Charivari Detroit takes over Belle Isle

Charivari Detroit takes over Belle Isle
Terrence Parker | Photo by Michael Scudder

Before there was Detroit techno, there was Charivari.

Deep fans — perhaps those who’ve read Dan Sicko’s Techno Rebels — will recognize Charivari both as a different spelling of A Number of Names’ “Sharevari” (a now-legendary track often cited as Detroit’s first techno record) and the popular social club whose name the track was inspired by, an obvious homage to the group known for promoting and hosting dance parties in Detroit in the early ’80s.

The Charivari name was renewed in 2014 when Todd Johnson, Steve Dunbar (who recently unexpectedly passed away; may we all dance a little harder in his honor), Chaunceia Dunbar, Theresa Hill, Grant Gray, Hassan Nurullah, and Todd Inniss founded the festival. Each year, Charivari Detroit continues to grow, even necessitating relocation from the first year at Milliken Park to Belle Isle due to the size of the crowds.

The festival encompasses much more than techno, along with a focus on techno's birthplace: Detroit. All forms of electronic dance music are represented at Charivari, performed by local DJs and artists with authentic roots and a deep-seated love of the city that is instrumental to their work.

Johnson especially appreciates the fact "that many from our crew predate the techno and electronic music dominance," he says. "The scene and culture we helped curate earlier played a major part in inspiring what was to come and is [happening] now. Many of the local techno and electronic pioneers were young attendees at events we hosted."

When Terrence Parker, the acclaimed DJ known as the "Telephone Man" due to his use of a telephone headset for headphones, was DJing as a hobby in the early '80s, he was well aware of the legendary Charivari parties. "Now to be in a position where they appreciate my contribution to this music legacy enough to be asked to play three years in a row is a blessing and honor," he says.

The festival's lineup is a mix of everything that Detroit DJs have to offer, from the progressive sounds of the originators to an engaging mix of emerging talent. Charivari Detroit also happens to include the largest lineup of Detroit-based DJs and artists at any festival. That means everyone from '80s pioneers Eddie Fowlkes and Delano Smith, to techno forefather Juan Atkins, and house godmother Stacey "Hotwaxx" Hale, to slightly more contemporary groups like the Detroit Techno Militia.

Rick Wilhite, a member of Detroit dance supergroup Three Chairs, is another renowned DJ on the bill. Playing the festival for the third time this year, he's known for his traditional use of vinyl; he loves to show people that the original methods are still alive and well. "A lot of festivals request traditional DJs more than anyone else because the crowd likes to see the DJ actually DJ," Wilhite says. "We keep alive the tradition of what Charivari is about, and people love it. If I can still do that, I'm going to do that." As he explains further, "A DJ always gotta sweat. You ain't doing it right if you're not sweating." What better environment to see that sweat firsthand than the Belle Isle setting of Charivari Detroit?

Ted Krisko, member of contemporary electronic innovators Ataxia (who are playing Charivari for the second time in its three-year existence) says that "to be connected with the folks that really helped pave the way for our culture in Detroit is flattering. It's dope that they work with people from the younger generation of DJs in the city and combine their talents with proper legends. [Charivari is] future-minded while paying great homage to Detroit's heritage."

Charivari's blend of the old legacy with those newly inspired by it deepens the sense of community built by the event. Johnson wants the festival to be as inclusive as possible. His mission is to build the Charivari Detroit community "where the music is the culture and everyone is welcome."

Hugh Cleal, one half of another hardworking modern DJ duo — Golf Clap, playing the festival for their third consecutive year — singles out this element of inclusivity when he mentions why he loves the scene: "It started and remains to be the only genre that I've seen accept everyone with open arms. It has been a type of music that has bonded all races and sexual orientations together into one big, happy family."

Detroit is a particularly meaningful backdrop for this festival. It's not hard to see why, especially in the simple honesty of Wilhite's remark on what the city's legacy means to him: "Detroit is the alpha for DJs." To be from Detroit is a special distinction for those who participate in the scene. As Krisko points out, "Detroit is worn as a badge of honor" and DJs receive a high level of respect, "uncanny in comparison to elsewhere."

On the subject of respect, Parker saysDetroit is widely esteemed around the world for many things, from the automotive industry to the music culture of Motown. But it's largely due to having always been labeled as the underdog. "Yet look at all the good this city has produced," he says. Parker acknowledges that Charivari and the team behind it, along with all the DJs and artists involved, "are one fine example of something good representing Detroit."

Terms may change and evolve over time, but the spirit of innovation and the longing to experience music collectively remains. As Wilhite says, "Before the word 'techno' existed, Juan Atkins called what he did 'deep space music'. What we call 'booty music' now, we called 'electrofunk' back then." These days, the umbrella term of electronic dance music is often invoked to broadly refer to all of it, but if you don't experience it for yourself, you simply can't know the nuances and skillful blends between individual genres that each unique DJ brings to the table.

The overarching message of community-building through the powerful connections we feel within music is simply but aptly drawn out by Parker's response when asked what he loves about being a DJ and the house scene: "I am not a house DJ. I am a DJ. I am not a house producer/artist. I am simply a producer/artist. Think of me as the lyrics from the O'Jays classic: 'I love music. Any kind of music.'"

The third iteration of the festival features a new component too: Cynda D'Hondt of Breathe in Detroit, a local apparel company, organized Island Yoga as a unique way to expose people to new things. Combining the fast-paced movements of electronic music with the meditative elements of yoga was natural to D'Hondt. She says that shortly after opening her own yoga studio, she began to notice how many DJs had the om symbol tattooed on them and saw that a similar message of connection underlies both acts. DJ Godfather himself is even DJing the first yoga session of the day.

Come revel in the love of music, Detroit, and the building of a community to connect us all through movement and sound.

Charivari takes place Saturday, Aug. 6 and Sunday, Aug. 7 at Belle Isle, from noon to midnight; tickets are $55 and available at local record stores as well as online. Island Yoga takes place on Sunday only, from 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.

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