Music has brought people together long before we had genres, recordings, or even proper instruments. Something about a bopping beat or a tender tune awakes emotions in us that we want to share with each other, even if there are no words involved. No matter what style of music you like, there’s a community for you.
In fact, that music community can grow to become a subculture that unites millions of people around an inspiring message, even if it’s simply “dance ’til you drop and forget the rest.” But when children started immersing themselves in a world of aggressive dance and hard-core drugs, parents wondered if a certain music craze had finally gone too far.
It’s certainly no secret that Germanic Europeans love electronic music. The Belgians celebrate at Tomorrowland, The Netherlands has The Flying Dutch festival, and the Germans enjoy World Club Dome, but is the culture getting out of hand?
Much of Dutch electronic music has actually become mainstream, with DJs like Armin Van Buuren, Afrojack, and Martin Garrix leading the pack. Yet, this isn’t the music nor the culture that was worrying parents left and right back in the ’90s.
First introduced in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 1992, a new genre of techno took the nation by a storm. With songs as fast as 200 beats per minute, the aggressive bass in combination with a pill or two had young people flocking to underground raves like flies to honey.
Within no time, a subculture of bald guys in tracksuits and girls with half-shaven heads and piercings emerged. While from the outside they closely resembled Neo-Nazis, most of them actually preached anti-racist and anti-fascist messages at the raves.
The music was nicknamed “Gabber,” and its followers the “Gabber Nation,” the latter of which sparked terror in older generations mostly because they didn’t know anything about the scene.
The name Gabber is actually Dutch slang for “mate,” “dude,” or “friend.” The term was popularized when DJ K.C. the Funkaholic was asked how he felt about the harder Rotterdam house music scene. “They’re just a bunch of gabbers having fun,” he said.
While there were plenty of small-scale, local raves for the gabbers to get their fix, they all looked forward to one special annual event: Thunderdome, a festival that can only be described as a Gabber’s ultimate dream. There was dancing, drugs, hook-ups, and of course: Gabber music.
The name was inspired by the 1985 Mel Gibson film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. The outrageous outfits, anarchist characters, and, of course, the dome itself, served as inspiration for the festival, which went down in history as utterly legendary.
To keep the fans’ thirst quenched for the rest of the year, Thunderdome would sell CDs with all of the mixes played at the festival that year. On average, they would sell 3 million copies. For reference, The Dutch population consisted of only 15 million people!
For the most part, opponents of the subculture simply ignored the movement, but when Thunderdome started hosting Kid’s Night, the peace treaty was over. Parents worried about their children, and conservatives worried about their country.
The subculture had turned into something more. “Gabber was at one point such a mainstream thing that people didn’t regard it as a drug-crazed subculture anymore,” DJ Aron Friedman explained. “But oh yes, the conservatives rioted!”
Listed on the Thunderdome Hall Of Shame was the Dutch evangelical television choir Nederland Zingt (The Netherlands Sings), as the organization kept producing documentaries that painted Gabber culture as satanic, dangerous, and contagious. But they weren’t Gabber’s only enemy…
With Gabber becoming more popular, it also became a softer culture, and people began making fun of it. Suddenly, producing Gabber parodies became a popular form of humor. Comedian Ruben Van Der Meer even formed a band called Hakkuhbar to mock the scene, much to the annoyance of true Gabbers.
But what truly caused the scene’s downfall was when Gabber became commercialized. Artists like the Vengaboys (left) added sunshine and unicorns to the aggressive music style, while famous artist Gabber Piet (right) was accused of selling out and betraying his people.
So by the early 2000s, Gabber was fading fast, with the last official Thunderdome festival held in 2012. Five years later, Gabber enthusiast and German artists Henrike Naumann returned to The Netherlands to see if there were any traces left of the Nation that once took over the country.
In her search for answers, she came across a handful of people who still threw their own Gabber parties or who kept the memorabilia of a now-forgotten time. It was the epitome of Europe in the ’90s and early aughts, but it was nothing but a memory now. Or was it?
Rumors and suspicions floated around that Gabber — like most subcultures and styles of the past century — was on the verge of a comeback. For example, Dutch fashion designer Tom Nijhuis created a clothing line in the spirit of Gabber, using real Gabber girls as models.
And while the raves were hard to find, you’d still find Dutch youth practicing Gabber’s signature dance: hakken (which translates to both hacking and heels). They might not have been aware of the dance’s history, but a part of the culture lived on at parks and schoolyards.
“It’s not only former Gabbers who have tales about raves and pills,” Naumann concluded. “The older generation is coming out with memories of sleepless nights worrying about their children. It seems as though every single neighbor has a story to tell about gabber, whether they like it or not.”
And while it may never be the culture it once was, Gabbers are still finding homes, like at the 2017 Thunderdome stage at Dutch electronic music festival Mysteryland, and perhaps at another music festival that was changing the world.
Every year since 2004, during the holiday season, a special event takes place in a different major Dutch city’s main square. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country come to witness the sensation, watch it on TV, and talk about it for weeks to come.
Ramon Mangold/ Pix4Profs
It’s a charity event called Serious Request, colloquially dubbed as “the glass house.” Radio DJs from station 3FM lock themselves up in, you guessed it, a glass house for a week to play music 24/7, for everyone to see.
