Dancing Room Only – Toronto
The focus switches to Canada as Brendan Arnott speaks with some of the promoters and collectives striving for something more on the dancefloor in Toronto.
Toronto’s musical communities may be elusive to outsiders, but if you know where to look and listen there are reminders everywhere. After all, the nation’s first voguing ballroom house was formed here, Prince studied to become a Jehovah’s Witness on this soil, and a legislative building was once surrounded by cruising spots and queer discos blaring Soca records. Eglington West’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood is stuffed with roots reggae 7″s from decades past, and a treasure trove of Toronto ‘90s house records are still nestled in the hard-to-reach bottom shelves of Dundas West record shops. Every weekend, you can hear classic Canadian hip hop like Baby Blue Sound Crew’s “Money Jane” carried on the wind from a Parkdale house party, and almost everyone’s laptop here contains at least a few traces of the questionably-aging Canadian blog-house boom of the mid-2000s.
While the roots of our city’s musical history are scattered across culture, time and place, they’ve been tracked in detail by DJ and dance music historian Denise Benson, who’s encyclopaedia-sized Then and Now: Toronto Nightlife History book is devoted to covering everything from the disco and calypso vibes of the ‘80s Twilight Zone club, to Dan Snaith’s pre-Caribou, rough-edged Social Work parties. Benson’s book is a lovingly researched account of Toronto’s history, but each chapter and club closure seems to end the same way. “When you look at the movement, the trends… no matter what part of town you look at, – condo, condo, condo, condo, and condo,” Benson states.
Even as the nightmarish march of overpriced housing threatens the city’s historical musical memory, it can’t solely be blamed for the ambivalent shrugs that many residents feel about dance culture in their city. Describing the dissatisfaction swirling in the air is an imprecise art- some have suggested that Toronto’s musical output skews towards the dark, sullen and industrial, and lacks the breezy fun of Vancouver labels such as Mood Hut and 1080p. Others think our club scene remains too judgmental, as evidenced by the creation of the Toronto phrase, ‘Montreal brunch house’, suggesting our neighbours to the east make music whose primary utility is to soundtrack bougie restaurant meals. While others feel that a begrudging sense of pessimism about anything new is just ‘the way it’s always been done here’, a series of venues, promoters, and parties throughout the city are working tirelessly to change the T-Dot for the better; to honour the reverberations of the past, and light up new scenes moving forward.
Imagine Paula Temple rattling the floorboards of a gigantic Bulgarian church: a fire alarm goes off at the end of the night, and it takes the crowd several minutes to realize it’s not a droney percussive tool. Now try to visualize a party thrown in the empty department store of a mall, while a handful of queer fashionistas conduct a makeshift runway tribute to the Canadian clothing labels of yesteryear. Squint. Every party the It’s Not U It’s Me collective has thrown feels like a fever dream – otherworldly music delivered in an equally unexpected space. “I dunno, maybe I’m psychotic,” Brian Wong responds, when I ask him what drives him to seek out such unique venues. “But for me, the moment you’re approaching these shows with an attitude of complacency, it’s over. You need to be ready to blow people away on a pseudo-religious level.”
Equally inspired by the K-Hole marketing and art collective as he is by the body-centric nature of warehouse raves, Wong’s work with It’s Not U It’s Me serves as a central hub for different promoters to coordinate with each other – resulting in bigger names, spaces and experiences than they could achieve solo. In part, it’s about capacity building. “It’s really hard to live a creative life anywhere other than Berlin or Montreal, but this city feels especially difficult,” Wong feels. “Part of this project was at least an experiment to see if we could make an infrastructure so that people in Toronto can connect with international stages more easily.”
Wong’s search for distinct spaces is a necessary response to a city whose big clubs are in crisis. The remnants of Toronto’s clubbing districts on Adelaide and Richmond streets are now known much more as a wasteland of toxic masculinity than for their music. Further north, larger clubs like CODA pull a handful of boom-room DJs from Europe and provide an ample sound system to accommodate, but with a recent Ben UFO and Four Tet show fetching ticket prices of close to $50, things are beginning to feel queasily inaccessible. The city’s queer village faces similar issues, where even fetish-oriented clubs feel bland and corporate. While some of these venues may have giant stencils of words like “Leather” and “Daddy” on their walls, they still give off the same underwhelming sexual energy as a bowl of corn flakes.
