There's a unique dance music scene brewing in the Uruguayan capital. Matt Unicomb travels there to meet the exceptionally talented DJs and producers at the heart of it.
A short walk away is what might be the best small club in the world. It's a basement venue called Phonotheque, and it has space for about 300 people. Another familiar scene takes place outside its doors every Sunday morning between March and December. From around 10 AM, teenagers and 20-somethings spill onto the street, dazed from the previous night. Pulling sunglasses from their pockets, they break off into small groups and talk softly. Some trade thoughts about the music they heard and the people they met; many discuss where they are going for the afterparty.
They spent the night listening to obscure techno, minimal, tech house and electro spun by local DJs who, like Phonotheque, are largely unknown outside Uruguay but are more skilled than many of their peers abroad. They have names like [email protected], Kino, Emilio and Fabricio, and their lives revolve around music—their life is music. Looking more like skaters than DJs, they dress casually in baggy t-shirts and shorts. They order second-hand records from Europe and the US and play them with the skill of seasoned professionals. These DJs are part of the small but thriving scene connected to Phonotheque (which locals call "phono"), a club that is shaping the hypnotic underground sound of Montevideo.
The scene's leader is Edu Koolt, known to most as DJ Koolt. In Uruguay, he's more than a DJ—he's a god. Many say he changed their lives, and more than a few have his name tattooed on their bodies. Koolt is a veteran selector who has been to Europe a handful of times, but he also remains mostly unknown there. Alongside DJ Detected and his old friend and fellow DJ Christian Bonanata, he was instrumental in founding Phonotheque, which is now run by Bonanata alone. Bonanata and Koolt, who met in 2004, are lifelong vinyl obsessives, so the club is geared towards vinyl DJs. Its booth is uncluttered, with built-in record crates, desktop fans and portable lights. The sound, delivered by a system that covers the space evenly, is crisp and packs a punch in the low-end. You get clarity no matter where you stand in the long and narrow space. It's the perfect small club.
Going to Phonotheque, which opened in 2013, feels more like a ritual than a fun night out. People on the dance floor rarely talk or use their phones. Instead, they get lost in the rolling grooves, as the DJs' long blends and expert pacing creates a trance-inducing atmosphere. You won't hear much classic house or disco. The sounds oozing from the speakers blend stripped-back techno and electro with early tech house and the occasional broken beat. It's a trippy experience. Dancers get lost in their own heads for hours at a time.
This atmosphere is uncommon in clubs elsewhere in the world, where constant chatter, cheers and the glow of smartphones detract from the immersive experience of electronic music. Not so at Phonotheque, where snaking DJ sets and steady grooves bewitch dancers.
"When you go to other places, other countries, you see the dance floor is mainly people talking," Kino, one of the club's residents, told me. "People using their cell phones, taking pictures of the DJ—stuff like that. But if you do that at Phonotheque, you're not really there."
The club was almost empty when I arrived with Melina Serser, a curly-haired DJ who designed Phonotheque's logo and specialises in downtempo beats, for the season opening in March. It was a little after midnight. The party had been brought forward one day after organisers learnt of an event with Carl Craig happening on the original date—two events with international DJs on the same night is not possible in Montevideo, a city with a population of 1.3 million. As Serser excitedly bounced around the room hugging friends like it was the first day back at school, Bonanata, who was tasked with the warm-up, spun icy broken beats and ambient.
"How good is the soundsytem?" said Junki Inoue, the night's headliner. Visiting from London, he was due to play at 4 AM. It would be his second gig at Phonotheque, and, like most visiting DJs, he was nervous. Only a handful of outside guests play at the club each season, so an invitation comes with high expectations. When international guests do play, they are often outdone by the local DJs. One hotly tipped DJ from the UK played at Phonotheque for the first time a few days after I left, but all anyone talked about afterwards was the resident Emilio's closing set.
Bonanata's selections straightened as the dance floor filled. New tracks from Spacetravel, Etienne and [email protected], Uruguay's top producer, were mixed with vintage electro and techno as dancers in shorts and shirts swayed from side to side beneath the low ceiling and archways. A former rock venue, Phonotheque's dance floor is rectangular, extending past a small bar to a seating area at the rear. You could be dancing at the foot of the raised DJ booth or at the bar ten metres back—the feeling in both spots will be similar. This creates a relaxed mood. Rather than jostle for space in the middle of the dance floor, people don't mind hanging back.
The club was busy by the time Inoue dropped Jus-Ed's "Jusnotic" in the opening minutes of his set. Playing housier than Bonanata, his mixing was smooth and unhurried, with subtle licks of melody and interesting sounds. Inoue played for three hours, the minimum set length at Phonotheque. There are usually only three DJs per night, giving each ample time to spin, as most parties begin at midnight and finish sometime after 10 AM.
Kino, an easygoing full-time chef, handled the closing slot. Moving between electro and techno, his set was the night's toughest, stacked with slamming broken beats and crashing hi-hats, all strung together with precision beatmatching. But Kino seemed distracted and distant, which didn't match his laidback personality. As it turns out, he just takes DJing very seriously.
"I had something in mind and it went another way," he told me outside a bar called K Fe on a windy Friday evening the following week. "I always like to get to the experimental stuff, but sometimes the people want something more cheerful. You need to plan so that it's a little bit laidback first, then move onto something more experimental after you get the crowd going. But the good thing about Phonotheque is that you can do whatever you want. We have Christian's trust."
For Phonotheque's DJs, a set must flow well. It's never just about playing tracks—they want to tell a story. You hear this in the way their selections ease through styles and sounds, blending tunes new and old with well-timed transitions and a steady pace. The mood and sound changes often, but there are rarely disruptions in the groove. The DJs know what Phonotheque's dance floor needs.
"Some DJs who come here have easy tricks to get the crowd going," Kino said. "For example, they mix in a new record after they've turned the bass off. Of course they get big 'boom!' when they bring it back. We don't care about doing that."