Author: Santiago Riomalo Clavijo
Photo Credit: Jose Gómez
When you live in a small town in Colombia, one phone call can ruin a party that has been going on for months. “The person who rented us the sound system told me that the equipment had come from another municipality, and that the car had had an accident,” says Juan José Muñoz, aka Moncayo, co-founder of the collective Sonidos Urgentes Resistentes: S.U.R. “He said he was three hours away from the event venue, that as soon as he arrived he would solve the problem.” The solution was to get another sound system. But the collective pulled off its first electronic party in Pitalito, Huila, a department in the southwest of the country.
This is one of the many variables that collectives in Colombia’s small cities must overcome if they want to survive in the undergrowth of self-management. A country that, due to factors such as internal conflict and inequality, accumulates the bulk of its population in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla, the only cities that, by 2018, had more than one million inhabitants. Moncayo from Pitalito, Jose Gómez, aka Zemög, from Pereira and José Daniel Muñoz from Mocoa operate in this central panorama. Young people who, although they have had to migrate at times to one of these big cities, remain connected to the electronic circuit of the so-called ‘periphery’.
“When I lived in Bogotá, I traveled every six months to Mocoa to help with the production of events,” says José Daniel Muñoz, a crafts instructor and co-founder of Nishi Cobin – the name given to ayahuasca by the Shipibo-Conibo indigenous people – a collective that was founded in 2017 in the capital of Putumayo, a department in the southwest of Colombia next to the Amazon. Like José Daniel, Zemög lived for several years working in Bogotá, but in the middle of the pandemic he returned home with two clear objectives: to work on his musical project and to focus on Matteria Collective, the promoter giving a different sound to Pereira, capital of Risaralda and a key area of the Eje Cafetero.
Behind Nishi Cobin, S.U.R. and Matteria Collective are old friendships, family and partners. Links that materialized the heated conversations between electronic music lovers. From these group flashes, these three collectives were born, which, from the beginning, knew that they were swimming against the current: the lack of venues, equipment, massive scene and the absence of the state has forced these collectives to sprout from self-management, one that becomes political because it is cultivating underground scene and resistance in each territory.
The foundations of collectivity
Although Mocoa holds the title of departmental capital, it is a town: according to the projections of the National Administrative Department of Statistics between 2018-2020, this municipality has just 58,938 inhabitants. “This electronic scene is only just consolidating because, in addition to the fact that few people live here, there are no universities in Putumayo. Many young people go to other cities to study and only come here on holidays to visit their families,” explains José Daniel Muñoz. “This dynamic does not allow us to do more than four events a year because if we organize them in another season, attendance will be very low.
However, the Putumayo diaspora has led young people to listen to sounds from other cities and return to Mocoa to replicate the foreign sounds that captivated them. “Here the scene was born at the end of private parties: university students who came without a place to party and invented parties in farms behind closed doors,” Muñoz continues. It wasn’t until December 2013 that the first event was held in Mocoa, “with flyers, tickets and so on”. Behind the debut was Óscar Bermeo, who for four years organized the Christmas party and christened it ‘Navidance’. For the first edition, one of the guest DJs was Saúl Solarte, who later conspired with the brothers Fernando and José Daniel Muñoz to fulfill the dream of having a collective.
These three mocoanos joined forces with 5 other people to make their first event in December 2017. The famous Bogota DJ and producer Julio Victoria, Saúl himself and local DJs witnessed the birth of Nishi Cobin and the big step that Putumayo’s shy electronic scene was taking that night.
At those early raves, Moncayo was invited to play in the middle of the jungle. Today, the 21-year-old DJ and visual arts student in Cali says that his playing at that event was crucial in creating a collective like S.U.R. He started learning to mix on weekdays at the MIND nightclub. Then he was able to play on Fridays, and “The following year, Saúl Solarte came, saw me and invited me to play in Mocoa: that’s when I felt I wanted to get fully involved in this”.
Over time, Moncayo and his friend Juan Manuel felt that the few electronic music events in Pitalito, home to less than 140,000 people, only played techno and tech-house. “We asked ourselves: Why not bring Colombian artists who are exploring other sounds,” says the selector and cultural manager. “Since 2019 we had a clear idea of the meeting we wanted to organize, but we lacked the money, until in September 2021 a friend of ours decided to support us financially”.
Unfortunately, they didn’t make any money. However without that helping hand, Julianna, Retrograde Youth and Amantra – three DJs who have earned a place on the fringes of the Colombian mainstream electronic industry-would not have been able to land on the dancefloor of S.U.R. on 7 January, a collective that grew out of non-conformity and the political need to not be complacent with the electronic scene in Huila.
That has been the very spirit of Matteria Collective, a Pereira-based patch that celebrated its third anniversary in December 2021 with a line-up that brought together Rrose (US) and Shifted (UK) with selectors from the collective, including Zemög. “We’ve been doing this for more than ten years, we used to be called Technosis. Some members left and those of us who wanted to take the audience to a different experience stayed”, he explains.