One venue that stands in stark contrast to the lacklustre village is Club 120, which proudly embraces a laissez-faire attitude that feels more in line with the sordid downtown nightlife of decades past (arrive to the club early, and they may still be bleaching the floors, post-sex party). Club 120 is also one of the few spaces in the city that feels warmly inter-generational, explicitly welcoming older trans-women to the dancefloor in their advertising. The end result leads to newcomers feeling comfortable with the space first, and then growing to love the music. In the dim hours of the morning, Marcellus Pittman works the crowd underneath a red-tinged light at a party organized by Toronto cosmic disco enthusiasts Spacedust. When I ask one of the older dancers whether she’s familiar with the headliner, she shrugs, and replies “No, but…there aren’t many places in the city I trust like here.”
Moving further west, and you’ll find a series of smaller venues whose strict capacity rules are heavily enforced, which financially can impinge on the success of small clubs. But basement level bar Bambi’s, and its founder Mikey Apples, have found ways to adapt and thrive. Appropriately nick-named grotto, the bar is full of hanging plants, and it exudes a damp, cavernous darkness that makes intimate sets from Total Freedom, Via App and Marie Davidson feel that much closer. The venue also pays regular tribute to local acts, seeing occasional residencies from Basic Soul Unit, CL, Ebony, and Andrew Ross, whose Love Below night features the most immaculate pacing and leftfield selection in the city. “I try to trace a line through everything I play in the traditional ‘Balearic’ sense, not the ‘Café Del Mar’ noodly sax solo, sexless, neutered beach-music that is mostly associated with the word today,” Ross explains. “It’s not random eclecticism, but it all makes sense together in this context.”
“I wanted a space that proved that smaller is better,” Apples tells me. “Electronic music didn’t start off in rock arenas with everyone staring at the DJ like some spectacle to behold. Better to focus on sound, in a more controlled environment, with a more concentrated energy – keep the vibe on point every night, keep everyone in the room kind and accountable to each other.”
Vibe management is a critical skill in Toronto, where a high concentration of bars on the west side leaves you uncertain whether the crowd are dance enthusiasts or predatory dudes who wandered in from the sports bar down the street. As a result, our techno scene remains largely gender-imbalanced. It’s an issue that Sanj Takhar and Kadar Ibrahim, and their Groove parties, have thought a lot about. “As a woman, I used to go to really shitty parties where I’d get trampled on, or have people touching me,” Takhar recalls. “As a result, we wanted to make sure we could make spaces with crazy, weird electronic music that didn’t feel squeamish…spaces that could be open and productive and kind and loving with an artistic feel and a progressive thought process.”
Ibrahim and Takhar joke that their hopes for Groove can border on “grossly mushy”, but during some of their events thrown in the basement of Luanda House – a dance studio by day whose mirror-adorned walls play with perception – their vision hits home. Octo Octa’s Maya Bouldry Morrison dances and chats with the crowd before and after her set, and when 1am arrives, fresh fruit plates are passed around to rave patrons whose pupils dilate in joy. “In Kadar and my cultures, you feed people,” Takhar tells me. “That’s how you let them know that you love them.”
It’s 3am. Aurora Halal closes her set with Source Direct’s “Secret Liaison”, melancholy and frantic all at once. The dancefloor has been under her spell for hours, but something about this track makes everyone lose it; several feet away, a potted palm tree draped in the corner vibrates ever so slightly. It’s the latest offering from Work In Progress, a nomadic promo group made up of Cindy Li and Nancy Chen, whose parties are responsible for many of this writer’s favourite dancefloor moments of the year. Afterwards, I consult with them over doner kebabs, as they crack jokes to each other with the relaxed rapport of two long-time friends.
“People in this city are a little too aware of the fact that other cities think we’re a little lame,” Li tells me with a sigh. “Forward thinking stuff doesn’t do as well here, and especially that which goes outside the safe route of booking an artist everyone knows, putting them in a room and stating that it’s all the work you need to do,” Li says, before adding, “that’s boring as fuck!” Chen jumps in, “we want to present the idea to the world that Toronto isn’t just a place to do a half-assed show on your North American tour, especially if we’re trying to bring more women to the forefront, we have to take risks.”
Having recently snagged New York’s Discwoman crew, Matrixxman, local techno veteran Christina Sealy of Orphx, and with Lena Willikens approaching at the end of June, Chen and Li’s bookings are focused on artists aligned to their values, ethos, and personal tastes. In doing so, their hope is that their passion and belief in the acts they highlight is infectious. “Creative cities can support diverse pockets of culture instead of monocultures,” Chen states. “We hope that Toronto follows in the footsteps of Berlin and London in that regard.”
