A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Colombia with the title El antro más pequeño del mundo. Written by Juan Pablo López, it received the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award—the highest journalistic honor in the country—and won in the Young Talent category. Leer en español.
A chiva—a rustic, colorfully painted bus designed for rural public transport—appears on a backwoods road that borders the occidental mountain range of Colombia. The designated route runs from San José del Palmar in the northwestern department of Chocó, to Pereira, a city in the Risaralda department, which is known for its coffee production. The chiva is the only means of transportation that can carry Cristian Stiven Vásquez, a 24-year-old worker in a hardware store, from his home in southern Chocó to a little underground club in Pereira. It’s Friday, December 2, 2016, at 1:00 PM. Vásquez’s trip has less than seven hours to go, providing the climate conditions and the thick bushes allow for it. But the venue’s doors open at 7:00 PM sharp, and within the hour that follows, it’ll be bursting with young people who want to let their demons out to play.
Which means: Vásquez isn’t going to make it to the reopening.
Meanwhile, traveling at 3.265 meters above sea level, are two 30-year-olds, Julia Gómez and Silvia Peña, an illustrator and a fashion designer respectively. They’ve been trapped on a bus for at least five hours, trying to make it to the furthest point of the road. They’re traveling from the Colombian capital of Bogotá to Pereira on a mission: To paint a mural right outside the venue, one flooded with symbolism, featuring the eighth arcane angel (the tarot card that represents death), on whose back the following text reads: “The nameless arcane represents transformation, the transition of one state to the other. It is purification, necessary for evolution. The skeleton carves the black substance of the unconscious for a new sowing, for the birth of a new being.”
"The cult vermin will triumph!"
After 11 hours on the road, Gómez and Peña arrive just in time to experience one of Pereira’s rituals. The city is centrally located in Colombia’s occidental region, at the heart of the mountain range. It’s the single most populous city of the Colombian coffee growing axis (called Eje Cafetero in Spanish), home to 488,839 people, 19 communes, and 12 jurisdictional territories, at a length and width of 702 square kilometers. Somewhere in between, an 80-square meter location lies, which can hold a total capacity of 117 worshippers, who claim to be the “happiest minority in the world!”: A place called Garden Underground, also known as el antro.”
Un antro is a seedy place—a dive bar, brothel, or club—with a bad reputation. But Garden Underground has redefined the word here: The antro is a dark, tiny, secret electronic music club that opened in 2012 and has hosted nearly 60 parties, the majority of which features vanguardist DJs from the international circuit, like Óscar Mulero, Svreca, Polar Inertia and SHXCXCHCXSH, as well as Colombian talents like W.I.R.E. and Adriana López.
The club plays exclusively techno, one of the more aggressive, hard to swallow, introspective sub-genres of electronic music. The genre was born in Detroit during the 1980s, through the likes of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, as an afro-futuristic expression. It rose from its own ashes after the city’s economic decline during the 1970s and 1980s, the withdrawal of the automotive manufacturing industry, and the consequent racial tension that followed. At that point, multiple movements started to take root in Detroit, ones that used techno as a means of social resistance and rebellion—a phenomenon that soon appeared in London, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, and, last but not least, Pereira.
Garden Underground and its community are constructed on a strict ideology. Everything operates according to these fundamental guidelines: No photos, no videos, no drugs, and no advertising of parties; the entrance of people under age 20 is prohibited; women can’t wear high heels, and men need to leave their hats at home.
“These third world sons of bitches feel no sense of belonging towards their stuff. They only think that foreign shit is dope.”
Of all the bans, the one against drug use is the most drastic. On Garden Underground’s Facebook page reads the following statement: “Zero tolerance for those who don’t know how to enjoy music without being high.” The club preaches a dance floor ethos that contradicts more than one of the scene’s clichés: “More music, more passion, more art, more sports… we need a cult audience that shares our values, the good energy, education, and respect. The cult vermin will triumph!”
