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Moritz Puts on the Ritz
It is a little after 10 pm on Friday, January 25th, in the back room of the Black Cat. The DJ, WMUC's Christine Moritz, is playing Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy." The room feels a little glamorously dissolute, like a cocktail lounge that was jointly conceived by Ridley Scott and Edward Hopper. The crowd, tempo, and volume all increase briskly and by 11:30 the mood has changed completely. The room is full and people are loosening up and starting to dance. By now it is clear that this is a very unusual event. For one thing, there is no dress code. A long-haired guy wearing an old flannel shirt is dancing next to a group of smartly dressed young women, and no one seems to mind. Some people are wearing typical clubbing outfits, but glittery tank tops do not constitute any kind of majority here.
The insistently catchy music is as hard to pin down as the crowd. Christine spins hip-hop that sounds like dance music, dance music that sounds like kitschy bossa nova, and tracks like Quincy Jones's "Soul Bossa Nova" remixed with rap over top. Her set is extremely eclectic and obviously carefully chosen. What really makes the evening special is that nothing about it is pretentious. Christine can create a frigidly chill lounge ambience if she wants to, but she's not too cool to play Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz" or a disco version of "C is for Cookie" from Sesame Street.
Christine performs her radio show, "Variety is the Spice of Life," on WMUC 88.1 every Wednesday night from 6:00 to 9:00 [note: now on Mondays from 6-9 pm]. She mostly spins a mix of Breakbeat, Big Beat, Downtempo, and her trademark, a style of music from Japan called "Happy Charm Fool Dance Music." Christine, who is currently a graduate student in the English department, is a veteran radio DJ. She started the first incarnation of her show in 1992, while she was majoring in English at Emory University. At that time she was mostly playing "shoegazer" music (the group My Bloody Valentine, for example) along with indie rock. She also spent one summer spinning at Duke's radio station. She stopped DJing at Emory after a year and a half, and lost interest in new music. After graduation she took a job with IBM but quit after a year and went to Kyoto to teach English. She returned to contemporary music initially as an inexpensive pastime. "In a place like Japan," she told me, "where everything is expensive, you can go to a place like the Virgin Megastore and just listen to music on headphones for a couple of hours. And when you're on a limited budget and you're a music fan, it's fantastic." Christine first heard Happy Charm Fool Dance Music in a music store. Since then, Christine has made her reputation as a proponent of HCFDM. She told me, "I'm sort of on a one-person crusade to popularize this as a term in the U.S." Christine has field-tested HCFDM on American dance floors at Buzz, the Friday night party at Nation; and most recently at the Black Cat.
HCFDM, also called Shibuya-kei, originated in the Shibuya area of Tokyo, the site of the first HMV (a British based record store) in Japan. Musicians living in that area became exposed to the British dance music of the early nineties, and by 1994 Shibuya-kei had coalesced into a recognizable style. According to Christine's website (www.varietyisthespice.com), "'Happy Charm Fool Dance Music' might be more accurately expressed in English as 'Happy Charming Foolish Dance Music'. The 'happy' element is self-explanatory, the 'charm' element includes things that endear the song to the listener, and the 'fool' element encompasses conscious silliness." The term was coined by a member of the recently disbanded HCFDM group Pizzicato 5. HCFDM draws on many influences, particularly bossa nova and French music of the 1960's. According to Christine, there is an "incredible cross-pollination" of music today between Japan, Europe, and Brazil which the U.S. has been slow in joining. This is beginning to change, thanks in large part to DC's own Thievery Corporation and the Eighteenth Street Lounge label.
Describing HCFDM, Christine explains that it is similar to Big Beat, the style made famous by Fatboy Slim. Both HCFDM and Big Beat use a broad range of samples, and both have a sense of humor. "Happy Charm Fool Dance Music," according to Christine, "tends to be more deliberately silly and it tends to be more electronic sounding. Big Beat is more beat focused. HCFDM is lighter sounding, and Big Beat is maybe a little heavier. HCFDM also really likes childishness and childish-sounding stuff, like taking samples of kids speaking."
In the back room of the Black Cat, the crowd responds well to the playfulness of the unfamiliar music. When Christine is spinning HCFDM, everyone in the club is among friends. People are not taking themselves particularly seriously and enthusiasm, not refinement, is the driving force of the dance floor. The pervading sense of goodwill is a reflection of the DJ and her music. Christine obviously likes things to be cool, but not at the expense of being fun.
This page created May 2002 - Last modified June 8, 2005Home | Press | Feature Story on Christine Moritz in the PublicAsian