They play games, hang out with celebrities, and dance along with the crowd outside when a popular tune comes on. Being seen by hundreds of people constantly is tough, but the DJs face an even greater challenge than public scrutiny…
The DJs take turns sleeping for about 6 hours and aren’t allowed to eat! They only consume smoothies, coffee, and water during their week in the house, yet they still act lively and celebrate with their guests and their fans outside. Despite getting pretty sick of the smoothies, the DJs who have participated so far have no regrets.
The house features a mailbox, but it’s not just for fan mail: people can push in envelopes with a note requesting their favorite song and a cash donation to have it played. Lately, the event has become so popular that people start groups to raise funds to deposit in the mailbox months before the event starts.
The donated money always goes to the Red Cross but with a different focus every year. In previous years, Serious Request has spread awareness regarding sexual assault survivors, mothers dying in childbirth, separated families, and youths in war zones.
Red Cross Netherlands
In 2016, the Serious Request slogan was “laat ze niet stikken,” which translates to “don’t let them suffocate.” The goal was to raise money for people in poor communities in Africa who suffer from lung infections like Bronchitis or Pneumonia. But this Serious event did not go as planned.
That year, only a day into the glass house week, a man stepped up to the mic outside the glass house with his son, offering a little over €100, or about $115. With the whole country listening, he relayed a story about his son the DJs couldn’t believe…
Tijn Kolsteren, the man’s son, was only 6 years old when he was diagnosed with terminal brain stem cancer earlier that year. When he learned about Serious Request, he felt it was his duty to help others survive. He began painting nails for a euro to collect money for the good cause, and his passion shone through the bright pink color on his fingers.
Tijn’s family was absolutely devastated by the news of his illness, but were 100 percent supportive of his idea to donate to the Serious Request event. His parents had donated to the cause before their son was even born, so along with Tijn’s brother, they helped him paint countless nails.
3FM DJs Frank Van Der Lende (left) and Domien Verschuuren (right) were smitten with Tijn and his passion to help others. Not only did they invite him into the glass house, they told everyone who would listen to spread the word about Tijn and the nail polish, and the Dutch nation definitely followed through.
A small hole was created in the glass wall, and as Tijn began practicing his art on people through the glass, hundreds of fans lined up in the square of Breda. Some waited for hours in the rain and the cold just to have their nails painted by the 6-year-old boy.
Dozens of celebrities who visited the glass house got their nails painted too. Although Tijn didn’t have the time to make everyone look fabulous, people painted their own nails and donated in his name. One of the lucky people who did get the Tijn special was Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte (right), whose support of the project created even more awareness than before.
People began posting photos of their painted nails with the hashtag #HeelHollandLakt, meaning “all of Holland polishes.” There was not a single soul who hadn’t heard of Tijn, as he was even featured in the major newspapers. The media called him a real-life superhero.
Tijn’s acts may have been selfless, but he was rewarded nonetheless. When he returned to his hometown after a long few days of fame and nail polish, he was awarded a youth medal of honor by the mayor of his county. After that, Tijn certainly needed some rest, because the reality remained: he was seriously ill.
Fotopersburo Van De Meulenhof BV
The Dutch pop-musician Miss Montreal wrote a song about Tijn, about what it is to be young and brave, to be sick but continue to fight and to stand up for others. When she performed the song for him, there was not a dry eye in the glass house — nor in the entire country.
On Christmas Eve, the DJs finally came out of their cage. The whole city was flooded by citizens ready to enjoy some concerts, celebrate the holiday, and witness the final count of all the money raised. The question on everyone’s mind that night was: with all the awareness spread by Tijn, what would the outcome be this year?
Tijn joined his new DJ friends on stage and together they held up the sign revealing the sum of every donation made to Serious Request that year. Thanks to every single person who gave a few euros, the event had collected over €8.5 million! That’s a whopping $10 million, in a country consisting of only 17 million people.
So what happened after the glass house broke down and the DJs went home to their families? The Netherlands’ most famous comedian Youp Van ‘T Heck and actress Wendy Van Dijk continued Tijn’s legacy, creating a website called LAK (polish), where one can buy a bottle of nail polish for €10 for a different good cause.
Pim Ras fotografie
Every cent made with LAK was donated directly to the Semmy foundation, named for a young boy who was taken from the Earth too soon. The foundation funds brain cancer research and organizes fun events for people diagnosed with the disease. It was time to give back to people like Tijn.
On July 7, 2017, tragedy struck. Tijn had passed away in his home, exactly one week before what would have been his 7th birthday. His parents were heartbroken, but they weren’t alone. The entire nation mourned Tijn, as he was buried on his birthday, with nail polish on his fingers.
Tijn’s passing brought back the memories from last Christmas, and of what a difference such a young boy had made. Serious Request made an international impact, with other countries creating their own version of the glass house, and paying their respects to Tijn. One of the people who had great respect for the young boy was no one other than Pope Francis, who had given Tijn his blessing shortly before his death.
The following December, the Kolsteren family honored him in the best way possible. When that year’s glass house arrived, the family set up a glass nail salon in Breda, where Tijn had stolen every Dutch heart the previous year. Their goal was to raise €77,777 to honor the date of Tijn’s passing.
Joyce Van Belkom/Pics4Profs
In July of 2018, the remaining Kolsteren family members were invited to the Red Cross office in The Hague, the second largest Dutch city, home to the Dutch government and the U.N.’s International Court of Justice. When they arrived, a memorial in Tijn’s name was revealed. As the family looked at the nail-polish-lined walls, they knew their son would never be forgotten.
ANP (Dutch Press)