Every movement has its leader. But the absolute boss of the “pequeño Antro,” as some loyal club-goers call it, prefers to operate solo and from the shadows, entirely underground if necessary. That’s how he’s built a sort of church that, from an economic standpoint, barely scrapes by, but thrives on the philosophy of voluntary simplicity and minimalism, pushed to an extreme in order to create a special connection with its ravers.
The founder of Garden Underground asked for his identity to be kept private; according to him, revealing it would be the equivalent of death. Instead, he prefers to be called “The Entity.” His digital presence is virtually nonexistent and he hates being spoken about—hates strangers waving at him in Pereira’s streets. What the great majority of us want—exposure, fame, recognition for our accomplishments—makes The Entity lose his appetite. He’s a radical, simultaneously ferocious about his beliefs and stoic in demeanor.
“People here are awful sometimes, dude. People who don’t know what the antro is,” he says.
“Do you say that because of their clothes?” I ask.
“No no, not at all. People must look at me on the street and think, ‘what a horrible guy!’” he laughs. “I’m referring to people’s attitudes, man. The ‘bandit’ attitude, [the ones that] think they’re better than the rest.”
The Entity is 37 years old. At approximately five and a half feet tall, he has a robust build and a round face, complete with grayish eyes, tanned skin, and black hair that’s cut sharply along the sides. His wardrobe ranges from pieces in gray to black, and that’s about it. Whenever he’s excited or stressed out, he stutters. When he’s not stuttering, words fly from his mouth at an astounding speed. He says he doesn’t eat meat out of “solidarity with the little animals.” He has a modified Yamaha DT motorcycle, a low range Renault, a motorized skateboard, and two stylish bicycles that he built himself and which are his primary means of transportation.
His hermetic nature is somewhat odd. From a first impression, those who manage to interact with him wind up either loving or hating him. There’s no middle ground. He’s safe behind his affect and ideological armor. But if someone genuinely cracks his code, without economic or showbiz-related pretenses, The Entity opens up with humility, offering more attention and care than the world’s most experienced flight attendant. But even when he lets the walls of his fort down, he never lets down his guard. His hands never shake and he’ll never hesitate to tell his best friend if he’s done something wrong. Whenever he gives an opinion, it’s a raw one.
The Entity travels from his house to Garden Underground multiple times a day, addressing and fine-tuning minute details noticeable only to him and his followers. As he crosses the city back and forth, the man ardently dismisses the snobbish tendencies of Colombia’s electronic music scene.
“These third-world sons of bitches feel no sense of belonging for their stuff. They only think the foreign shit is dope,” he argues.
He’s even comfortable doing something that few club promoters in the world would dare to do: Scold or question heavyweight artists of the global scene.
“Yeah, bro. I’ve had to draw the line for some foreign DJs because they don’t act professionally. They come up to me and ask for drugs so [casually], like you could simply find them in any corner, from any person…”
“But don’t you think it’s difficult to [disassociate] psychotropic drug use from electronic music? They’ve been allies since the beginning of the genre,” I say.
“Listen,” he begins. “I don’t do drugs. I’ve never even tried them. But of course, I don’t attempt to cover the sun with my thumb. I know that it happens here and everywhere. If they’re going to do it, they can do it in the bathroom. All I ask is that is to not be a showoff [about it], and to not take drugs just for the thrill of it, out of a trend. Do you feel me?”
On Thursday, December 1, 2016 at 8:05 PM, The Entity heads to the airport in his Renault to pick up Polar Inertia from the International Airport of Matecaña. The French artist is known for his frigid, antiseptic sort of techno, and he has the air of an introverted Parisian, pure and noble at heart. He’s no taller than 5’3”, and his face shows the hustle of various airports, all-nighters, and strange beds. Polar, as The Entity calls him, is a cult DJ and producer that has successfully made it to the scene’s most important clubs, like Berghain in Berlin, Rex in Paris, or Bassiani in Tbilisi, Georgia. He has a prestigious reputation and has traveled to multiple corners of the world, enjoying the commodities and compensations that come with playing such venues.
