Bogota Hardcore. The New Sound of the Colombian Underground.
From prison raves to the underground, the brutal groove of Gabber is bringing Colombian kids together.
On a Wednesday night in Bogota, hundreds of Colombian youth line up to enter Club Las Vegas Nevada, a former strip club turned seedy teatro in the city's Chapinero district. It's a special night, a group of DJs from the USA have come and kids proudly display T-shirts and tattoos signifying their loyalty. This wouldn't be unusual for an EDM event in the United States, but the difference is that these kids aren't here to see Deadmau5 or Steve Aoki, they're here for multiple varieties of balls-to-the-wall, slam-your-face-into-a-speaker, extreme-nosebleed hardcore techno.
Hardcore techno, also known as Gabber, was an early dance music staple that reached the apex of its popularity in the 1990s rave scene. Characterized by a wildly fluctuating tempo between 150-300 BPM, barrels of distortion and a generally evil vibe, hardcore techno disappeared as a main room attraction in the United States during the great rave depression of the early 2000s. It never truly died though, bolstered by a cult-like following throughout the world, it now thrives in new locales like Colombia. Disgruntled youth in the country's capital of Bogota have rejected the more established house and techno sound in favor of high BPM sonic assaults, regularly filling nightclubs there for all night hardcore parties.
Colombia has also been through a reinvention of sorts, from a borderline narco state to a dance music mecca in Latin America. A growing national economy as well as continuing negotiations with FARC and ELN guerillas has encouraged urban Colombian youth to go out and dance like never before. Crews like Radical Styles, Re.Set and Techsound are regularly throwing parties and festivals attracting dance music legends like Richie Hawtin, the Metalheadz crew, Woody McBride and Lenny Dee.
After respected Bogota DJ Alex Jockey warms the crowd up with some hard techno, the first American, Digit216 from Queens, begins bombarding the audience with breakcore. The music is confusing to the kids at first, but inspired by the frenetic thrashing of the DJ, they start thrashing around themselves. Shots of aguardiente and bumps of cocaine are flowing throughout the crowd and everyone has a smile on their face. DJ Satronica is on next. Hardly recognized back home in Brooklyn, he is beloved in Colombia, regularly booked for large parties in the capital. The kids know all the lyrics to his songs and chant "Fuck the System" in English along to the music.
"It's like a virus, it infected us." says Luis Vargas. A Colombian music producer and DJ who goes by the moniker Sonico, Vargas started the promotion crew TechSound, and has largely been responsible for the recent influx of international talent to the city.
By the time legendary New York DJ Lenny Dee steps up to the decks, the crowd is frothing, stirred by a mix of pounding beats, alcohol and plentiful amounts of close to pure cocaine. Real name Leonardo Didesiderio, he has been a pioneer of the sound in the U.S., starting the seminal hardcore label Industrial Strength Records. He has witnessed the music's evolution, decline and resurgence, both at home and abroad. A regular on the European festival circuit, Dee thinks that Colombia has one of the best scenes in the world right now.
"It's an increase in energy. It's fresh," says Dee. "I'd rather be in Colombia with 200 motherfucking people; screaming and yelling… drinking Venezuelan rum and fucking getting busy."
Bogota is one of the largest cities in Latin America, with 8 million residents, comparable in population to New York City. Located 9,000 feet up above sea level at the base of the Andes, the city is usually surrounded in a cold and grey fog. Its residents, nicknamed rolos, have the reputation among tourists of being unfriendly and uptight compared to the paisas in the sunnier Colombian cities of Medellin and Cali. Bogotanos often joke that la clima is the main reason such a cold and brutal music style like hardcore techno could become so popular in the city.
The history of the city can also mirror this cold reality. Massive riots in 1948 destroyed much of the city, kicking off a period known as La Violencia, which left hundreds of thousands dead throughout the country. During the cocaine boom of the 1980 and 1990s, many residents of the city were terrorized by assassinations, paramilitary attacks, bombings and kidnappings.
It was in these years of turmoil that electronic music began to gain popularity in Bogota.
"For years electronic music was exclusively for rich people…because if you're going to the club, you had to pay the entrance and if you had this [electronic] music it's because you traveled outside the country or you knew someone who did," says Vargas.
The scene began to change in the late 1990s, according to Vargas. Venues like Club Cinema began to host edgier all night events with more aggressive styles of music. During this time, Bogotrax, a DJ and sound system collective, formed with the aim of bringing electronic music to the masses by hosting street parties throughout Bogota in a 10-day free festival. Unlike previous clubs and festivals, the parties were not segregated to the generally wealthier northern areas of Bogota, but also were located in the poorer southern barrios in the city.
The event that put Bogotrax on the international map was when it started hosting music events at some of Bogota's most notorious prisons. Wanting to keep true its mission of bringing electronic music to all stations of Colombian society, the group decided to play music for society's most rejected. Through a contact in the government, the festival was able to host four separate events at four different prisons including La Carcel Modelo de Bogota, home to some of Colombia's worst criminals as well as its largest prisons riots.
"People asked if we were crazy, if we were scared. I had to say, at first, we were. I mean it's a fucking Bogota prison," says Vargas with a smile.
Word of the festival and its D.I.Y. ethic began to spread in the international electronic music underground attracting a wide range of artists and DJs. The artists who were willing to fly out on their own dime and play for free also tended to play harder styles of electronic music like drum n bass, schranz and hardcore techno, according to Vargas, popularizing the hard sound in Bogota, especially among the young and the poor.
The prison gigs, while spreading fame worldwide did little to mollify its critics back home, who view the hardcore scene as only attracting ñeros, a Colombian slang term equivalent to bro in the US. Many grumble that the fans of hardcore are only interested in drugs and that parties in Bogota have begun to grow stale, echoing rave veterans in the States who can't relate to the attitude and dress of youngsters attending mainstream EDM events.
"The rave movement in Colombia is in crisis," said Detrito, an artist and member of the street art collective, Sarcofaga. "It's always in the same club now. It's boring."
Whether or not it is the at the same club, at around four in the morning there are still more than a thousand Colombian youth packed in the club. Two uniformed police officers arrive and the club quickly locks its door as its inebriated owner tries to engage in a furtive negotiation. Live music in Bogota is supposed to end by 3 AM. A more sober member of the promotion crew leads the police away, settling the matter out of public view.
"Bienviendos a Bogota," says one clubgoer with a grin to some gringos stuck outside during the bribe negotiation.
Despite their arrangement with the club and promoters, the cops return two hours later and shut it down anyway. Dazed revelers tumble out into the streets, shocked by their new realities of sunshine and tinnitus. A group of equally stunned DJs give hugs to enthusiastic fans and share a reflective cigarette.
Rita Dagaz, a member of the crew Radikal Styles, comes up to the group of performers. A longtime veteran of the Bogota electronic music scene, she congratulates them on a job well done.
"You made history tonight. You made history."
All photos by Daniel Rodriguez
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