Charivari Detroit Music Festival Celebrates 10 Years of Keeping it in the Family

by | Aug 18, 2023 | Essay, Stories | 0 comments

Charivari Detroit Music Festival spent its tenth anniversary at the Historic Fort Wayne event space along the Detroit River from August 11th-13th. The outing felt more like a family reunion than a festival, which was no mistake on the part of the promoters.

Prior to arriving at Charivari, my sole basis of comparison was the quintessential Detroit dance music gathering Movement Music Festival. The two hardly compare, as it turns out. Movement practically transforms the city into little Berlin for Memorial Day Weekend with small doses of local flavor permeating through. Charivari platforms Detroit house and techno itself, with what strategic bridges connect it to outside nightlife hubs supporting the local scene more than they overshadow it.

This understandably results in a much smaller event. Obscured from Jefferson Avenue by buildings in various stages of disrepair, Historic Fort Wayne is much more tucked away than Hart Plaza, the riverside downtown plaza that annually hosts Movement. Roughly 2,500-3,000 Charivari 2023 attendees enjoyed 51 DJs split between two stages, a tenth of the approximately 25-30,000 daily Movement attendees.

Each Charivari stage went by a different name depending on which day of the festival it was. Importantly, neither was ever billed as the main stage.

Charivari Detroit Music Festival

Image credit: Peter Hydorn

Charivari partner Todd Johnson could be found at the ticketing table, a long stretch of field away from the festival grounds when the first DJs took to the decks at 5:00 PM on Friday. He seldom left his post. Johnson opted instead to greet partygoers as they came and left and get the sort of face time afforded to workers on the ground floor.

“There’s two elements of Charivari that even amongst ourselves we’ve always argued about,” Johnson told Selector in between conversations with entrants. “One thing I’ve stayed firm on is that I don’t want a central stage or main stage. Every stage is the same, and the sound guy brings the same equipment. At other events, you find the headliners have better sound. I don’t care who it is, I’ve always told production that every stage has the exact same bass, treble, whatever.”

“There’s no skybox, no DJ VIP area,” added Charivari partner Daniel Pembroke, who performed on Friday as UNKWN.IO. “You’ll see Rick Wilhite walking around, Eddie Fowlkes walking around, last year Juan Atkins walked around — all these people might be sitting in a chair right next to you. It’s not like you play and then we shift you over here and keep you separate. That’s the whole community part.”

Friday got off to a slow start, with a small handful of revelers present for Moses Malone’s back-to-back set with DJ Roach opening the Techno Original stage. The rain — albeit sparse — didn’t help matters. It cleared up around the beginning of Rebecca Goldberg’s performance on the same stage, which later hosted standout sets by locals Luke Hess and Detroit Techno Militia.

On the Passion Stage, DJs like Aboudi IssaJohnny Malek, and DJ Cent demonstrated the wide creative range possible through house music. The festival grounds finally filled up by nightfall, just in time for closing sets by celebrated locals DJ Minx and Henry Brooks on Passion and Techno Original, respectively.

Minx’s rise to fame preceded that of Brooks by a few years. If his Friday night showing was any indication, though, he’s not all that far behind. Brooks is the rare sort of DJ who commands stage presence simply by constantly moving with uninhibited purpose behind the decks. In the world of techno — where authenticity is hailed above all else — his thought-provoking selections and precise mixing point to a promising future ahead.

“I’ve definitely done a lot over the past couple years,” Brooks told Selector shortly before his set. “I got signed to an agency for the first time last summer, which has helped me. I’ve also been playing more shows out of state and out of the country, so I’ve been growing a lot more that way. It’s still always good to come back to Detroit, and to play a local festival.”

Detroit dance music lovers converged on the festival grounds much earlier the following day. The two stages, now billed West Coast Vibe Stage and Wonderful Stage, enjoyed thick crowds long before the sun dipped below the horizon.

On the former, artists like Julius The Mad ThinkerOscar P, and Fowlkes — a key Detroit techno innovator — delivered standout performances before West Coast house don Doc Martin closed down the show. On the latter, female talent like DJ D.LuxeDJ Lady D, and Johnson’s own daughter Sillygirlcarmen cued up crowd-pleasing numbers in brisk succession.

Eddie Fowlkes Charivari Detroit Music Festival

Eddie Fowlkes. Image credit: Peter Hydorn

DJ D.Luxe Charivari Detroit Music Festival

DJ D.Luxe. Image credit: Peter Hydorn

Oscar P Charivari Detroit Music Festival.

Oscar P. Image credit: Peter Hydorn

Sillygirlcarmen Charivari Detroit Music Festival

Sillygirlcarmen. Image credit: Peter Hydorn

On the third and final day, West Coast Vibe rebranded to the Legacy Stage, and Wonderful to the Driven Stage. Living up to its name, Legacy billed Detroit mainstays like RimarkableGary ChandlerRick Wilhite, and Delano Smith.

Meanwhile, on the Driven Stage, performers like Alton MillerGlenn Underground, and Osunlade provided a necessary sonic counterbalance. Also on Driven’s Sunday lineup were Chicago-based artists Andrew Emil and Fortune, who performed a back-to-back set together as the final component of a unique editorial crossover.

Emil and Fortune (real name Jessica Fenner) co-wrote an article titled “From Chicago House to Detroit Techno” that was published on the Charivari website in the weeks leading up to the event. Their piece explores the double refraction of creative ideas between the two cities through a timeline of key records. Specifically, it paints a picture of how disco’s late ‘70s demolition gave rise to house music in Chicago’s gay, Black and Latino communities, which then laid the foundation for Detroit techno.

