By Timothy J. O'Keefe
First Friday of Each Month An Tua Nua
835 Beacon St
When Brother Cleve, mixologist and procurer of craft cocktails, walked into the Boston Shaker for some supplies, he was taken aback by the music. After all, it had been a bit of challenge to cross paths with fellow Bostonians who were familiar with electro swing—a musical genre that blends elements of jazz, swing, drum and bass, house, and hip hop into danceable undulations ready to infect feet. While more popular in Europe, these sounds are still largely unknown in the United States.
Brother Cleve quickly took to conversation with Jessica Marcus, a Boston Shaker employee, who dropped the names of some local electro swing enthusiasts, and soon a community was forming. Jim Ankrom is the creative director of Jive, an organization that brings electro swing to Boston once each month. An Tua Nua, the host venue, is said to bear the name of a Celtic expression meaning new beginnings. It almost seems a natural fit for the burgeoning music and dance mash-up movement.
When you enter An Tua Nua, you have the typical downtown pub experience—tap beer, baseball highlights, a noisy crowd, and Bel Biv DeVoe's Poison. On the first Friday of each month, however, you have something very different. Step through a door at the back of the pub, enter a dim-lit room with hardwood floors, and a taste of the Prohibition era awaits. With libations like the Stinger or the Lavender Splifficator, Brother Cleve and Jessica Marcus use classic and creative cocktails to help complete the modern-day speakeasy experience, an experience rooted in music and dance.
First Friday's kicked off last month to a healthy, eclectic draw of participants. The crowd, mixed in age but mostly on the younger side, ranged from the pony-tail and flannel shirt wearing guy to the bespectacled gray-haired professorial type. Dress was a key component. Some guys donned suit jackets, fedora hats, and shiny black shoes, while others took a more casual approach. Ladies could be spotted in long, flowing dresses with shawls, while others wore less formal attire—and in some cases, just less attire.
Ankrom explained that electro swing itself is a bit of an umbrella genre. I think the Electro Swing Club does a great job of explaining the music this way: 'The classic sounds of the first Great Depression with the cutting-edge technology of the second.'" Continuing he adds, It borrows from as many [different] styles as it samples. There's a lot of jingles and samples from the jazz era. Django Reinhardt's music has been hugely influential to the electro swing scene. Minor Swing" has been adopted as source material for many artists to sample. Probably the biggest subgenre is Swing House. I would call it the earliest congealed form of this music. The umbrella genre developed later, electro swing."
In tracing this history of this music, Ankrom was quick to mention Kraftwerk, who he described as the grandfathers of modern electronic music" with roots in jam band music and jazz. Other early influences include Quantic, from the nujazz scene, which blends jazz and soul samples with electronic music, and Herbie Hancock's Rockit," which Ankrom called a game-changer in the electronic music scene." Ankrom concluded stating: With these sort of early foundations, it's no surprise that electronic music is starting to assimilate more and more of it's dance music lineage."
For Jive's launch event, d.j.lavoie filled the room with sounds. Sometimes, they were gritty, funk oriented tracks, other times more drum and bass. A clarinet solo floated atop the music, while a large screen projected digital media. Combinations of animated clips and grainy, black-and-white footage depicted swing dancers. Phrasings from Glen Miller's In The Mood were dropped into the mix, and people took to the dance floor.
According to Andrea Helton, ambassador and Jive promotress, the dance scene is embracing electro swing as well. Some Canadian swing dancers have paired up with DJs to perform live choreography with live spinning. The timing is important. A lot of people who come at this as dancers need that timing, and we want to make this accessible to dancers."
On Jive's opening night, The Kirstin Obermiller Dance & Design Works performed to C2C's electro-blues track Down the road." They did a West Coast swing routine, which is different from the Lindy Hop most people know," Helten explained. If you arrive to Jive's First Friday events early, you can attend dance lessons with this dance company.
An intrinsic part of jazz music's history is that it lost widespread appeal shortly after World War II. Beginning in the 1940s, and gaining momentum in the 1950s, bebop, a new form of jazz music began to take shape. As this movement evolved, the structure of the big bands crumbled. Repeated riffs, so common in big band swing, gave way to new musical approaches. In this new music, extended and improvised solos were a more daring and prominent part of the sound. As a result, jazz music became undanceable, and fell from popular graces.
Reflecting back on Jive's fist night, Ankrom said Nobody there really knew what the music was, but everyone had a smile on their face. We're dealing with a new genre here. Let's say it started in the 80s, but didn't really become [its own] genre until 2009, so we're looking at something that's about three years old. Most of the artists on the scene are European. Part of what we are trying to do is create a scene in Boston. San Francisco has this the largest electro swing scene in the United States. Montréal also has scene. We're trying to make sure the United States knows what this genre is."
And bring jazz back home," Helton added with a smile.