And he’s here today, in Pereira, to play at Garden Underground. Instead of a five-star hotel, he’s elected to sleep in a 10 square-meter room inside the middle-class house where The Entity lives, in a residential complex that’s already sporting Christmas lights. The building has three floors, and The Entity lives there with his wife and three children: Matías, Evaristo, and Niña—three stray dogs he took in.
The Entity’s wife doesn’t understand much about techno, but she’s the hidden face of the antro. She manages money from the door and even serves as the club’s bouncer from time to time. Regulars of Garden Underground know and respect her, calling her Doña Claudia. She’s a key element in this three-year venture, which is considered a cult locale not only in Colombia but across the entire continent. International DJs who get paid approximately $10,000 per show give up such luxuries to come to Garden Underground and perform for free. According to Polar himself, you can’t find the sort of intense energy created but a hundred souls anywhere else in the world. To play at Garden Underground is to sacrifice profit just to perform in front of 100 Colombian youths looking to redeem their sins, escape their fears, or simply let go—break out of their minds and bodies with bass drums that hit you in the chest hard enough to cause tachycardia.
Doña Claudia, The Entity, and the Frenchman are sitting in the living room. In their eyes and smiles is a perceptible hint of old comradery. This is the second time they’ve seen each other face-to-face: Exactly one year ago today, Polar Inertia made his successful debut at the antro. It’s a tough gig to land—only a few acts make it through the quality control filter of the mastermind behind Garden Underground.
The night is coming to an end, and tomorrow is the opening date of club’s new location. The Entity brings his hands together and places them to his cheek, asking the Frenchman if he’s sleepy. Polar laughs. He doesn’t speak: He can’t speak Spanish, and The Entity is far from being able to pronounce a single word in English. He tilts his head delicately and moves his right hand, the palm faced down to indicate “so-so”.
“Esliii?” mumbles The Entity in rudimentary English, adding “ Cansado?” to ask if the DJ is tired.
An entire year of friendship through hand gestures.
Through the only window inside the antro, on the left, overlooking the other side of the Noup valley, you can see the monumental César Gaviria Trujillo Viaduct, which is named after the 55th president of the Colombian Republic. It sticks out over a deep and vast meadow that divides part of the city and that, in its steep hills typical for this part of the country, packs innumerable houses that turn the landscape into a collage of shabby tiles and rusted zinc roofs.
The sun is shining brightly outside the club that morning on December 2. Clouds roll in minutes later; 20 minutes later, the sun rays are visible again. At 11:00 AM, the fickle climate unleashes a drizzle so soft that it almost makes your skin itch. The Entity, Polar, and Charlie, an empirical sound engineer, head toward the club’s door to conduct sound checks and ensure that everything will be on point that night. Two people are already there—it’s only 11:15 AM—but a couple from Bogotá have, like Gómez and Peña, come from Bogotá to see how Polar Inertia musically strips down at the club’s altar.
“We wanted to find the place beforehand [to make sure we get in later]. We don’t want to be left out.”
“Would you like to come in and see?” asks The Entity. The couple says this would be awesome and thanks him.
Inside, they’re still putting on the last brushstrokes of black paint. Today, the new Garden Underground will open its doors, its third venue after systematically cycling through smaller locations. Seven months have passed since the last party and the public’s energy and expectations are about to burst. The address for the new temple has never been publicly revealed: Apart from The Entity’s occasional reply to private inquiries on Facebook from club-goers coming from outside Pereira and knowledge passed by word of mouth, the only indication of the movement’s new location was a YouTube video with various shots of The Entity riding his bike towards the club. (In 2017, he plans on constructing a parking lot for bicycles outside the club, and is promising a discounted ticket price for cyclists.)
