Electro-swing - Tonight we're going to party like it's 1929
Electro-swing, mixing Noughties beats with Twenties jazz, is the latest craze to hit the clubs and festivals. Rahul Verma gets in a flap
Friday 29 April 2011
A skinny man wearing a monocle, tailcoat, cravat, brogues and pink Lycra leggings struts across stage, nodding to Ella Fitzgerald. As the First Lady of Song's flawless tones give way to thundering drum'n'bass, the young man explodes into a frenzy of scatting and comedy dancing. The audience, made up of ladies in flapper dresses, fascinators, and feather boas, and chaps with waxed moustaches, bowler hats and smoking jackets, whoops and roars in delight.
Welcome to The Correspondents' live show, and to electro-swing, a blossoming, micro-club-scene fusing the music of the 1920s to 1940s, (swing, jazz, big band) with electro, drum'n'bass, house, dubstep and even hip-hop. And this summer it's coming to a festival near you, having already become a word-of-mouth sensation at Glastonbury, Bestival, Big Chill and Secret Garden Party last year.
In club terms, electro-swing isn't as established as, say, burlesque, but in our socially networked age no scene remains hush-hush for long. It's already filtering into the mainstream. Last summer Gramophonedzie's show-stopping, Ibiza-house anthem "Why Don't You", sampling the husky 1940s jazz icon Peggy Lee, peaked at No 12 in the UK while Australians Yolanda Be Cool topped the charts in Britain, Denmark, Holland and Sweden, with "We Speak No Americano", a jaunty house hit built around 1940s Neapolitan jazz.
The Correspondents and Gramophonedzie share a passion both for electronic dance music and for jazz and swing, but only hit upon fusing the two in recent years.
"There wasn't a premeditated idea to mix swing with current music. I've always been a huge fan of jazz and my journeys through sampling eventually took me back to swing and rhythm and blues", explains Mr Chuckles, The Correspondents' DJ/producer.
"I've been making house for 10 years, and was exploring music to sample. I'm really fond of jazz, blues and swing, that's the main reason I sampled Peggy Lee – plus my girlfriend really likes the original song "Why Don't You Do Right?", explains Belgrade-based Marko "Gramophonedzie" Milicevic. "Swing and jazz is really fast, it was made for clubs and dancing, the only difference is it was made many years ago. There are songs by Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong you can play in clubs today with a slight tweak."
Why does the union of dance music of eras separated by 70 years work so well? "Swing and R'n'B are the dance pop music of their eras, so there's an obvious synergy," notes Mr Chuckles.
"In my teens I listened to nothing but drum'n'bass, particularly the jazzy end of it. I broadened my taste and found swing to be surprisingly similar to the former obsession," adds Correspondents' front man Mr Bruce.
Nick Hollywood is the suave impresario nurturing electro-swing in Britain: he has curated two compilations (White Mink: Black Cotton) on Freshly Squeezed (the label behind The Correspondents' debut EP), introduced electro-swing to festivals, and tends its grassroots through monthly nights in Brighton and London and a Facebook page.
Electro-swing's popularity relates to today's tough economic conditions, which echo troubled financial times in the 1930s, says Hollywood. "Electro-swing samples music from between the World Wars and the Great Depression, and today's turbulence is a parallel. The attitude then was, 'hey let's forget about that and party,' and that spirit seems right for now. People seem to connect with the hedonism, escapism and glamour".
Electro-swing also feeds into contemporary clubland's penchant for revisiting the flamboyant nightlife of yesteryear – over any weekend in the UK you're likely to find burlesque cabaret, 1950s rock'n'roll'n'bowling nights, and 1920s Prohibition-themed nights with pop-up speakeasies serving alcohol in teacups. The broader trend for vintage fashion and a growing interest in the quintessential English gentleman (see the magazine The Chap, and www.thechap.net), suggest that electro-swing's time is now.
"The vintage fashion and burlesque revival definitely has something to do with electro-swing's popularity, but there's also the escapist nature of delivering yourself into a different era for a night", reckons Mr Chuckles.
Carefree escapism, stepping back in time when we're obsessed with the future, glamour, and visual spectacle make for an alluring, vivacious alternative to monochrome electronic music – which is often focused on a DJ, dark room, and heads-down dancing. Electro-swing, on the other hand, sees the audience as stars or part of the experience. Dressing up in period garb is a great ice-breaker, making for a social experience for twenty-, thirty- and forty-something hedonists.
Rob da Bank was inspired to broadcast an electro-swing special on Radio 1 after seeing its popularity grow steadily at his festival, Bestival.
"Electro-swing has been at Bestival in some form or another for five years – at first it didn't have a name. I understood it from the off and pushed it at Bestival, and gradually more people have got it and it's taken off", he explains. "It's got happy vibes, which is much needed as traditional electronic dance music can be so serious. To have dance music with fun, humour and bounce really works. It's propulsive and makes you want to get up and dance – in festival and club terms it's fantastic".
Modern music that samples early 20th-century music isn't new. But whereas Jive Bunny's late-1980s cut-and-shut medleys, and Doop's mid-1990s Charleston-house, reek of novelty, electro-swing's executions are charming, respectful and easy on the ear. Importantly, today's remixes of retro music are centred on a genuine club scene, which is snowballing in the UK, Europe, and beyond.
Stockholm swing-hop crew The Movits are national treasures and have an unlikely American following after appearing on comedy show The Colbert Report. Meanwhile, Parisian electro-swingers Caravan Palace (with more than three million YouTube views) saw their album peak at No 11 in France and remain in the charts for 68 consecutive weeks – Rihanna and Adele eat your heart out.
"In Europe electro-swing's absolutely huge, and the commercial side of it, with Caravan Palace who are household names in France, is massive," observes da Bank. "It's also big in Germany and Eastern Europe. The UK's more of a discerning market so it will be tricky to break on a mainstream level. We're not as swinging or funky as France. That might mean it will stay a cool club, and festival, scene. Which is no bad thing."
So what's in store for electro-swing? Unlike the economy, dynamic growth: The Correspondents are midway through a 35-date tour across eight countries, while Hollywood has once again secured a major presence at Glastonbury and Bestival, and continues to host monthly nights in Brighton and London. The first Electro Swing Festival, over Easter weekend, brought bands including 11-strong Fat 45, French swing-rap crew Algorythmik, DJs mixing electro-swing with racy black-and-white visuals, and unsung scene pioneer Chris Tofu, plus a gramophone/78s disco and dance lessons, to Shoreditch's Book Club.
The Correspondents hope to explore more mind-boggling, hip-shaking fusions. "Electro-swing will have some surprises – Chucks is throwing boogie-woogie, Afro beat and dubstep into the cauldron", says Mr Bruce. Da Bank feels electro-swing is at the beginning of its curve. "It's fresh and versatile – you can have electro, drum'n'bass, or hip-hop behind it. It can be mixed with anything, so it will cross over into other scenes too – we're really only at the start of electro-swing".
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