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-thud of 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 music—the 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.
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.”
Intermundos founder Vanessa Gocksch says the scene is just waiting to explode. “Their capacity is so immense, on account of all the different cultures there,” she says. “All it’s lacking is an exit.” In 2000,she made a Colombian hip-hop video, Testimonios Hip Hop Colombiano: Año 2000, which played in several film festivals in the States, and established a hip-hop information center in Bogotá’s Casa de Cultura de Suba. “Here kids can copy the music, read the magazines and use the Internet, learn about underground hip-hop, and communicate. You can do a lot here without having any problems. The moment you have a problem—which is usually when they kill you—is when you really start changing things at a big level.”
Politics is certainly the last thing on people’s minds on the way to Saturday’s after-party, as the car weaves through the pouring rain on a road through the mountains. Outside, it’s pitch black, trees forbidding blobs in the dark. The driver fumbles with a CD, and Felix da Housecat’s “My Life Muzik” fills the silence. Amid much mumbled cursing, he hits a dead end, backs up, and takes another road. Finally lights appear in the distance—a traffic jam in the middle of the forest. Ospina breathes a sigh of relief. They’ve arrived at the line for the after-party.
Inside the low-ceilinged, two-room shack, sweet-smelling smoke curls visibly through the open windows. The place is packed and sweaty, the vibe much more intense and visceral than in the club. Alcohol of all kinds is passed from mouth to mouth, joints lit and smoked with strangers. Oddly enough, the crowd far less indulgent than you might expect for an illegal venue in the center of cocaine country. The techno pumps and everyone dances, waiting for the superstar from the States to take over the decks. When Ospina finally goes on, several young girls surge forward, arms outstretched, their eyes shining.
As the sun slowly rises, a glorious scene meets weary eyes, fog receding slowly over the mountains, in its wake a twinkling emerald of a valley. Right here and now, there is peace and serenity, if only for tonight. Tomorrow, as they say, is another story.
Additional interviews and translation: Camila Gamboa