There are certain things you may expect from a superstar DJ. Glamour. Private jets. A life of unbridled hedonism. No interest in anything beyond the next set and the next beautiful woman. At least, that’s the image we’ve been sold by the popular media, but Paul van Dyk couldn’t be further from that stereotype.
Sure, he’s coming to Dubai for the second time on his year-long, globe-straddling tour to promote Volume: The Best of Paul van Dyk. And yeah, he’s given a lot of thought to his set, which will use keyboards and computers to remix, remodel and compose tracks on the fly. But our phone call to Germany, where he’s having a little downtime between flights, catches him in a reflective mood and it quickly becomes clear that his passion for politics is just as strong as his interest in music. As illustrated by last year’s ‘We Are One’, van Dyk’s musical tribute to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the two are inextricably linked in his mind.
It’s not surprising, really, considering he grew up in Communist-run East Berlin in a time when simply listening to music was a political act. ‘I couldn’t buy any records or read anything about my favourite artists,’ he explains, ‘so my only way to connect with the world was to listen to West German radio stations illegally. It gave me a very pure connection to the music. I didn’t know whether the people were famous pop stars or unknown; all that mattered was that I liked the music. It’s something I’ve kept to this day.’
Something else he’s retained is a strong belief in the validity and power of democracy. ‘Obviously it has its downsides, but you can have a truly healthy democratic society where everyone gets involved. So if you see something going wrong in your neighbourhood, you have to go ahead and change it. You see an old woman fall down, you pick her up and hope that someone will do the same for you when you fall.’
But travelling the world continuously for the past 20 years has expanded van Dyk’s idea of ‘community’ from street-level interaction to global politics. He’s worked with the German Red Cross to create Rückenwind (‘tail wind’), which helps underprivileged German kids get a better education and job prospects. He also works with Akanksha, a Mumbai-based charity that provides poor children with food, schools and daycare centres and gives young adults guidance to help them earn a living. ‘We’re in a global village,’ he enthuses. ‘You can’t see the damage in Haiti and say, “That has nothing to do with me.” Haiti affects us. The [2009 Pacific] tsunami affected us. We all have a responsibility to help one another. If there’s a big crisis somewhere, we all have to work to fix it. It’s what I believe is the right way of living together.’
And one way of bringing people together, as van Dyk has said many times, is through dance music. ‘A good piece of electronic music is open; anyone can understand it and find something they like in it no matter what their cultural background. Even if the songs feature vocals, they never really tell you the whole story – they sketch in details, then you have to think about it to really understand the full plot. People connect to it in a way that means the language barrier isn’t an issue, then learn to share that music with people of other cultures and faiths. It’s the only truly global music culture.
‘That means electronic music events help to create tolerance. An example I like to bring up is when I was in Ibiza and introduced friends of mine from Tel Aviv to other friends from Beirut. They couldn’t meet in their own countries, but they met in Ibiza and realised that they all shared the same dreams: to live in peace and make a safe world for our children. And this is what electronic music does: it lets very different people share something and, from that, they learn to understand each other. Dance music isn’t political, but it can be used politically.’