Everything here has been created according to a DIY philosophy. They never hire outside services or contractors; everything in the club is done by its proprietors. Their method of operating is as follows: The Entity learns how to do something—whether it’s making an air duct to soundproofing with recycled products—through YouTube tutorials. Afterwards, he and few friends don overalls and get to work. The building where Garden Underground is located, at Las Aromas street, is a four-story construction that they found abandoned and unfinished. So they painted it and adapted the second floor to turn the place into an “artisanal” techno club. When the sound system is turned on, nothing outside the club’s walls is audible. The only thing you feel is the giddy vibration, as if someone was compressing the air on the other side of the wall, giving the club a pressurized feel.
The last sound check is over. The couple from Bogotá goes outside, both of their faces transfixed. Later, the Parisian DJ steps outside, truly bewildered.
“I don’t get it… I don’t understand how they make three speakers sound like this.”
It’s 6:00 PM and in about an hour, the antro will turn on its sound system. At least 60 club-goers are waiting in line, all of them leaning against the building to shield themselves from the rain that hasn’t stopped since starting at noon.
All of them have held the line at the door for more than three to four hours. That’s what you have to do to get a guaranteed spot at Garden, since the capacity is limited to 117 people. It’s an extremely low number when you consider the artists that play here, and the thousands of techno enthusiasts in Colombia. The Entity pulls up in his Renault. He steps out and walks, smiling and strolling like a kid who’s about to open a present. The people leaning against the wall look at him with veneration.
El Negro, a wide man with an impenetrable look who’s nearing his sixties, is up. He’s the bouncer. His inspecting look resembles that of the gringos who rigorously size up Colombians at the airport. El Negro pats down each waiting body like an X-ray detector. Looking for drugs, he goes through the most unexplored pockets, and finds some rolling papers.
“You can’t come in with those,” he warns darkly. “Please, step aside.”
Only a few people have been denied entrance by El Negro. Over Facebook, the only social network it uses, Garden Underground has introduced the audience to their radical politics. What’s particularly surprising is the fact that the public not only accepts their rules, but honors them as if they were commandments. And it’s important to announce that the average club-goer that visits the antro falls between the ages of 20 to 28, comes from the middle class, and doesn’t dress in hipster garb or high fashion attire. It’s even normal for some to cover the price of entrance with spare change, because the only thing they truly care about is immerse themselves in a techno vortex and bask in it for hours. No one goes to Garden Underground to boost their status, brag about their acquisitiveness, flirt with other men or women, or get high.
“This is the only underground movement in Colombia. This doesn’t even happen in Bogotá. The Garden people know what they stand for and what they want; and their attitudes and beliefs make it a real techno scene with modest people,” says Alejandro Villegas, another club-goer who came from the capital city.
Perhaps it’s because of these details that, in comments given during several interviews, DJs like Oscar Mulero, Tripeo, and Svreca have guaranteed that Garden Underground is one of the best techno clubs in the world.
“The Garden is a very special place—the interaction with the public is so intense and direct that I felt completely overwhelmed when I played there,” recalls Tripeo.
“All the [people] that were [there] experienced the largest Communion in Garden to date; but it wasn’t the best. Because the best in the antro is always yet to come”, says Svreca.
The young people waiting outside say that Garden Underground works precisely because it’s not a business. It doesn’t exist for profit, but in the name of dancing, born from the idea that the mind travels exclusively with and for techno.
“The antro and its music [create] a place that allows you to make new connections with people you don’t know, and they’re nonverbal connections. Garden’s public understands techno, and unlike other parties, they give their all to it, 100 percent. It’s not about ‘me’ here—it’s a collective liberation,” says Gómez.
It’s 10:00 PM. The Entity just circled back to his house to pick up Polar. They go in a straight line, up the 32 stairs to the second floor, and the first black door opens. The room is small and dark except for a dim red light that plunges everyone into anonymity. In the back, a small opening leads into a tiny underworld.
Polar is in the antro, and it’s explosive. To draw a modest comparison, it’s like the entrance of the Argentinian soccer player Diego Maradona to La Bombonera stadium, or The Beatles’ arrival in the United States for the first time ever. Everyone screams and applauds for several minutes, as if God himself had appeared directly in front of them. But it’s a simple Parisian guy, and not even French people react to him like this. The altar is ready, the preacher can commence.