Chen and Li’s desire for change is echoed in more explicitly queer parties in the city as well. While Yes Yes Y’all remains the city’s best known basement, several underground functions are pushing things in exciting directions. I meet Kayla Carter and Khary Mathurin at a cafe, where they take a break from expressing their love of Dominican American writer Junot Diaz to chat about the Black Love events they throw in the concrete-walled unfinished basement of a Phillipine Centre Cultural Centre, all of which serve as fundraisers for Black Lives Matter Toronto’s Freedom School. They’re equally influenced by Venus X and Ashanti, and strike a balance between percussive techno workouts and well-known R&B sounds. “2000-era R&B denotes such a sense of Black unity and solidarity, but without the weird neo-soul respectability politics,” Carter states. “It fosters this platonic love amongst people who are just like ‘I know exactly what song this was, it played on 106 & Park, and I lived for it!'”
Black Love parties are summed up by Carter as being “for every black queer kid from the hood that didn’t have the space to be as queer as they wanted to be, who then moved into queer spaces and were like ‘this isn’t hood enough for me and I don’t know what’s going on.’” Their events deploy nostalgia-evoking techniques like playing music video versions of tracks which leave the room shouting along to dialogue from Ashanti music video monologues. “It’s amazing to see that celebratory, communal feeling carried forward,” Mathurin remarks. Both Carter and Mathurin stress the need to continue pushing boundaries of what’s musically expected in queer spaces. “Why not have Kathleen Neal Cleaver talking about what it means to be Black and have an afro right before dropping Khia’s ‘My Neck, My Back’? Carter asks. “Our imaginations can be pushed that far, so why aren’t we doing it? We’ve been keeping it really fucking safe.”
A similarly eclectic approach is held by Wyze Gyal, a collective of queer DJs who’ve been building buzz in Toronto by playing what member Lali Mohamed calls “a polyamorous union between Kreuzberg, Rexdale and Port of Spain”. Soca blends South African house into Matthew Herbert at their euphoric sessions, and every track feels gloriously unexpected. Commenting on Toronto’s relative lack of racialized and queer nightlife options on the East end of the city, their party is partially about reclaiming space. “I think it is also important to look back and acknowledge that Riverdale and Leslieville were pre-dominantly racialised neighbours,” Wyze Gyal member Celeste Lia tells me, adding people should recognise “gentrification has impacted these neighbourhoods in specific ways by displacing us, as well as making us invisible or hyper-visible when we do navigate these spaces.”
Speaking about musical venues in the city would feel incomplete without addressing Toronto Radio Project, a former barber shop transformed into Toronto’s response to online radio stations like NTS and Berlin Community Radio. On a Thursday afternoon where sun streams through the window, station founder Frazer Lavendar and Patricia Omoruwa swap Detroit-tinged tracks on the latter’s Club Fitness show, making dad puns over the mic. Omoruwa speaks about the station fondly, explaining it’s a way to bridge gaps and make connections in the community – befriending those whose tracks she used to play during her University radio days. The station’s volunteer-run, humble and easy-going nature has made it a non-club hub for musical collaboration. White Material’s Galcher Lustwerk and Young Male drop by for an expectedly eclectic mid-afternoon set featuring Slim Thug and Scott Walker, and Primitive Language’s Nick Klein fleshes out his musical roots in between playing tracks, speaking candidly about how he grew up in a dance studio surrounded by his parents’ modern dance choreography and C&C Music Factory.
Two other noteworthy non-club musical events in the city that have sprung up recently are Intersessions, a series of workshops curated by Chhavi Nanda that offers tutorials open to women looking to break into the scene, as well as the Get Inspired musical lecture series from It’s Not U It’s Me, where Objekt shares a self-deprecating smile with the crowd as he discusses how he obsessively created over a hundred draft versions of his track “Ganzfeld”.
A unified yet diverse musical city still feels out of grasp for many Torontonians, but it’s a vision that partygoers and promoters alike feel is necessary. While the Toronto of the mid-2000s may have been content to let nightlife mogul Peter Gatien build garish mega clubs like Circa (featuring the unsettling spectacle of DJs spinning in the gigantic bathrooms), it’s become clear a decade later that no one else is going to save us but ourselves. Instead, we’re walking the middle path – acknowledging what Toronto does and doesn’t have the infrastructure to support – and always pushing, hoping, and dreaming for more.
Total Freedom at Bambi’s courtesy of Ryoma Furutani
Header image courtesy of Doug Esty