Cape Town, South Africa — There's a brick building at the end of Jamieson Street, past the auto repair shops, past the blood red duplex and the squatters who have claimed it as their own, behind a set of overbearing wrought-iron gates. At one time, it was a printing factory; before that, a brothel; and before that, an Asian seaman's club.
But on this warm Southern Hemisphere night, there's music blasting out of the windows -- beats and raps, blips and samples; high-pitched, oscillating wails. Tonight, 32 Jamieson St. is home to the Red Bull Music Academy, and the squatters down the street watch the third-floor window where a young man screams along with the guttural hip-hop while another dances, seemingly randomly flailing around to the beat. A third twentysomething manipulates the music, slows the rhythm down, and brings it to a halt.
It's 9 p.m., and for these students at this international academy for DJs, the night's just begun.
"Being a DJ in America, you get a little bit jaded," says Vivian Host from San Francisco, one of three American DJ students in this year's academy. "But when you come here, you realize how little access people have to new records, to new sounds, to DJs from other places. You can help expose people to something they might not otherwise get."
That attitude of discovery runs rampant throughout the program, which brings together students and lecturers from all over the world to discuss and perform electronic music in all its guises. The music the students make ranges from loose, spacey jams to hard-thumping beat symphonies. But it has one thing in common -- it's music that can be made with synthesizers and computers, with instruments often taking a back seat to electronic sounds.
The students range from a Polish DJ who specializes in American hip-hop to a French producer who conjures up '80s synth flavor from his PowerBook to an inseparable German-Finnish duo that spends all of its time tweaking live drum sounds in the academy's fully loaded studio. The international flavor of the event mirrors the appeal of this electronic-based music, which (with the notable exception of mass-produced hip-hop) has had a slow build to cult status in America but claims a whole generation of worldwide devotees.
On this particular evening in late November, Host crates up her records and heads to a two-story club on Cape Town's main drag, Front Street, where she spins British two-step and Caribbean dancehall music to a packed, sweaty dance floor, full of locals and tourists. The cordoned-off VIP section will belong to a revolving-door group of other academy DJs who stand behind Host, suggesting records, critiquing her technique. To an outsider, it may look as if Host is just pressing "play" on her turntable, but to these students -- and their electro-geek ilk -- there's much more to the artistry of being a DJ than pushing the right button.
That's where the Red Bull academy comes in. Started five years ago by a team of Austrian and German DJs, music fans and publicists and sponsored by the soft drink company, the program has turned into an annual affair, with two two-week sessions every year. The ones in Cape Town each attracted 30 students representing more than 20 countries. Every year, the program is held in a different locale: 2002's sessions were in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and next year's will be held in Rome.
When the academy started, the founders wanted to make sure that that focus wasn't limited to music-making, says organizer Many Ameri. "We came up with four main subjects: music history, technology, the business side, and then [music] skills -- skills weren't as important as all the rest," he says. "We thought that people had to have an understanding of different music styles to be good musicians."
Audiences hungry for the new
That multifaceted perspective helped the academy become something of a validation ritual for its knob-spinners-turned-students, some of whom are already locally established in their native countries. In Cape Town, which is still adjusting to the demise of apartheid more than 10 years ago, these young artists find opportunities that couldn't ever have been offered to them at home. A white Italian DJ is treated like an old friend at an all-black club after proving himself with an hourlong set of underground reggae music. European house DJs experiment with kwaito, South Africa's youth music, which melds traditional African sounds with of-the-moment manipulated beats. And musicians from disparate parts of the globe trade their favorite songs every night for an audience hungry for something new -- a rarity for artists used to having to provide something recognizable.