Sounds of the Underground

  • 2006-09-20
  • By Mark Splinter

GOD OF SATURDAY NIGHT: DJ Deneez began holding underground parties in Klaipeda in the '90s.

VILNIUS - It's 2:00 a.m. in a small bar outside the Old Town. I'm putting my favorite reggae record on the turntable. The barman is running towards me with a panicked expression on his face. He is slicing his hand across his neck, making the international signal for "Stop the music!" before running outside to meet the police. Perhaps our neighbors are not great music lovers and would prefer to sleep. I turn down the volume to a whisper, but water starts creeping out from under the nearby toilet door, advancing toward the tangle of power cables behind the sound system.

The &"035;whisper becomes silence. Another Lithuanian underground party has ended, but we'll be back next Friday to do it all over again.

I was originally drawn to Lithuania by an interest in politics during the expansion of the European Union, but I stayed here for the parties. You may have heard the story that the Soviet Union had been defeated by unarmed singing and I expected my young friends to be enthusiastically enjoying their shiny new democratic right to protest. But in spite of the gift of freedom of speech, it seemed the next generation was still expressing itself in obscure places, at night, sometimes literally under the ground.

Perhaps because of Lithuania's history and cosmopolitan nature, music has been an important social glue, holding young people together during the uncertain renewal of their small country. The Western observer can't help but see youth subculture in terms of politics, but I struggle to find any Lithuanian under 40 who would agree. There's one DJ, a pioneer of the underground party scene in Vilnius, who goes by the name of Tomas Boo. He seems to be a scarf collector and always carries expensive cigarettes.
"When we started in '94, there was absolutely not much happening. There was no Internet, so it was still not easy to get foreign records. One German exchange student called Christian was bringing music to Lithuania."

A German called Christian came to spread Western culture in Lithuania? Luckily, he experienced less violent resistance than his ancestors.
"We started to make parties with a CD player and couple of tape decks. Lighting was from three lamps," he laughs, "and it was enough. We were flashing them on and off with our hands."
Deneez is another underground pioneer DJ. His "Fishday" parties started in Klaipeda, years ago, though he doesn't remember exactly when. He is a small, sheepish, thoughtful man. He sits hunched, with his legs crossed, hardly what you would expect from a prime mover in a cultural revolution.

"We had tapes, and we would just play for friends," he shrugs, echoing Tomas Boo's casual attitude to the beginnings of the new era. If I was searching for a link between underground parties and hot-blooded political activism, I could see that I had come to the wrong place, so we chatted about music and drank some more beer.

Food of love
When I first got into the party scene in London, it was already mature enough to be housed in multi-million pound nightclubs, with international performers on stage and cocaine all over the toilets. However, from what I know of world music history, every country's underground rave scene always starts with someone flashing lamps on and off by hand.
These days Tomas Boo is regularly inviting big time Western performers to play in his "Boogaloo" parties in slick clubs in Vilnius. Did he ever imagine it would be like this?

"Absolutely not. We had no idea how to do it, and nobody else really knew about it. We made membership cards and sold them for two litas (0.58 euros). It was a closed, secret, illegal unity."
He continues wistfully: "There were no fights, and all sorts of people came together. Now it's all changed, everything grew up so quickly and so big, and I think the audience is more like…" he struggles to find the word, so I offer my best guess:

"Yes, snobbish," he agrees, "but it's OK, there must be evolution, it must be like this, from illegal parties to big concerts to better quality music, always developing…"
I suggest to him that development is a concept normally associated with politics.
"Politics? For us it is just irrelevant. We don't care about it, we have no connections with it, we are not even protesting against it. It is just… who cares?"

Surely, he can see that there must be a link between the political events of the last 15 years and the current music scene? After all, Lithuania was not always a place open to German musical imports.
"[Politicians] are doing their business, and we are doing ours," he says. "It is not connected, and it shouldn't be."

Business as usual
Dutchman Bernie ter Braak owns the DJ bar Cozy in Vilnius' old town. He's enormously tall, always smiling, and he never seems to realize that he's crushing your hand when he shakes it. As a foreign entrepreneur, he has a more practical view of the relationship between politics and the music scene.

"The EU accession definitely gave a boost to the local economy and local buying power. More local people can afford to go to clubs and spend more money there," he says."The cost of flight tickets and imported drinks went down quite a lot. It is now cheaper to bring foreign DJs and to stock an assortment of drinks in the bar." There's more than just vodka here.
Bernie is now also general manager of the Vilnius franchise of Pacha, part of a huge network of super-clubs across the world. They will open here next year, marking a total transformation of the scene from underground to overground. Like Tomas Boo, Bernie is also quick to excuse the slight increase in party snobbery: "Maybe some of the freshness is disappearing, but on the other hand, step by step, more people are getting into good dance music, and the biggest dance acts in the world are finding their way to Lithuania."

There is one obscene expression that comes up time and time again when talking to young Lithuanians about politics, which probably shouldn't be printed here, but it roughly translates as: "You may think it is important, but for me it is less important than a very unimportant thing."

These are not bored kids on drugs. There's a difference between those too stupid to understand politics, and those who know that the world of politics is just too stupid to understand.
In Vilnius, cultural shifts are being driven by a thirst for Western music, rather than an admiration of Western capitalist democracy. Despite the commercialization of Friday night, I still see the real social changes in Lithuania are continuing to develop underground, or at least on the ground floor, away from the view of the political establishment.

As for youthful musical protest, there are two DJs calling themselves the Partyzanai, but that's about as political as it gets.