Old School Meets New School

Charivari Festival nods to Detroit’s early techno scene


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Photographs by David Shanaman

The roots of Detroit’s techno scene can be traced back to the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time of massive divestment in the city’s entertainment options, especially for youth. Amid this bleak cultural landscape, high school students on Detroit’s northwest side filled the void with parties and “social clubs” — cliques with exotic, sophisticated names like Giavante, Schiaparelli, Courtier, and perhaps most famously, Charivari (which would soon become immortalized in A Number of Names’ seminal 1982 techno track, “Sharevari”).

Those cliques may be long gone, but they’re not forgotten. In 2014, some of those now-grown-up scenesters revived the Charivari name by launching an outdoor electronic music festival. The festival has grown each year, relocating from its initial home on Detroit’s Milliken State Park as a free event to a larger, multi-stage ticketed festival on Belle Isle. Last year, organizers say the two-day festival drew 15,000. 

But Charivari is more than just a name, according to festival co-founder Todd Johnson. “It’s inspired by where we came from with the old-school parties, but it’s a whole separate thing,” he says. “We’ve always wanted to do our own spin on it, based on a mixture of the type of music and the type of fun that we used to have.” 

“What we are trying to do is connect a generation with the type of revelry and the fun that we had.” — Todd Johnson, festival co-founder

The festival is loosely inspired by the Charivari parties; after all, those were run by kids. “You have to imagine a bunch of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds conducting real independent business. We rented cars (and) we found ways to get around the 18- and 21-and-over rules,” Johnson says. “This was all before social media.” 

The organizers would print up fliers, buttons, and T-shirts, promoting the parties outside of high schools and malls like Northland and Fairlane. The parties would be held anywhere that would host them, starting out in parents’ basements and backyards, but eventually moving to venues like the Chinese restaurant Chin Tiki, the YWCA, and Park Avenue Club.

The parties were briefly a big business: A good turnout could bring in up to $1,000. “It’s past the statute of limitations, so I can say that no one was paying taxes,” Johnson says with a laugh. “The next week, the malls got all the profits.” 

The present-day festival does away with that off-the-books, DIY mentality. What it keeps is the all-ages, anything-goes spirit. The festival is free for high schoolers with ID, as well as the over-65 set. It’s in stark contrast to today’s electronic music scene, which often caters to a more adult, nightclub crowd. 

This year will be the first without festival co-founder Steve Dunbar, who died April 30 due to health issues. Dunbar is credited with helping keep the festival in tune with its early roots by booking a lineup heavy on local, old-school DJs such as Juan Atkins, Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale, Al Ester — as well as some who go back to Charivari’s early days, such as Eddie Fowlkes. 

“It was Steve who put my name on the bill, because I knew Charivari when it was started,” Fowlkes says. “If it wasn’t for Steve, there wouldn’t be a Charivari. You gotta understand the past to understand what you making in the future.” 

Charivari is Aug. 6-7 on Belle Isle in Detroit; more information is available at charivaridetroit.com.

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