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Onward Young Pioneers!

Robert R. Thompson

As Communism's old guard is gradually relegated to the past, much of Eastern Europe is faced with a decidedly non-traditional youth movement. But are countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic ready for the political make-over?

During the height of Communism in the Soviet Union and various countries in Eastern Europe, membership in groups such as the Young Pioneers was a way to demonstrate socialist solidarity, and contribute to the growth of Communist ideals. Since Communism's collapse throughout the eastern block in 1989 (and in the Soviet Union in 1991), an entire generation has grown up with few, if any, memories of this dying system.

Although not members of an official state-sponsored group geared towards ideological socialization, this demographic of young people are the pioneers who will lead their countries into the post-Communist era. Most likely, as they focus on the future, they will view their parents' and grandparents' stories of a politically oppressive past as irrelevant to their lives; much like the way young Americans of a similar age view archaic family stories of the Great Depression and World War I and II. Still, for the foreseeable future, it will be impossible for even those born in Eastern Europe after 1989 to completely ignore their Communist history. The present is ambiguous, the outlines of the future unclear. So these new "young pioneers" will have to juggle the remaining influences from a Communist world which no longer exists, with the new world of western enticements, which are far removed from the time of Socialist solidarity.

I first traveled to Hungary in June of 1988 when it was still a Communist state. Much of my visit was spent in the southern city of Pecs. A university town, though somewhat grimy due to its industry, there were several attractive parks scattered around the city. Each morning as I headed out to Jannus Pannonius University (since 2000, the University of Pecs) where I attended seminars on Hungarian politics, history and culture, I passed through the nearby park. Despite the city's pollution, the grass was green, the paths well-swept and lined with rows of bright flowers and bushes. And, without fail, each morning, roughly two dozen youngsters would enter the park in neat rows, two-by-two, an adult at each end of the lines.

The kids carried rakes, shovels, and, sometimes, small buckets with water. They quickly spread out across the park, directed by the adults to various tasks: raking the paths, sweeping any trash away, or watering the flowers. It was as if a group of dedicated little soldiers had descended upon the park, cleaned it from one end to the other, then marched off as they'd entered. One of my Hungarian hosts told me that this was a way youngsters learned the Socialist credo of deriving satisfaction through work for the whole community, and were often rewarded with medals or pins and special recognition at their schools.

Nearly two decades later, I am in the midst of a huge party in Budapest, on the sleekly beautiful Chain Bridge which spans the river Danube. It's a hot and humid June evening, but who cares! All along the river Danube, on either side of the bridge is a mass of people, spilling off into the streets and parks close by the river. The crowd appears fairly young, and is moving back and forth, singing, eating scrumptious Hungarian pastry, and watching the fireworks burst over the stolid lion statues guarding the approaches to the famous bridge.

It's June Festival; a celebration of freedom. Fifty years ago, Soviet tanks arrived in Budapest to crush a democratic revolution. In October, on the actual date of the failed revolution, the ceremonies will be somber. Now, however, it's a party. Although the festivities do not specifically celebrate the revolution of 1956, or the end of Communism in 1989, to me, an outsider, it seems a celebration of freedom.

I wander along the bridge and then down into one of the nearby parks. On a medium sized stage, before a large and appreciative crowd, a dance troop of children in their early teens, energetically performs a series of traditional Hungarian folk dances as several string players provide the music. The girls' dresses are a swirl of colors as they spin around, the boys' puffy shirts a blur as they twirl their partners. The evening is hot, the performers dripping with sweat, yet the playing and dancing are crisp and exact. The music, the colors, the clapping of hands and stomping of boots, are mesmerizing. I wonder if the young dancers will eventually be beckoned away from more traditional national music towards the western style pop that now permeates Eastern Europe.

Down a path, through the park, the river and the Buda hills visible on the Danube's opposite shore, there is another group of young Hungarians, they're in their early 20s, I think. The sign behind the makeshift performing space notes that they call themselves Joker. During breaks in their sets, they speak in Hungarian and English about their songs; some original, some reworked versions of other groups' material, such as songs by U2. And they offer their CD for sale, only 1,000 forints, or about $5 US. Maybe they'll make it big some day. I offer no predictions about what might be happening in Hungary's musical life, or what it will be like the next time I return. But there is one other important aspect in the life of these young people, these pioneers, dancers, and rockers alike: these people have freedom, economic choice, and a social mobility that those children whom I saw in 1988, obediently marching and cleaning for the community good, did not appear to have.


Hungarian Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany

In the recent Hungarian elections in April, Hungarians re-elected the ruling center-left coalition. These parties, led by the Hungarian Socialists, won almost 50 percent of the vote. I can only assume many young persons voted for the Socialists and the current Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, although the demographic analysis is incomplete. The Prime Minister is an interesting role model for young Hungarians. Born in 1961 he was a leader of the Communist youth movement in his 20s, moved deftly from Communism to capitalism, and became wealthy, after Communism's collapse, buying state assets in the early years of privatization. Not unlike current young Hungarians, he seems to have quickly shucked his Communist clothes, and now favors a reduction in public sector jobs and an increase in taxes to stimulate economic growth in the near future. Young Hungarians must hold Mr. Gyurcsany in high regard as someone who grew up with the Young Pioneer trappings, but now leads the way for capitalism and the Euro … Hungary already belongs to the European Union.

