PORTABLE , J HUNSBERGER , ELIOT LAZOR , the DUKES and ERIC DOWNER at Project (126 Sherbourne), Friday (December 10). $10. www.fukhouse.ca Rating: NNNNN
Techno and house have propagated themselves all over the world, but it's still sometimes surprising to see just how widely underground dance music has infiltrated the global consciousness. Portable (aka Alan Abrahams) has been making minimal techno in the UK since the late 90s but originally started producing while growing up in South Africa in the working-class Cape Town township of Bonteheuwel. For an outsider, it's hard to imagine how American house made it to apartheid-era South Africa at all, let alone to the townships, but Abrahams says it was easy to find.
"There was a sense of isolation," he admits from his London home, "but you could still get dance music. DJs would play all the big Chicago house tracks at makeshift clubs, often in people's backyards. During apartheid, you could find all the big house tracks. It's a misconception that we didn't have access to it."
His African roots are still evident in his music, which often starts with samples of percussion and then processes and works those sounds into something that's barely recognizable as an acoustic instrument.
"The first things I made back in South Africa were remixes of traditional African songs. I grew up around it, and I think it hasn't been covered much by other artists."
His recorded work approaches ambient, anchored by hypnotic, slowly changing rolling beats. You hear something that sounds like a hand drum in the distance, but as it comes into focus it starts sounding more like square-wave synth percussion. These pieces aren't particularly dance-floor-friendly, although the right DJ could make them work in a set. Portable adjusts for the restraint of his records when playing live by reworking his catalogue into an event-specific set.
"I enjoy putting my music in a club setting. When I play live, it's improvised - I might be starting with the same samples, but I think of it like composing one 70-minute track out of all the bits. A lot of minimal is really too minimal to move to, and a little bit boring right now. I think it's very important to dance. It's a kind of therapy for a lot of people."
He's released tracks on a variety of labels, including Toronto-based Revolver, Germany's Background, San Francisco-based Context and his own Sud Electronic, on which he's about to release a new EP in January. Detroit's Ghostly label will release some of his remixes over the coming months, and he's negotiating with a certain well-known German minimal label (which will remain nameless until details are worked out).