The Story of Techno

ENERZAYA GUNDALAI explores the relationship between Berlin and techno.

With techno, there is nothing in between: you either love it, or hate it with your whole being. I used to belong to the latter camp. Everything changed for me last summer when I went to Berlin, the global capital of techno.

Techno represents a radical break from the conventions of mainstream songs. The sets can last hours and deliver a harder electronic sound – no vocals and a pounding bass. The way the music progresses is not by repeating verses or choruses, but by weaving together strands of sounds. Some of these, such as the squiggly, scientific noises concocted from 1980s synthesisers, would sound strange in isolation. In junction, they somehow fit harmoniously, almost miraculously. The sets evolve slowly and organically in often unpredictable ways.

Most people dismiss techno as repetitive or boring when they extract it from its context. Techno music is best experienced in the flesh, underground where dark, booming sounds erupt out of industrial speakers. In mainstream clubs, it often feels like a pretence of exclusivity permeates the air. All this elitism and materialism melts away in the total darkness of a techno club. In their massive, cavernous dance floors, amongst hundreds of other partygoers, you are anonymous. There are no preconceptions about the way you should act or who you should be. You are absolutely and completely free.

Berlin is often hailed as the mecca of techno parties. One third of its 5.3 million tourists a year are said to be drawn to the city by its techno scene. Berghain is perhaps the most infamous club of all and has been labelled the best club in the world by many, from the New York Times to DJ Mag. The party lasts from Friday night until Saturday morning, and then runs again from Saturday night until Monday. Because of the gritty, hedonistic nature of this club and its consistently top-notch DJ lineup, many a partier has attempted to enter its gates. Most are turned away from the door and retreat home in disappointment.

If we trace back the history of techno, we find it was invented in the US in the 1980s. It was an expression of struggle by African Americans in Detroit, and a cry for their decaying city and home. Detroit techno traveled nearly 7000 km to find new life as Berlin techno. I believe there are two reasons that explain the intertwining fates of Berlin and techno.

The Cold War divided Germany into two halves and the totalitarian state was enforced by the omnipresent secret police (Stasi) in East Germany. The Stasi sought to infiltrate every institution and aspect of daily life. They had collated files on six million East Germans by 1989. In such a stifling environment, no political dissent was possible. Instead, the youth turned towards fashion, film and music for individual self-expression. In the 1950s and ‘60s, these teens listened to rock and roll. In the 1970s they played bebop, and the ‘80s brought the wave of ‘Beatlemania.’ For teenagers whose voices were suppressed, their subcultures became a form of micropolitical resistance, lending power to the powerless. When techno entered the ‘90s music scene in Berlin, it joined the long tradition of musical rebellion.

But techno is about more than protest: it is also a declaration of freedom. The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, divided the European continent and one of its greatest cities in half. The human cost of this Wall is unimaginable, as lovers, friends and family members were separated without warning. The physical manifestation of this arbitrary division was always in close proximity and a source of pain. On November 9th, 1989, thousands of Berliners, from both East and West, stormed the streets and took down the Wall with their hands. I image the wave of relief and mass euphoria experienced by thousands this night must have been wholly overpowering. One way in which Germans celebrated their historic reunification was by partying. The fall of the East German state left many buildings ownerless and abandoned. Young people took over these spaces – mostly power plants, bunkers, hangers and underground stations. The lack of legal restrictions and licensing hours meant raves lasted for all the hours of the night.

Berlin has become one of techno’s places of belonging, with its grimy, underground aesthetic and cult following. Meanwhile, techno symbolises for Berlin resistance to oppression and the euphoria that comes with freedom. We techno lovers love the city and the music – now who’s down to go to Printworks?

Featured image courtesy of standard.co.uk