Max Pearl finds wild scenes at clubs and festivals in Bogotá and Medellín.
"It's inevitable: in Colombia, any meeting of more than six people, of any class and at any hour of the day, is bound to turn into a dance party." - Gabriel García Márquez
Every seat is occupied in our passenger van, which is barreling north on a dark highway past Bogotá's city limit, where the valley lights thin out as they scale the surrounding mountains. My knees are touching the knees of the stranger sitting opposite me, a European man with many piercings and tattoos, who I assume is DJing at Radikal Styles, the festival we're all headed to. Squeezed in next to me is Juliana Cuervo, a Colombian DJ and promoter known simply as Julianna. She's booked to play the midnight slot, and was kind enough to save me a seat in the artist transport on the way to the rave.
It's quiet except for the rattling and the wind rushing past us, so we make hushed small-talk as the city shrinks from view. I ask her about growing up in Medellín (a city she loves despite its conservatism), about her family's thoughts on DJing as a viable career (it is not) and about her first rave (Tiësto, 2004—she was 16). She tells me about her day job as an illustrator, and about Doce Discos, the record shop she opened in 2013 with her boyfriend Santiago Merino, who also DJs and produces under the name Merino. Though it was an essential hangout for the city's house and techno scene, the shop closed after only a couple years, mostly because of how expensive imported records are when converted from euros to pesos.
Within minutes of pulling off the highway, we start seeing young people idling in packs, smoking, drinking, standing around. It's Halloween, and with the weak yellow glow of passing street lights I get glimpses of their costumes: Jason masks, Freddy Krueger masks, It masks and so on.
We wind through a flat, empty farmscape and the pockets of people fan out into tailgating throngs of partygoers outside the parking lot, where staff are milling about with walkie-talkies and clipboards. When we climb down from the van one of them recognizes Juliana, then beelines over and begins checking names off of a list. The air is crisp and clean, and I can hear the muddled thudding of multiple soundsystems.
Radikal Styles is now 12 years old in its current iteration. Devotees tend to shorten it to just "Radikal." Cofounder Felipe Ospina borrowed the name from a collection of essays by the critic and philosopher Susan Sontag called Styles Of Radical Will, in which she outlines a theory of art as an assault on the audience.
There are three stages for three genres of rave music: techno, drum & bass and hardcore. The techno stage is curated by Medellín label Insurgentes, run by this week's RA podcaster Verraco. The hardcore is Thunderdome-style hardcore, which blows past the 200 BPM mark while raining down kick drum hellfire on ecstatic ravers. Radikal Styles is the gnarly, unpretentious, madcap counterpart to Bogotá's elegant, taste-conscious club scene.
The guy with the wireless ear-piece who's handing out our bracelets is Theo Esguerra. The festival grew from the illegal parties he used to throw in downtown Bogotá, where even today there are lawless semi-autonomous zones full of squats and crack houses. He explains this to me as he leads Juliana and the other DJs to the backstage tent, where plastic cups of beer are being rattled by vigorous wubs from the adjacent stage. The look here is different from what you'd see in the green room at some hip European dance music festival—less skinny jeans and patterned tops, more cargo pants, hoodies, dreadlocks, piercings.
We fortify ourselves against the cold with strong drinks, then I follow Juliana and her friends out onto the festival grounds. At the techno stage, a Bogotá DJ named Aleja Sanchez—one of the Colombian scene's biggest international exports—is playing militant but subtly psychedelic DJ tools to a half-full tent. The age range appears to stretch from 15 to 30 and the mood is riotous. There's no security in sight and some of the kids here are so high that I can see dilated pupils from across the tent. A baby-faced raver hanging off his friend's shoulder keeps offering me his can of Red Bull, which I politely decline until he gets distracted and wanders away.
Juliana goes on just after midnight. It's her first set of the night—she's due back in the city for a 5 AM gig at Video Club, where at this moment they are 16 hours into RA's twenty four/seven Bogotá event. She rarely plays straight-ahead techno, and the crowd is visibly thrown off by her syncopated, unpredictable rhythms. Within 40 minutes she has them under control, giving them big-room techno every once in a while. There are maybe 200 people in the tent by the time she finishes, but when I look over at the much-larger hardcore stage there must be four times as many people. I meet Juliana and her friends backstage and we get back in the car to take us to Bogotá, so she can play her next set.
