DJ Misstress Barbara on a mission

-- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:50 AM ET

Blackboard jungle, the film that introduced a vibrant new musical form called rock 'n' roll to a generation, premiered 50 years ago this month.

It was right around the same time BMI, the largest music publisher in America, officially announced guidelines to monitor potentially objectionable content in popular records.

Thirty years ago, a group of degenerate Londoners banded together to pay tribute to raw, primal American rock 'n' roll. It would take another two decades before a sanitized version of punk rock would be accepted by mainstream radio.

In 2004, OutKast became the first hip-hop act to be honoured with a Grammy for album of the year. The genre's condition in the mainstream, however, remains day-to-day -- its relationship with the media ailing rather than illin'.

And so it has been with techno, the hard, fast and highly danceable form of electronic music born a quarter of a century ago as Detroit's response to Chicago's house scene. Techno gained a foothold in North America's underground dance scene some 20 years ago, the term at one point threatening to encompass all forms of electronic music.

Yet, while Europe has embraced techno and its offspring (trance and jungle among them), the minimalist, insistent sound has yet to lift its head above ground in North America -- occasional blips from Prodigy, Moby and (gulp) Cher notwithstanding.

It's a long time to stay underground. And Barbara Bonfiglio, who has spent the past decade criss-crossing the ocean under the guise of the legendary Montreal-based techno DJ Misstress Barbara, admits she has essentially lost patience with her home continent.

"It's funny," she muses, "because Europe wants to be like North America on so many other levels and that's not gonna happen either. But the best DJs are in Europe; the best clubs are in Europe; the best music comes from Europe.

"The North American mentality is the rock thing, the country thing, there's simply not the interest here in underground music. It's all radio, Oscars, Grammies and TV."

Bonfiglio attributes some of the difference to familiarity. Techno's higher profile in Europe has made for more club goers that know what they're getting into.

"People in North America," she suggests, "don't know the material because they don't get the DJs."

Of course, that also works in favour of DJs like Misstress Barbara. Bonfiglio may declare the scene is "quite dead now" on this side of the pond, but that very lack of DJs ensures a full house each time the communications/film grad hits town. Tomorrow's show at Helsinki will be no exception.

"To tell you the truth," the DJ who remembers keeping patrons on their feet at long-gone local venues like Atomic and the Well says, "I'm surprised I even have a booking in Ottawa. I got the call and I was like, 'What? There's a club in Ottawa?' "

There is. More than one, in fact. And Helsinki will not be the only venue booming out techno this weekend. Friday, for instance, the monthly Disorganised event is set to fill the basement of the Clocktower Brew Pub on Bank St. with a refreshing, kitchen-sink assortment of styles -- techno among them.

"What Misstress Barbara does and what I consider techno is probably apples and oranges," Disorganised's Linus Booth says. "But I don't think techno is dead, it's just gone back underground.

"North American markets are fickle. It always has to be about something new, whereas, in Europe, some things never die."

There'll be techno amidst the house at Surface Night Club Saturday as well, as the club shines a spotlight on a variety of local DJ talent. Yet, ask Surface's general manager, Elissa Molino, about the state of techno in North America, and she'll confirm Misstress' story.

Molino relates the story of a friend and well-known techno DJ who recently left to spin in Brazil.

"I went and saw him play in Toronto for a crowd of 80 people the night before he left," Molino says. "In any other country he'd be playing for tens of thousands."

Which brings us back to Bonfiglio, who returns to Capital City fresh from playing sizable events in the U.K. and Spain. And whose support for techno is, alas, waning.

"What really keeps me interested in music is not techno anymore," Bonfiglio admits.

"I'm now interested in a slow, minimal sound. But the crowds don't expect that from me; they expect fast and hard."

She pauses.

"I've been thinking lately," she says, "that perhaps this is not what I'm going to be doing all my life."


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