Over one million people poured over Europe's borders in 2015, but in Calais, France, headlines about refugees are nothing new. Since 2002, the French seaside town has played host to an impromptu refugee camp—often referred to as the "Calais Jungle"—for those hoping to jump on the back of a truck or train bound for Britain. Here, roughly 7,000 people do their best to stay warm, fed, safe, and sane in a colony of tents and shacks without running water in one of the richest countries on Earth. Spirits can get low.
British activists took steps to change that in October, when they opened the Good Chance Calais, a dome structure with a full slate of theatre, art, and music programming. While a makeshift nightclub with a tinny speaker was spotted in the Jungle over the summer, the Good Chance brings more robust curatorial firepower, with the goal of employing touring artists and visiting residencies to provide camp residents with hope and relief through the arts.
On December 14, Barcelona-based DJ and producer Filastine made his way to the Calais Jungle from Paris on his own dime to deliver a live set alongside Nova, his Indonesian vocal collaborator. Born in Los Angeles, Filastine has a history of combining music and activism; while living in Seattle, he founded the Infernal Noise Brigade, a radical marching band, to perform at protests surrounding the World Trade Organization's infamous ministerial conference in 1999 (if you're too young to remember, go listen to a Rage Against the Machine box set for a primer). He's played in squats across Europe, trotted out Sound Swarm—an orchestra of bike-mounted megaphones conducted by pirate radio transmitters—at demonstrations across the continent, and was seen storming the barricades during Barcelona's Indignados protests in 2011.
Given that kind of track record, providing some pro bono entertainment to the Calais Jungle's residents seemed a logical call for an artist who prefers to perform with his live setup wired to a shopping cart (it's in his rider) as a critique of globalization and consumerism. We caught up with the producer to discuss his experiences in the camp—and how he nearly sparked a riot, twice.
THUMP: How did you and Nova get booked to play at a venue as underground as the Calais Jungle?
Filastine: It's basically the work of one totally fearless woman, Severine Sajous. She is working on site with residents in a photography project called Jungleye. She encouraged us to come out and perform in the dome of Good Chance Calais, and got a sound system donated by a production company called Relief Asso.
What were your impressions from your brief foray into the Jungle?
I expected the camp itself to be more chaotic, what I witnessed in my brief visit to the Calais Jungle left me feeling vaguely optimistic about the human race—impressed that thousands of desperate people that don't even share a language or religion can create a functioning village in a freezing mud puddle on the rim of Europe.
And how was the show? Describe the feeling in the dome for those of us who weren't there.
Intense. This wasn't a casual audience, they were there to watch, listen, and react to what we had to share with undivided attention. The space itself was a metal dome structure covered in plastic, with a low stage built from pallets along one side. A few hundred people filled the dome, bundled in layers of clothes against the bitter cold. They came from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and a dozen other nations they'd left behind. It was packed, they were pressed up against our equipment, one kid that spent the whole gig directly behind me, studying my gear while writing furiously on a notepad.
You've played a lot of impromptu venues in your day, how did this compare?
It was among the most stressful setup of my long touring career, we had very little time to install and test the sound system and electrical generators. I assumed we could start the gig a bit late in order to get shit dialed in first, but the audience built up outside the dome to a point where it was dangerous, the jostling and shouting escalated to point that they just had to come in, and we had to start immediately, never mind that we had only half the sound system setup. We played in mono, through one side of the speakers. Of course there was no backstage, no toilet, but also no running water, and, the most unique: no law.
Why the urgency to get the show going if you and Nova were the only act?
I'm told that they were impatient for us to start on time because they need to spend the rest of the night trying scaling fences to try and jump onto trains or trucks.
What kind of music were you performing for this unique kind of global audience, refugee rather than comfortable expat?
The short and lazy way to label our music would be "global bass", but think less booty and more brain. We are a duo onstage, and make a very live audiovisual performance: Nova sings and plays some percussion, I bang on some drums and electronic drum pads, triggering the audio sequences and fragments of narrative cinematic video. The "liveness" and contents of the visuals really worked well for the Jungle.
And how did the crowd react – did anything in particular really seem to resonate with them?
In some ways it was the perfect audience, because our music is electronic, but made outside the Anglo-American castle. By that I mean that what some Westerners might hear as some kind of vague "world music" influence were for them a series of recognizable references, from the North African beats to the kinds of notes and scales we use. On some songs I play the darbuka, which is a common Arab hand drum. Every time I pulled that out, a cheer erupted.
I've got to admit, on a personal level, that the experience was intensely gratifying, because as a project Filastine often feels a bit contextually homeless, uncomfortable in orthodox electronic music spaces (nightclubs, fests), and shunned by the folksy world music scene, while there in this camp of migrants our art felt totally appropriate.
In addition to the near-riot before the show, you said another scrum broke out. What happened?
We accidentally sparked a melee. We toss £00T, our utopian future money, into the air to close each gig. £00T is something for people to take home, to play with the idea of value in paper money. We instantly realized how foolish that was while struggling to not get trampled. Our own fault, throwing money in the air is foolish, in a small space crowded with the desperately broke. It looked like the scene in Apocaylpse Now when the USO show turns into a riot, except we didn't have a security team or helicopters to flee.
Dance music has been largely unengaged with the politics of the migrant crisis, with the notable exception of Brooklyn-by-way-of-war-torn-Sierra Leone DJ/producer Lamin Fofana. Do you think more artists should be playing the Calais Jungle pro bono?
I'd love to see more heads, especially the influential ones that have the ears of millions of fans, respond to this and other realities of the world we live in. Electronic music is now the world's biggest form of pop music, it has grown to be musically rich in no time, but is still intellectually stunted in adolescence.
Playing at the Calais Jungle, or some other migrant camp, is just one way to engage, artists could also respond by raising funds, sharing info via social media. They'd definitely appreciate more music gigs, although I'm not sure exactly how well other kinds of electronic music might work. Richie Hawtin spinning minimal techno might be an epic fail, but it would be great to see him try!
How did seeing the Calais Jungle firsthand affect your worldview?
I don't think this a temporary problem. This is the dystopian future that lefties have been harping on about for decades, the long-term blowback from colonialism, and the direct result of corporate globalization. An expanding wealth gap, resources wars and climate disasters are pushing people to migrate to the few stable fortresses, or die trying. The only solution is build a better world, not better walls.
In a bitter irony, I understand that Nova now has visa problems.
We were warned by a lawyer [on Monday] that Nova must leave Europe by Friday. We spent the night searching for a last-minute flight to Indonesia. Always this battle with the fucking borders.