An hour later we're at Video Club, where I quickly lose track of them in the crowd. On the first floor, a DJ named Bclip is playing reggaeton to a group of fabulously dressed, gender-bending club kids. Upstairs in the main room, John Talabot, the Catalan DJ who's one of the night's headliners, is doing what he does best: slow, mesmerizing house music, the kind that takes a bit to get into, but once you're in the pocket it's almost impossible to fall out. Sometime around 4 AM, he's joined by Midland for a back-to-back and the sound shifts a bit—agile melodies, a bit of a percussive flourish—but they barely break 115 BPM by the time 5 AM rolls around. They're now 21 hours deep into the party, and the embattled crowd appreciates the gentle touch.
The rest of the morning is a blur. Juliana plays again, I smoke a million cigarettes out on the second-floor terrace while people trickle out, leaving only the freaks with crazy looks in their eyes who are still battling in the broad daylight. Someone I've just met puts me in a taxi and tells me we're going to keep drinking at a friend's apartment. I spend an hour on a balcony at the afterparty talking to a group of very drunk lawyers who think it's funny that I came from New York to write about techno. Then another taxi ride and I'm squinting up at the sun in front of my rented apartment, on an avenue that's closed on Sundays except to bikers and joggers. A few of the spandex cyclists turn to gawk at me—the guy who's wearing last night's clothing and fumbling around for his house keys.
The day before the party I meet Enrique León, Video Club's booker and resident DJ, who takes a break from setting up to eat lunch with me. I haven't seen Enrique in two years, since we met at a Dekmantel pre-party in São Paulo, before spending the week running around the festival with a group of Chileans and Colombians. He picks a bakery down the street from his apartment, in a quiet, well-groomed neighborhood at the foot of Bogotá's Monserrate mountain. It's part of the Andean range that stretches down to the southernmost tip of Argentina, and it dominates the panorama constantly, curving over you like a gentle green giant.
Enrique started DJing in the mid-2000s, while living in Venezuela. In 2007 he and a group of friends opened a small club in his hometown of Maracaibo, two hours from the Colombian border. "Maracaibo is a petroleum city," he says, sitting across from me, spooning tomato soup. "Or it was, at least. Now it looks like a world war hit it. At the time there were plenty of foreigners because of the petroleum, and lots of money going around, so the bar ran for a while."
Life in Maracaibo became steadily more difficult as the economic crisis worsened, and in 2009 Enrique moved to Buenos Aires to study sound engineering. He picked up a monthly DJ residency but never settled into the social milieu. "I was happy because I got to play, but the scene there was really, really weird," he says. "For me it felt so distinct, culturally, the way people approached any situation. It wasn't necessarily bad, but different, and it didn't resonate with me. In fact I reached this moment after more than three years, where I was like, I don't have to be doing this—DJing. Like, why? I wasn't growing at all."
Then he moved to Colombia and he remembered why. "I immediately sensed that people were so much more receptive," he tells me. "Since we're neighbors, Venezuela and Colombia are basically identical, culturally."
Along with his co-booker, Mansur Elias, and a collective of 23 other business partners, Enrique now owns a piece of one Latin America's most distinguished electronic music venues. Opened in April of 2016, it's become a vital node in the increasingly cohesive network of Latin American promoters, venues and festivals.
"When you and I met in Brazil a couple years ago, the network had already started to take shape," he says. "Since then we've interacted a bunch with Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Mexico City. Now there's all of this activity that, at least if it was happening before, I wasn't really aware of it. All of a sudden I find myself in the middle of this new Latin American network, like everyone said at the same time, 'OK, I'm ready!' It's got me feeling super motivated. Finally people are looking in our direction."
With a chic interior that doesn't feel overly manicured, and a genuinely adventurous program of international and domestic DJs, Video Club represents a new generation of nightlife for Bogotá. It's a smaller, hipper alternative to Baum, the 900-capacity tech house temple that has dominated the scene since it opened in 2012. The crowd is also a lot more queer.
"Video Club is supposed to be a place of freedom," he says, echoing the notion of the dance floor as a safe space. There are pockets of open-minded people in Colombia, he says, but it's still a conservative Catholic country with a serious machismo problem, which makes it an important part of the club's mission. "People have told me they think Video Club is too gay," he says, "but I don't even think of it as gay—it's just a space for expression, to be yourself."
This ethos is at odds with the macho attitude that used to dominate Bogotá club culture. "There was a moment where it was full of traquetos," he says—Colombian slang for mafiosos. "It turned into that for a while: you know, women with giant fake tits, bottle service, VIP area. In the last few years that's been changing, and part of what we've tried to do with Video Club is get as far away from that as possible."