'The Bomb My Nation Has Become'

Colombian Club Kids, Grooving at the Edge of Apocalypse

The fun associated with a groove comes tempered with a warning, but you wouldn't know it from the scene outside Templo Antonia, where kids line up outside the cinder block warehouse on this Saturday night to hear Ospina spin. The girls, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, are dressed in casually sexy outfits, eyes rimmed with glitter and excitement, while the boys wear opaque sunglasses and steely reserve. Inside the space, hard techno bounces as screens spew psychedelic patterns onto the bare walls. The air sirens scream, the smoke machines chug, the glowsticks are raised—the party has officially begun. When Ospina breaks out her choice collection, the crowd goes wild. Vinyl is hard to come by in Colombia, and the crowd vibes on the exotic rhythms of a traveled pro.

Colombia's history, fraught with violence as it may be, is inextricably wedded to the passion of the dancefloor. The traditional dance music mixes African rhythms, Hispanic melodic structures, and Native Colombian harmonic components, all threaded by a propulsive backbeat. It's not surprising, then, that newer dance music, in the form of techno, trance, hip-hop, and more, has been absorbed by youth culture at a rapid clip.

As proof, Bogotá now boasts several annual festivals devoted to hip-hop, rock, and techno. Rock al Parque, a free, three-day outdoor festival, hosts over 40 bands playing everything from punk to folk and electronic music. In November, superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold sold out a stadium with tickets going for 80,000 pesos (about $40) a pop. Techno guru Carl Cox played last weekend, and Richie Hawtin is set to perform in the next few months.

Héctor Buitrago, bass player and songwriter for Aterciopelados, a rock en Español band from Bogotá that earned a third Grammy nomination in 2001, stresses that the different styles are integral to the development of the scene. He and partner Andrea Echeverri, a guitarist and singer-songwriter, are starting a label, Entre Casa, for Medellín musicians such as Panorama and Superlitio, who produce electronic music at home on PCs. "It's much cheaper to do things at home with a computer—rock bands need equipment, a place to rehearse, and DJ equipment is expensive here," he says. Echeverri adds, "There are no big budgets or big studios involved. We're trying to let people know they can do great things at home, with just a few things."

Their creations tap into a long tradition. "There has always been a culture of dancing here," Ospina says. "People go out every weekend and dance the salsa or merengue. There's less inhibition. Latin music is very based in rhythms, has lots of parallels to techno."

The scene has parallels to New York, too, where nervous cops and a ham-fisted mayor Giuliani shuttered many high-profile establishments. Clubs in Medellín operate under strict guidelines, including a 1 a.m. closing time, a government mandate aimed at curbing a synergistic relationship between violence and intoxication. But the early closing has merely pushed the party outside the city, beyond easy monitoring by the cops. "You need to have the after-party in a really secret place, or you can get busted by the police," says Estrada. "They look at after-parties as a movement that encourages excess of every kind."

While officials may worry about drunken brawls in town, the real danger lurks in the woods, where guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the narco-traffickers, and the right-wing paramilitaries—sometimes running on siphoned U.S. dollars—battle it out, slaughtering poor villagers caught in the middle.

So it's right into the thick of this situation that the kids move when the club closes and Ospina packs up her records. "The after-parties are even more dangerous," she says grimly. "You hear stories of people being kidnapped, cars being raided. Kidnapping is huge business for the guerrillas."

Looking for an exit I ran into life.
—from Asilo 38's "La Hoguera"

Hip-hop first reached Colombia in the mid '80s through movies like Beat Street and Breakin', and by way of the Colombians who stowed away on cargo ships to the States and then returned or were deported home, imprinted with ghetto culture from New York and L.A. The sound found its way to ghettos here, to kids like José Fabián Mariño, 21, who now works with Intermundos, a group that uses hip-hop as a medium of cultural exchange, exposing the music created by kids in the ghetto to the outside world.

Mariño, a hip-hop producer who goes by "Natas," lives in Ciudad Bolívar, a Bogotá ghetto where many of the desplazados—the displaced—are crammed together in tin shacks. "In my neighborhood, you see the violence that surrounds the city, but you are impotent against the situation," he explains. "It's very traumatic, but it's not up to us to change it. I just try to ignore the people I know I can get into trouble with, and to live my life peacefully."

With similar hopes of uniting and empowering his peers, Javi Herc recently put out a disc called Basado en Hechos Reales, or "Based on Real Facts." "Our record addresses the problems of Colombia—the kidnappings, the displaced people, the sicarios—in a political and social way," the 22-year-old producer explains. "It's important to show these people that music is a medium by which they can express themselves in other ways—through graffiti, break dancing, being an MC or a DJ. Help them try to end the anguish that violence causes."

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