It’s 5 a.m., not yet prime time for a Berlin dance party. The Modernist (the splendid German artist Jorg Burger) is finishing up a live set. To his right, now at center stage, is Ellen Allien, who pulls headphones over her ears, puts records on turntables and privately begins to check her sound.
The moment does not stay private for long. Most everyone at Club Maria, a single-story building on the River Spree whose layout might remind Detroiters of the now-closed Motor, senses a shift is about to take place. People begin to press closer to the front of the big room, no doubt to get a better look at the woman who might be the biggest, most reluctant DJ star in a city filled with reluctant DJ stars. She is also a notable producer (Berlinette) and originator of the precociously named, hugely influential BPitch Control label. Her most recent mix CD, Remix Collection, was released this year on the domestic Asphodel label.
The crowd, a fluid group whose faces change through the long night and morning, now numbers about 300. Many had given polite attention to the Modernist, while others sought out music in a smaller room, where DJ’s Philip Sherburne and Detroit’s Sharif Zawideh were to keep another hundred or so clubbers bouncing happily until 6:30 a.m.
But it’s the appearance of Allien — who has yet to make a sound — that brings the faces forward. Her presence is that alluring. She talks, makes eye contact and laughs easily with people in the crowd, or with the quickly multiplying members of her pansexual posse, now gathering behind her.
Allien builds her set slowly, a pace that allows everyone to get cozy. She welcomes a variety of sounds and styles into her mix, among them acid house, electro house, Detroit ghetto and experimental techno, often delivered with ill beats, cut-up and badly-broken. By 7:30 a.m., the room is loose enough to elevate itself to another plane. The DJ is already there, pushing the beats faster, but not too fast, seducing the dancers with patience. By 9 a.m., girls and boys, and girls and girls, are dancing and stripping to the side, front and back of Allien, who is still rising in tempo. People in the crowd are kissing, beer bottles are shattering, sunlight streams in from an open door; and drums — which the beatific Allien seems to favor above all else — keep pounding away on top of it all, not allowing the dancing, waking dream to end.
This neo-tribal-phantasmagorical scene is either madly beautiful, or simply mad. Each description is apt. Ellen Allien takes possession of a room, rearranges its psycho-molecular structure, then lets it go, in a series of sonic breaths that stretch out over five hours.
She’s been building this skill for more than 10 years on the Berlin club stage and throughout Europe. For the first time, Allien brings her traveling party to Detroit next week. (She was tapped to perform at the Movement Festival in May, but customs troubles prevented her from entering North America.)
Allien is completely informed by the soul of Berlin’s creative communities. Describing BPitch Control to an interviewer at Barcelona’s Sonar Festival in 2002, Allien expressed herself using the oblique, lyrical language so often heard in Berlin: “I think [BPitch Control] is always light — it goes in the air, because the music is not dark. And it’s Berlin. You can hear this. If you visit some clubs in Berlin, you know this is the Berlin sound.”
On her role as a female DJ/producer/scenemaker in a culture dominated by men, Allien said, “[At first] I didn’t know how to talk to men, in the men world. But by getting older I learned a lot from men. [When] you’re young, you don’t know. Now it’s no problem for me.”
And: “I’m not in the commercial thing, more in the creative thing, [where] everybody is open and it’s free. I like to be free with my things, and the artists have to be free.”
We’re with you, Sister Ellen. You bring yours, Detroit will bring ours.
Wednesday, Nov. 24, at Oslo (1456 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-963-0300) with Mike Servito and Sharif Zawideh. Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org