Since then, Andrés Gaviria, Juliana Robledo, Kevin Villa, Santiago Urquijo and Zemög have organized raves lasting until 10:00 in the morning with acts like Kanding Ray, Adriana López, Polygonia, Claudio PRC, Merino, among others. This has been possible thanks to an audience that, according to Zemög, is “one of the most cultured, respectful and open-minded in the country”. A thriving scene, which does not seem to fit in with the fact that no more than half a million people live there. “Today, in one weekend, there can be five events with national and international artists,” explains Zemög, “Calculate how important Pereira is for the country’s electronic scene. For me it rubs shoulders with Bogotá and Medellín.”
The riddle is to find potential dance floors and overcome technical and logistical problems. To do that, these managers turn to the collective imagination, to reinvent the spaces and to continue paving the sound circuit they inhabit.
Mocoa and Pitalito do not have any clubs. The raves are held on farms or in places far from the city. And although in Pereira there is the Tunnel club, “Here, venues have always been the Achilles’ heel. As a collective we had a couple of clubs, but it became impossible to maintain them, the taxes are very expensive”, says Zemög.
The solution? Appropriating outdoor locations, but it’s not always that easy. “In Pereira there is no political support from the mayor’s office, they don’t care about the culture around electronic music,” says the producer. “If you don’t have a contact inside, there is no way to get a permit to organize an outdoor event.”
The same thing happened to S.U.R.: “We wanted to get a permit, but the mayor’s office wanted to charge us 3 million pesos (700 euros), an amount we didn’t have”, explains Moncayo. They had no choice but to hold their first meeting clandestinely on a farm on the outskirts of Pitalito. “We were saved by the fact that the owner of the place had some contacts in the police and they never bothered us”.
Without permits and contacts in public office, there is a chance that the police will shut down the party. But in areas like Pereira, there are other types of visits. “Here there has always been something we call La Oficina, groups outside the law who ask for a vacuna (illegal fee) when events are held,” says Zemög, “If they arrive, you have to give them some money and let them into the party. Faced with these dynamics, which are common in various parts of the country, there is little a collective can do.”
Apart from the lack of state support, the presence of criminal structures, and even the difficulties caused by covid, there are other factors that make each festival a feat. “We had to bring Julianna and Retrograde Youth from Medellín, but there are no direct flights to Pitalito, so they had to arrive in Bogotá, stay one night and the next day fly to Neiva to pick them up there,” he explains. These logistics made the party more expensive, but S.U.R. didn’t skimp and gathered around 150 people at a farm on the outskirts of Pitalito.
The Mocoan collective has also had to contend with a number of unforeseen circumstances, such as a lack of equipment: “Saúl and my brother bought a unit, but we have to bring another one from Pitalito, the same machine with which Moncayo has played,” recalls Muñoz. “It’s very stressful because we have to see who picks it up and who brings it back. This has woven a link between the collectives and the self-managed scenes of both municipalities, but this precariousness has made it difficult, on some occasions, to take the rave to the jungle.”
“For the party with Julio Victoria, we rented an electric plant that went out just as he was playing,” Muñoz laughs. In the dark, they had to revive it, and it was only at that moment that their souls returned to their bodies. ‘Tricks of the trade’ as the three collectives would say.
Pandemic, present and future
The world was wrong to think that the pandemic would make us a better society. The music industry was one of the most affected by the pandemic, but in Pitalito it helped to renew the electronic scene, now there are more patches wanting to organize events,” says Moncayo. After the confinement, they were driven to throw the party of their dreams.
The co-founder of Nishi Cobin does not feel the same way: “As a collective there was nothing positive because we had been organizing parties judiciously and people were already coming from other municipalities and departments”, he explains nostalgically, but he recognises that new collectives and artists emerged. Putumayo’s timid scene was nurtured in the face of a virus that threatened to obscure everything. Zemög, on the other hand, is categorical in his opinion: “I don’t see anything positive in the pandemic, the only good thing is that Matteria survived and we are still going strong”.
For some, it served as a push, for others, it was a hard parenthesis. However, in their words, the pandemic can be read as a matter of the past that did not manage to truncate the future ideas of these collectives. “With Saúl and my brother, we’re going to set up a kind of listening bar, where people can come to hear different music,” Muñoz says. “And we are planning to record sets in the jungle with local DJs to upload them on the internet and raise funds to reforest the Amazon and help save the jaguar”.
For Matteria Collective, the near future should focus on more open-air parties that offer a different experience. Zemög is also looking to make room for ambient music. “You don’t hear that here. I’ve been looking into it for a few years now and I’ve been able to publish sets in other countries, which has made them pay a bit of attention to me,”.
“For the next meetings, we are going to do an academic section with workshops and lectures around electronic music, we don’t want this to be just a party night but to generate questions in the people”, explains Moncayo, “And we are also talking with other collectives in Huila to do events together and diversify our department”.
Knowing that often everything is against them, these projects are born out of a genuine interest in creating a scene in their municipalities. In a deeply unequal country, where state neglect of culture rules, even pandemic, these collectives become a retaining wall that, with each event, demonstrate the importance of coming together around music. Without this, electronica would not have been able to defy the odds in small cities.
About the author
Journalist and cultural researcher from Bogotá. Although he studied radio, he has worked in press and television. He is currently a writer for Canal Trece’s cultural magazine, researcher of music documentaries and vocalist for Yo No La Tengo. He has collaborated for media such as VICE, Noisey, Bacánika, Shock and Pacifista.