As It Happens

DJs call on UNESCO to protect Berlin techno music, because it's the 'signature of the city'

Berlin DJs, like Alan Oldham, are calling on the German government to apply for UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage protection for techno music.

Berlin-based DJ Alan Oldham says the counter-culture music is under threat

Alan Oldham, an American DJ and producer who now lives in Berlin, is trying to get the United Nations cultural agency to give Berlin techno a protected status. (Submitted by Alan Oldham)

Story Transcript

Berlin DJs say their techno culture is under threat, and they're calling on the United Nations to help save it.

"The music stands for, basically, creativity and freedom, which is what Berlin basically stands for," Alan Oldham, a Detroit DJ who now lives in Berlin, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It's the signature of the city." 

Oldham, along with some of Berlin's top DJs and the non-profit, Rave the Planet, are asking German authorities to apply to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to grant intangible cultural heritage status to the counter-cultural music genre.

The status has previously been given to practices like Malawian Mwinoghe dancing, Slovakian bagpipe culture, and Jamaican reggae. It helps to ensure the practice's existence continues, offers protection during town planning, and provides funding and government subsidies. 

'One-two' of COVID-19 and gentrification

Oldham says techno should also be on that list, especially after the past 18 months. 

Pandemic restrictions have put a strain on some of the biggest clubs in Berlin. As of Dec. 8, dancing is prohibited in nightclubs to contain a recent spike in cases, forcing famous venues like Berghain to once again temporarily close.

But even before the pandemic, Oldham says gentrification and the rising cost of rent and real estate in the city was hurting the dance music that was born out of a counter-culture revolution. 

"Right now it's kind of a one-two punch of COVID and gentrification," he said. 

A banner stretched along the building that houses Berlin's legendary Berghain nightclub reads: 'Tomorrow is the question' on Dec. 29, 2020, ahead of muted New Year's Eve celebrations. (John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images)

Techno music originated in Detroit in the mid-1980s, where Oldham is from. He says the overnight radio program he hosted, Fast Forward, was the first to play electronic music in the city. 

Then, as the Berlin Wall was falling, techno became the perfect beat to reunification. 

"After the fall of the Berlin Wall, techno transformed the city of Berlin," Dimitri Hegemann, who founded the club Tresor after the wall fell, told the Guardian newspaper.

"East kids liked it, west kids liked it and they were bound together by it. It was a chance to try to something new, like after the Second World War in Paris when Miles Davis came with cool jazz." 

Revelers dance to techno music at the Brandenburg Gate during celebrations on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 2019, in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Not only is Berlin the clubbing capital of the world; it's also the "business capital of electronic music," Oldham says. Several companies that make the software used in techno production are based in Berlin, as well as one of the largest techno publications, Resident Advisor.

 "There's a whole infrastructure and industry here and people are employed by this," he said. 

Oldham says techno music is part of the very fabric of the city. People listen to it in the clubs, while making dinner, and at the gym.

And he says its appeal surpasses language and borders, which is just more reason to protect it. 

"Techno has no lyrics. So it is international and the listener can take whatever he or she wants from the music," he said. 


Written by Sarah Jackson. Interview with Alan Oldham produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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