By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
There was no time to hide, no time to run . . . rain of bullets, detonation, and explosion.
"Muerte en el Ghetto," by Ghettos Clan
The radio station sits tucked away in a residential section of Medellín, Colombia, in a ramshackle stucco building with cracks in the walls and chipped slate floors. Even from outside you can hear the metronomic beats, the brittle walls no match for a bassline that crunches every third word as you negotiate with the armed guard behind the metal gate. The security may seem excessive, but last summer a powerful bomb went off outside the office of a national radio station here, taking about 100 homes with it.
You get used to this constant parade of men in army fatigues, shadowy ghosts that lick at your periphery as they patrol downtown sidewalks, guard driveways that wind endlessly upward, or slide bomb-detection devices under cars en route to the mall. These men are sentries in the 38-year war between Colombia's constitutional government and the guerrillas, with the U.S. and its $1.3 billion Plan Colombia squarely in the middle. After a recent breakdown in peace talks, the Bush administration last week proposed an additional $98 million to train and arm Colombian troops who'd then protect Occidental Petroleum's oil pipeline from guerrillas. The White House also wants to train a counter-narcotics force for a region controlled by right-wing paramilitary groups.
But on this November night, the only thing approximating violence is the irascible thud-thud-thudof the bass. Upstairs, inside the broadcasting room, are several mics atop a large round table, two well-worn Technics 1200s, and a computer. DJ Dee mans the ones and twos, mixing from one hard trance record to another, nodding in time with the rhythm, his focus on the beat absolute. Three friends, dressed in wife-beaters and multi-zippered club pants, watch every drop of the needle. When DJ Ilana Ospina, promoting her gig the following night at a local club, slides a dubby techno track into the mix, they encircle her, astonished at the sight of a woman working with the calloused fingers of a pro.
Ospina, 29, was born in Bogotá, but now lives in New York. "I have a French passport because part of my family is French," she says. "It changes everything. I was lucky." She left for Paris in '91 to pursue a new life.
For many kids, that kind of exit isn't an option. Securing a visa can be extremely difficult, and even if they do find a means out, getting the working papers needed to stay abroad is next to impossible. "As a student, I took a loan with the government to study in London," says Carlos Estrada, a 31-year-old Medellín club owner. "But it was with the condition that I go back to Colombia afterward to work. It's a vicious cycle."
These kids are confined, for the most part, to urban areas, because the risk of kidnapping renders much of the countryside impassable. And for many of the poorer ones, trapped within ghettos, living on the edge of society means dealing with the daily specter of death in the form of murder, bombings, and random gang violence, or the threat of being drafted as paid assassins, sicarios, by the outlawed paramilitary groups. For them, salvation can be found through sharing musicthe kind brought back by artists like Ospina, and the kind they create using bare-bones equipment, often with no more than their bodies and a mic.
"I've been down what they call the 'bad steps of life,' and I now realize that's not what I want," says Javier Beltrán, a/k/a Javi Herc, a Bogotá-based hip-hop producer. "I use hip-hop not as a mechanism of escape, but as a mechanism of living."
After five years abroad, Ospina returned to play her first party in Bogotá in '96, a techno missionary of sorts, fanning the flames of a nascent underground movement. Now, with the beats blaring from taxis and street-side cafés throughout the capital, she's nurturing the scene in Medellín, jumping from taxi to taxi, from clubs in the urban core to after-parties in the embattled mountains outside the city; and like a pied piper slinging armloads of vinyl, she's pulling the kids right along with her. "It's so difficult for them, growing up in an ambiance where, every time you look at the news, you feel like crying," she says. "Growing up in a period of uncertainty, when you are trying to build up your dreams and a future and everything around you is saying the contrary, the youth need to experience this good feeling, the positivity. And dancing always does that."
Walking in the street, I feel the pressure of the bomb which my nation has become.
"La Hoguera," by Asilo 38
In stark contrast to its reputation, Medellín is beautiful, full of trees and sun and smiling faces. It's one of the country's largest metropolises, with a population of nearly 3 million. It's also one of the planet's most dangerous places, with billboards en route from the airport reading, "Damned Kidnapper: Your End Is Near" and "We Will Win." Home of the late druglord Pablo Escobar and his infamous cartel, Medellín boasts the highest rate of homicide in a country where already the risk of being kidnapped is greater than anywhere else in the world, with some 3000 people taken hostage last year. In the last decade the civil war has claimed more than 40,000 lives, and young men here are more likely to die at the hands of another person than by any other means.