Denmark’s DJ HVAD pulls a nearly universal reaction out of people experiencing his work for the first time: “What…?”
On the streets of his hometown, Albertslund; in the more cosmopolitan dance clubs and noise dens of nearby Copenhagen; in Punjab, his father’s ancestral home; and, most recently, in Beijing’s underground live music dives: DJ HVAD is an open question, a cultural edge case. HVAD, born Hari Shankar Kishore, adopted his stage name (Danish for “What?”) in 2007, fresh off the release of his culture-jamming breakout track, “Klap Perker”. (“Perker” is a Danish pejorative hurled at anyone with brown skin; “Klap” is a beat drop.) His music is incendiary dance floor pastiche, an abrasive melange of mangled Indian percussion, glitch, jungle, grime, and pure noise. The packaging on HVAD’s releases is as confrontational as the sound within: he mainly performs with dubplate vinyl records cut by his own communal pressing service, released on his Sygnok Records label, physically wrapped in samizdat sheaths plastered with swastikas. This design motif, present on almost all of HVAD’s self-released disks, serves the same dual purpose as the man’s music. The ever-present sigil is calculated to provoke both a visceral gut reaction and a deeper reflection into how these symbols are appropriated (or, more importantly, how they may be jaggedly remixed) within contemporary culture.
While HVAD has a cult following at home, where his music has soundtracked race riots and protests, he’d barely played outside of Northern Europe until last month. Not one to run down the most traveled roads, he naturally chose to start his first major world tour with stops in New Delhi, Punjab, and Beijing, for him a complete cultural unknown. HVAD found a warm reception within Beijing’s fractured underground music scene, a cultural smelter particularly attuned to his harsh mix of urban noise and dance floor signal. But before he even got off the plane, his first Beijing show had been canceled.
He was scheduled to play at experimental music haven XP’s long-running Tuesday showcase, Zoomin’ Night. Less than a week before his gig, the venue was closed by authorities because of a show they’d reserved for a Japanese noise musician whose name, it turned out, had been inexplicably burned into a government watch list. In the opening shot of what’s become an ongoing assault on China’s independent music infrastructure, the Japanese artist was decried as an anarchist cult leader bent on corrupting Chinese youth, all of his Mainland China bookings were canceled, and most of the venues that had booked him were slapped with hefty fines. DJ HVAD was collateral damage in a covert campaign that continues to affect international artists hoping to scuttle beneath the radar of nearby Zhongnanhai’s cultural monitors.
Landing in Beijing after a panicked scramble to secure a backup venue, the DJ, clad in a full-body, electric-pink pajama kurta, had to construct his own booth at Beijing’s School Bar. No stranger to improvisation or threatening imagery, he created his own platform out of a discarded wooden door studded with jutting, rusted nails, barely balanced on a concrete ballast ordinarily crammed with half-drunk beer bottles gripped tightly in the hands of the dive bar’s punk rock regulars. Some of that typical crowd was there when HVAD took over: they were left just as slack-jawed as the few dozen cognoscenti there to see the night’s other headliner, Australian industrial noise pioneers Primitive Calculators. HVAD positioned his hard-case of vinyl LPs on the far side of the stage, ceremonially crossing from side to side in the process of selecting tunes, pausing frequently to confront the audience with his wild-eyed grimace and an inimitable battery of hand gestures and body language seemingly collaged together from a discarded reel of acid-stained Bollywood celluloid.
In the audience that night at School was Dawei, one of the Beijing music underground’s own cultural radicals. The maverick rapper, who was put on a ban list after unflatteringly name-dropping some of the country’s top leaders over State news outlet CCTV’s theme song at last year’s Modern Sky Festival, was left with a deep impression. “I’d just gotten back from Tibet when I saw his show at School Bar. His music, body movements, the overall ceremonial vibe of his performance, put me in a kind of religious state… I didn’t think it was strange to see him play at a rock bar, I feel he’s very rock’n’roll. It wasn’t just not weird; I think he fit right in. His music is so eclectic, it doesn’t need to fit into the music scene here. Beijing has to ‘fit in’ with him.” This curious sense of being just out enough to truly fit in with the alternative culture of a city as inscrutable as Beijing struck HVAD as well. “After spending 20 minutes in the Beijing train system,” he recalls from his brief interaction with the city and its Byzantine transit networks, “I got the feeling I could live there. That I did not expect.”
The next night, HVAD was slated to headline Dada Bar, ground zero for progressive electronic sounds emanating from Beijing’s filthy-chic Gulou neighborhood. The crowd was an almost total contrast with the School audience, populated by Dada’s standard clientele of club kids too cool or too poor to be found at the posher house and techno clubs across town. At both shows was Jonas Soendberg, a Danish musician and producer who works with high-gloss pop artists in Beijing, and spent his teenage years running in the same circles as HVAD, “listening to hip hop and Goa Trance while failing in school.” Compared to what Soendberg calls the “complete artistic craziness” of HVAD’s performance at School, his tailored set at Dada kept the dance floor packed and moving for well over an hour, despite a refusal to stick to any consistent genre or BPM. “This was my first time ever to see him perform,” recalls Soendberg, “and I was mainly impressed by his production skills and by the fact that he doesn’t give a shit about how his music is perceived in mainstream society. I think it would be easy for him to pump out club hits and make a lot more money on his music than he does now, but his artistic integrity keeps him from doing it.”
This cavalier attitude towards audience and industry alike proved to be an asset for HVAD’s Beijing debut. In a city where “artistic integrity,” however loosely defined, is usually either co-opted into a Chinese-capitalist corporate scheme, or explicitly banned for falling outside centralized control, a true original is quickly and enthusiastically embraced regardless of aesthetic allegiances. Beijing’s music underground is a contested space, a battleground fit only for artists brash and loud enough to use its internal frictions and fissures as qualities integral to the art produced therein. Soendberg goes so far as to call HVAD’s music anti-Danish. “He draws a lot on his Indian roots, but this isn’t why it’s anti-Danish. In Denmark we are very afraid of standing out, doing something non-conformist, so most music is both conceptually and expressively very boring and rarely reaches outside Danish borders.”
HVAD, extending himself beyond borders physical and figurative, answers this challenge with a question: “Hvad…”