The sound of the analogue synthesizer flows from the speaker for two minutes, profound and healing. The lounge is dark; people close their eyes. The moment marks the start of some sort of necessary cleanse for the mind and soul, in order to ready the body for the oncoming ritual. Little by little, thick basses and persistent percussions emerge, and the vortex starts to open. The path to ascent to a superior mental state, to enter a trance, appears.
The detonations being constructed here begin to evolve. The orgasm of techno works in a different fashion because it’s a continuous state; the ejaculation is equivalent to the prolonged stopping of time on the dance floor. It’s 10:10 PM. Aggressive drum beats begin to thunder, and those attending unite with the rhythm on the dance floor. When 11:00 PM rolls in, the den is pure heat, and fists are held high. Come midnight, the collective consciousness of the club is immersed in the introspective melodies; at 1:00 AM, you can almost feel the music in your chest, thorax pressed to the maximum, while milliseconds of darkness escape the convulsing strobe light. At 2:00 AM, Gómez and Peña approach the end of the vortex and Polar jumps like a madman. Everyone’s body has given everything is has to the dance floor, but the absorbed shaman won’t stop building his unique breed of techno that simultaneously promotes inner peace and, at the same time, makes you want to give up on the movement and shout “fuck!”, when out of nowhere, the burning heat begins to melt and turns into mist.
The zinc roof is leaking. It looks like a miracle on the part of the ceremony’s master, but it’s actually just the universal effect of a packed room that jerks and jolts in the dark energy of the place. At 104 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat turns the vapor on the metal roofs into water, a reward for the devotion of the audience that screams, pointing their fists at the glory. Everything bursts and there’s nothing left to describe. Everything just went straight to hell.
The antro is empty. The ceremony had to end early, an order from the club itself. The deluge of sweat was a fair offering for such magnificent fête, but the downpour from the roof was so excessive that it compromised the security of the venue. The Entity didn’t wait more than a day to fix the ventilation problem, something he considered unacceptable.
Everything at Garden Underground has its proper process. Not a single cigarette was lit all night, and at no point did the scent of poppers waft from dark corners. The den’s dance floor is extremely well-respected.
While the celebration ended before expected, nobody argued with The Entity’s decision. Everyone left happy and applauding. It was another night in which it didn’t matter who was who, another night where the DJ did what he wanted to do to and received an outpouring of gratitude in return; another night that made word of Garden spread further across the world; a night of success, even though The Entity doesn’t fancy that term so much.
“The thing is, bro, everyone is looking for success, looking for stupid shit. We’ve never seeked fame— that’s our success. I believe that’s the key. We do our thing, whatever we feel is real. If they talk about us on the other side, well, we don’t care,” he says.
Two police officers show up at the entrance to the club. They weren’t even there during the party itself. The Entity receives them with a perfectly organized folder. He seems happy, and seizes the moment to tell the officers what Garden Underground is, and about the kind of people who go to dance there. As it turns out, the Den’s paperwork and permits are all up to date, even for the ones it shouldn’t have. Its owner is extremely rigid about the law. The facial expressions of the officers reveal their boredom, possibly because of the Entity’s unsolicited and thorough explanations regarding the transparency and legality of the club. They leave.
It’s 3:00 AM. Pereira sleeps. From Garden Underground, the lamps along the solitary roads make the Colombian mountains visible. There’s silence on Las Aromas Street; the ritual has ended. Outside the antro, sitting in an abandoned playground, Cristian Stiven Vásquez, the worker from the hardcore store in Chocó, shows up. He arrived late and the club was already packed, but he happened to intercept The Entity. He told him where he was from, which was more than enough to win the benevolence of the king who rules over this microscopic venue in Pereira.
Vásquez sets out for the transportation terminal. At 5:00 AM, he’s taking a little bus to Cartago, where he’ll take the first chiva of the day to San José del Palmar. From there, it’s seven hours on the road to reach Chocó, where he’ll get off the bus and get on with the iron cutting all over again.