercore assault of rapid-fire kick drums and anxious, emotional moods until our minds ached and we were ushered out into the morning light.
By Thursday, I was feeling the burn. It’s probably not intended for people to experience CTM as a marathon, but I reached Berghain in time to see Eartheater, Gazelle Twin and Lotic twist pop into noisier realms on the main stage. It was Panorama Bar, though, that attracted my full attention. I’m lucky enough to have seen APOCALIPSIS founder and Bien Buena co-host Riobamba a few times already – she established Pico Picante, one of Boston’s most important and influential club nights, back in 2010 – so I was curious to see how she would be received. Europe’s reaction to reggaeton has been resistant, so witnessing Berlin’s Latinx community screaming along to ‘Gasolina’ felt revolutionary. For a moment, we could have been anywhere else in the world, and Berlin quickly limbered up with every shuffled beat and blasting horn.
After a couple of hours sleep, I needed something to sooth my rapidly cracking mind, so the chance to experience MONOM – a one-of-a-kind instrument for up to 400 people to experience 48 omnidirectional speakers and nine subs, based around the 4DSOUND system – seemed ideal. CTM presented four collaborations with MONOM this year, and I opted for the third, with performances from 4DSOUND software developer Casimir Geelhoed and drone deity Drew McDowall. The system has to be heard to be believed; it’s not a place where you need to wander around awkwardly to find a sweet spot between all the speakers and subs – the entire space sounds phenomenal, but tracking through and paying attention is an experience in itself. The sounds shift perceptively, but don’t lose quality – movement simply modifies the experience.
Geelhoed’s set was an expert demonstration of the system’s capabilities, with heaving tones scraping through the venue like ghosts, moving through solid objects, in and around the pillars. But it was Drew McDowall who brought the audience to their knees. He had spent close to 100 hours working with the MONOM system and it showed as his modular synth wobbles coaxed a truly psychedelic experience, vibrating woozy drones through the brain and tickling the pineal gland intimately.
It was just what I needed to prepare myself for another long night. I wasn’t expecting much – Venetian Snares had been replaced last minute after flight problems – but I dragged my limp body to Berghain yet again and was instantly shocked to life by Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi. Backed by a gigantic screen playing distorted YouTube clips, producer Kasimyn played a selection of truly eccentric tracks fusing noise, grindcore, gabber, jathilan and footwork, while vocalist Ican Harem screamed, bounced, stripped and sprayed vomit on the unexpected audience. This set the pace for the entire night and Berghain throbbed with a genuinely rebellious energy. Singeli duo MCZO & Duke followed, bringing the sound of Tanzania to the world’s most notorious nightclub. The room was jagged with bass, frenetic rhythms and chattering rap and Berghain was noticeably confused, moving awkwardly but instinctively.
In Panorama Bar, São Paulo’s BADSISTA dragged ravers to another continent, showcasing her city’s vibrant club scene and frothing the ample crowd into a grinding stupor. She’s a natural, innovative DJ and brought another new mood to an unfamiliar space, coaxing a warmth from the crowd that felt electric, honest and queer. It was the sharp workout necessary before the main room bubbled into distorted mayhem at the hands of Iranian mainstay Sote. Ata Ebtekar is a veteran producer and has been draping Iranian sounds in abstract electronics since the 1990s and this special presentation was a tribute to the hardcore era. So far, so nostalgic, but Ebtekar went beyond the lazy revivalism of the contemporary set, sounding as searing as Merzbow but with the rhythmic intensity of Hellfish & Producer.
It was around this point that the night began to get really weird. The Black Madonna had control of Panorama Bar, while Parisian crew Casual Gabberz rattled through an impressively jagged, high-octane blend of breakneck trance, hardstyle and, of course, chainsaw gabber. This worked best if you stood in in the corridor between both areas, with dusty disco frothing in one ear and buzzing digital synths in the other. As the night continued, through bizarre and brilliant sets from Putas Vampiras and Sentimental Rave, there was a point where rapid-fire kick drums and searing digital synthesizer stabs subsided into crackling easy listening and the entire crowd started ballroom dancing. Someone might have slipped research chemicals into the smoke machines and nobody would have noticed.
Saturday was going to have to try hard to follow that mind-altering night of music. The party had relocated again to SchwuZ, one of Berlin’s best-loved gay clubs, and after waiting outside in line for an hour, I ventured inside and saw Swedish live electronic trio Vanligt Folk dilate time with their odd blend of EBM, Swedish folk music and dancehall. If that sounds hard to imagine, it’s because it’s completely unique; the band looked like a basement punk act but smashed together an eccentric sculpture of human influences with the finesse of early Napalm Death and the attitude of African Head Charge.
Brazilian rapper Linn da Quebrada presented her breathtaking “Trava Linguas” DJ set in the larger space next door, flanked by DJs BADSISTA and Pininga and a set of percussionists, dancers and performers who turned the stage into an exuberant, theatrical, queer circus. It was powerful, dense and sensual, questioning heteronormativity and gender constructs with vivid displays of body, sexuality and power. It was among the most memorable performances of the week, coaxing the crowd into convulsions as fragments of funk, rave and collapsed global club rhythms smashed up against each other, hinting at the possibilities of a fairer world. This might have been the future conservatives were terrified of; it’s certainly the future humanity desperately needs.
By the time Sunday rolled around, with a closing party at Paloma, my head was buzzing uncontrollably with sounds and ideas. The lineup here was a smart distillation of many of the sounds I’d absorbed for the last 10 days. Subtext’s xin impressed early on, fusing cybercore intensity with sci-fi textures and dangerously heavy club rhythms. In the larger upstairs room, Yves Tumor rattled through some forgettable minimal techno, before Nyege Nyege co-founder Moroto Heavy Industries tore the club apart with a selection of hyper-speed East African club music that had dancers vibrating into a parallel universe. Gabber Modus Operandi’s Kasimyn brought flashbacks of Friday’s anti-aesthetic mayhem next, before Boo Lean and Dis Fig shut CTM down with a riotously fun b2b that none of us wanted to end. Then, finally, I could sleep.
CTM’s lineup highlighted an awkward truth: that the testosterone-rich scent of minimal techno might be the stench of atrophy. The genre plateaued some time ago and it would be dishonest not to address that. Some saw a solution in looking back to go forward; in the last few years, nostalgia replaced innovation and it’s not hard to see why. The edgy stories of rave’s halcyon days were always intoxicating – they drew me to clubs and festivals in the first place – but I’ve been hearing those same tall tales for two decades and they haven’t changed. Now, I’m old enough to have been there and my memory is very different. It’s controversial to say it, but dance music is better than it has been in a long, long time and if you’re looking in the right places there’s a surplus of hope. Nostalgia, meanwhile, is defeatist: we can’t turn back time, no matter how hard we try.
Right now, artists across the world are challenging Western models and showing a resistance to European dance music’s built-in culture of avoidance. Across the diaspora, in the queer community and throughout the Global South, a progressive vision of community, identity and revolution is being spread relentlessly and purposefully. So what can we do? We cannot fetishize; that’s been done too many times before. This movement needs to be noticed, upheld and supported: it is the next wave of dance innovation – a new global dance music continuum. But it cannot be a flash in the pan, it cannot be appropriated and turned into a set of tropes. These sounds, themes and philosophies are giving us the chance to be better, to take notice and to be humble. We need to fucking listen and listen immediately, there’s not much time left. Persistance is constant change and if we want to survive, it’s imperative we evolve immediately.
John Twells is FACT’s Executive Editor and is on Twitter.