“It references about 50-60 records and tells the story from the ‘70s all the way up to today, basically,” Emil told Selector during Delano Smith’s closing set on the Legacy Stage. “What we did for the back-to-back set is we proposed to Todd, ‘Hey, we did the editorial article, and we want to do a performance piece,’ so we just played music from that article. We started with about 200 tracks, and we got it down to about 60, and then we played about 24 over the course of the hour.”

Emil, who relocated to Chicago from Kansas City in 1998, enlisted help from Fenner for the article after finding himself overwhelmed by the deep personal significance of its topic matter to him. She helped him find engaging ways to connect a lot of the dots.

In one instance, she gave him the idea to contact Greg Loftis and Mike Clark to obtain new quotes about the legendary tale of Detroit techno forerunner Derrick May selling his TR-909 drum machine to the late Chicago house figurehead Frankie Knuckles. “What [Emil] maybe didn’t realize was that he had the ability to verify this,” she told Selector.

Fenner also pushed to include details about artists belonging to marginalized groups overshadowed by the prevailing dance music narrative. “As a woman of color in house and techno for the last 25 years, that was a really important angle,” Fenner said. “A lot of women historically haven’t been given as much prominence as they should.”

Toward the end of our conversation about historic records, Smith serendipitously cued up the final track of the festival: “Sharevari” by A Number of Names. All in attendance sang in unison to its titular lyric, which sounds phonetically identical to “Charivari.” Only a select few deeply embedded in the culture recognized its full significance, however.

Charivari Then and Now

As detailed in the late Dan Sicko’s 1999 book Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, teen promoters Charles Clark and Kevin Bledsoe and started the Charivari high school social club in the late ‘70s. During this transitional period, industrious Black youths began to fill Detroit’s recreational vacuum with self-organized social club parties.

These amateur promoters operated in event halls and community spaces. Predating the sci-fi-inspired themes of techno and the rugged bravado of hip-hop, their version of escapism was to associate themselves with luxury brands. Charivari derived its name from New York City clothing stores that Bledsoe visited while attending fashion school.

The Charivari parties gained momentum in 1980 and even inspired Johnson, who attended these seminal gatherings, to start his own social club called Gables. Smith, then a champion of an early Midwest dance music style called progressive, also partook — and Fowlkes has cited a Charivari event as the first party he ever attended.

At the same Charivari party that moved Johnson to launch Gables, an Italo disco-inspired record made its debut. Local group A Number of Names recorded “Sharevari” for the express purpose of giving it to DJ Darryl Shannon to play during his set (and they changed the spelling so as not to elicit ire from the promoter). The record’s warbling synths and earworm spoken word verses caught the attention of Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson, who rinsed it on his WGPR radio show.

It bears mentioning that the influential radio DJ has no relation to Todd Johnson, who went on to provide sound, booking, and promotion for Charivari events during the brand’s first incarnation. Then, in 2014, he was instrumental in its rebirth as an annual outdoor music festival.

“When we created Charivari Detroit, we were trying to bring back how we felt as high school kids and young adults when we were partying and everything just seemed more free and fluid,” Johnson told Selector. “It was just about fun. Everything is so much business now, and who’s the more popular DJ, and who’s connected with this guy — it’s so cliquey.”

The first installments of Charivari Detroit Music Festival were free to the public, and organizers still managed to pay all of the DJs. They would eventually need to start charging admission as the brand grew, but Johnson and company have worked to keep it accessible. Children still attend for free, and tickets are gifted to many facing disadvantages.

Charivari Detroit Music Festival

Image credit: Peter Hydorn

Michelle Cook has attended Charivari since the inaugural 2014 festival and now helps out as a volunteer. “The difference here is that it’s so accommodating, and it’s exceptionally family friendly,” she told Selector during a moment of rest on Sunday. “There’s flexibility in regards to them saying, ‘Yes, we want you to come, we want you to enjoy this, and if there’s a barrier to that then we’re gonna break it down.’”

Cook maintains that even as the festival has gotten bigger, its focus on the community hasn’t wavered. She said, “Charivari has been doing this for a long time and it has not changed, even with exposure and popularity.”

As popular as it might be in certain circles, Charivari will not appeal to everybody. Each stage’s modest production and sound aren’t likely to impress those accustomed to the immersive experiences now commonplace at big-budget festivals. While Charivari’s organizers make it a point to take small steps forward (like adding LED walls behind each DJ booth this year), the end result still pales in comparison to the sensory overload of Movement, let alone that of even grander festivals EDC Las Vegas or Tomorrowland in Belgium.

Charivari is intended for the subset of techno and house lovers who take an active interest in studying and preserving the roots of this music. It’s more than a time capsule or ode to a bygone era, though. It’s a means of supporting artists who are shaping the future of Detroit dance music, and such a bold mission will always require sacrifices.

Daniel Pembroke, Johnson’s partner on Charivari Detroit Music Festival, told Selector: “Compared to other festivals where it’s corporate, this is the feeling of Detroit with diversity instead of whitewashing. This is not a white-owned festival. When people come here, they always talk about what a great community and culture it is here. You’re feeling part of Detroit.”

Charivari Detroit Music Festival 2023 Gordie Howe International Bridge

Image credit: Peter Hydorn

Leaving Charivari at midnight on Sunday afforded entrants a picturesque view. Downstream from the festival site towered two enormous, cable-stayed support towers that will one day bear the load of the Gordie Howe International Bridge. After its projected 2025 completion, the structure will simplify travel to and from Windsor, Canada from the Motor City.

Although not as imposing, the constellation of tents and stages at its feet manifested from a similarly connective vision. Dance music in Detroit remains a grassroots movement even after four decades, one remarkably welcoming to visitors.


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