A few days and several hundred miles later, I traveled from Hungary's Chain Bridge in Budapest to the Charles Bridge in Prague, the Czech Republic. This was my third visit since 2002, and it's always a party in Prague. Communist rule in Prague was quite harsh (more so than in Hungary after the 1956 revolution) but young and old have had no problems moving quickly into the post-Communist era, while celebrating freedom and the market economy.

Here too, elections have just been held. The government holds a special concern that young Czechs have been losing interest in their still young democratic process. From what I've heard and seen in Prague, some older and politically active Czechs are trying to rekindle young political participation. They've created the "You Decide" voter awareness campaign, (http://www.radio.cz/en/article/78540), a series of short films aimed at young voters, showing what Czech politicians think they must do to lure disaffected youth. These 30-second films are shown on TV and in cinemas; examples include a cartoon of two bored young girls in a desultory discussion of politics, or footage from Czech Parliament sessions showing members sleeping, nose picking, ogling scantily clad women in a tabloid paper, and playing solitaire on their PC. The videos are hilarious, but don't take my word for it, you can watch them at www.rozhodnete.to.

In another attempt to attract even younger voters, the Czech Green Party proposed to lower the voting age to 16. This idea doesn't seem very popular, at least among older Czechs, such as political analyst Zdenek Zboril, who warned, "These (young) people are not completely formed politically, sociologically … they often carry radical attitudes, irrational sentiments and so on." (Radio Prague 9 June 2006 http://www.radio.cz/en/article/79912)

Speaking with my Czech friends, who are mostly in their mid-20s and politically active, it seems that in the recent election, overall turn-out was up. Perhaps some of that can be attributed to an increase in younger voters. Maybe watching members of Parliament make asses of themselves had an impact, after all. It inspired a desire among new young voters to, as one friend puts it, "kick these guys in the butt!" Although one tabulated result does seem to support the charge that the Greens want to lower the voting age for their own party's benefit. (Radio Prague, ibid.) They pulled around 17 percent of the young vote, beat the five percent threshold for party entry into the Parliament, and have become a more important political force. (Axis Globe 5 June 2006, http://www.axisglobe.com/print_article.asp?article=903) Still, I would hazard a guess that those formerly inactive young Czechs who voted Green appreciate the fact that they have some choice in the Czech parliamentary system -- that they can, unlike their formerly Communist elders, fill the "pioneer" role in a real and substantive way, and alter politics by their collective presence.

I must admit that politics seem rosier to me when I'm away from the States, standing on the Chain or Charles Bridges, soaking in the excitement, and watching the Danube and Vlatava rivers slide by under the stone arches. Although I also concede, it is true, that the "new" democratic politics in the Czech Republic and Hungary are no less messy or, as my friends in both countries say, "discouraging", than in the States. It is somewhat disconcerting to see barons like Mr. Gyurcsany nimbly enter, and quickly rise to financial and political dominance within the new democratic systems. The Hungarian Prime Minister was part of the system that made previous generations don the Young Pioneer red scarves, and endure the exhortations of their leaders. As a result, it is difficult, especially for today's youth, not to feel unsure about life in the new era.

The Czech writer Ivan Klima, who suffered under both Nazi and Communist tyranny, writes of this sentiment in his 2001 novel, No Saints or Angels (Granta 2001). As Evan Rail's review of the novel notes in the Prague Post, "An uncomfortable ambiguity remains in the air, as if Klima himself is undecided as to the good or bad nature of life after the Velvet Revolution (which ended Czech communism in 1989), but it was — and to a certain degree still is — a highly ambiguous time." (The Prague Post, 26 August 2004, http://www.praguepost.com/P03/2004/Art/0826/featu1.php).

The novel details one family's struggle in the immediate aftermath of communism's collapse. The 15-year old daughter, Jana, is alienated, cynical, and ends up in drug rehab. She seems crushed between two worlds, incapable of moving forward. Klima, then, is critical of how some young Czechs react to the demands and pioneering challenges of post-Communism. As Rail notes, the novel suggests that all of Prague's teen population are addicts, petty criminals and sexual deviants. Based upon my own discussions with my Czech and Hungarian friends about their kids and their kid's friends, I think Klima exaggerates. And yet, through the musings of Jana's mother, he aptly describes the challenge of the new era for all these kids:

"But what is freedom? The gateway to an unknown space that even adults get lost in, and my little girl isn't 16 yet. She's lost in a landscape that lures her, but in fact it's a swamp that she'll go on sinking into until one day she'll disappear altogether."

Only time will tell.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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