On the outskirts of the city of Medellín, in Colombia, between streams, birdsong and colourful flower farms, a handful of artists have decided to create soundscapes at the mercy of the mountain and the mystique of its forests.

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Author: Cristian Herrera

Photo Credit: Rossur

When someone who is not from Colombia tells you about some of Medellín’s best-known attractions, they are likely to mention J Balvin, Maluma, the “guaro” (aguardiente),  Bandeja Paisa, or the Feria de las Flores with its famous silletero parade.

The silleteros have been a tradition in Antioquia since 1957, when the first handful of peasants paraded through the city of Medellín with a wooden chair on their backs, decorated with the most beautiful variety of flowers that sprout daily from the mountainous entrails of the department of Antioquia.

All of this is happening in Santa Elena, one of the five districts of the so-called ‘city of eternal spring’. It is located one hour east of Medellín. Its landscape seduces from the outset: a humid tropical climate with mountain influence, where the greenery of its forests harmonises with the mystical mist that envelops streams, birdsong and colourful silletero farms. 

In the heart of Santa Elena there is also a small region where flowers and foliage become living frames from which cables of modular synthesizers, MPCs, field recorders and pedals of different kinds emerge. A neighbourhood of elves and sound workers are responsible for this interweaving of sound in this territory, a group of friends who, in the depths of the forest, have decided to openly explore music from its most sensitive and human spectrum.

Along a leafy path guarded by playful guardian dogs, you come across a series of cottages that look like something out of a typical Brothers Grimm fairy tale: Prince Charming, Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Ranger and The Hobbit. Four of these cottages are inhabited by Miguel Isaza, Rossana Uribe, Juliana Cuervo and Nicolás Vallejo.

Studio Santa Elena Ambient @ We are Europe
Studio Santa Elena Europe © Rossuribe

As happens in Europe during the winter season, when producers and musicians choose to cloister themselves to create sonically for months at a time, the four residents of this region coincided with a similar situation: a pandemic that has lasted for more than two years. As the Colombian writer Piedad Bonnet rightly pens, life is an infinite web of causes and effects, a succession of events, and what seemed like a fortuitous meeting of four totally different personalities materialized into a power within the mountain that brought forth sounds that now envelop its inhabitants.

The first to settle in this small neighbourhood was Miguel. Santa Elena seems to have been tailor-made for this multifaceted artist from Antioquia: a quiet, peaceful, unpretentious land, ready to share its fruits with everyone. This is Miguel, an artist who has preferred to work from non-central territories, far from an electronic cultural ecosystem in Medellín that can sometimes be conceived as a little hermetic and egocentric. 

If one searches for the name Miguel Isaza, one finds a philosopher who makes music, explores sound and writes; he performs concerts, workshops and talks. If you dig a little deeper, there is a revelation: in the field of Latin American sonic research, Miguel‘s work becomes an ideal starting point to get to know in depth the diverse faces that have sculpted sound in this region of the continent. Immersed in the mountains of Medellín, his transdisciplinary work has been building vivid memorabilia of ambient music and field recording. Together with his girlfriend Catalina Vásquez, the illustrator known as Kathiuska, they have decided to forge their creativity around the forest, walking calmly through the forest that surrounds them.

Towards the end of 2021, Miguel decided to release Flor, his most recent full-length work. Eight songs in which ambient is interwoven with Isaza‘s own field recordings and vocals. In his own words, “Flor represents an ode to sanity, from intimacy to intimacy, like a silence before another, for the forest that we are”. The album was born in Momoto, a small studio that Miguel himself assembled in the lungs of Santa Elena, where he composes and produces music, sound design, mixing and mastering.

Flor was also launched through Éter Ediciones, an imprint co-founded by Miguel and now helmed by his neighbour, sidekick and great friend, Rossana Uribe. Founded in 2011, Éter is defined as a laboratory of art and philosophy focused on the integrated exploration of sound, word and image. The label was precisely the meeting point between Miguel and Ross, as she is popularly known. This researcher and multimedia artist, producer and cultural manager, passionate about the trans-disciplinary exploration of light, sound and the multiple synaesthetic languages that are born from their interaction, brought a charm of her own to the so-called Casita de La Abuela. 

Together with his partner Valentina, Ross has been able to transform frequencies and rhythms into emotional and physical healing: a kind of contemporary alchemy that takes refuge in the wisdom of the mountain, clairaudient and telepathic medicine that heals through sound.

Music is not (only) an aesthetic pleasure, said Raimon Panikkar. “Listening to music means meditating on it. And by meditating on it we (re)establish communion with the universe”. This seems to be the fundamental premise animating Éter, the premise behind Miguel and Ross: to embrace music as a whole, proposing in it bridges and exchanges of knowledge, research and networked creations, reflections on the territory and reality itself. As Miguel rightly wrote at the height of the pandemic climax, “Sonority appears not as a mere companion to the real, but as its most dignified rupture and escape route”.

Sound and music as a therapeutic input, the forest and the mountain as a channel to embrace each other in the dark and help each other in the imagination. Perhaps this was the call felt by Juliana, the DJ and producer that the electronic circuit distinguishes as Julianna. Someone who has worked hard for over a decade to give electronic music the recognition it deserves in her native Medellín. Julianna is currently part of ECO and Latitudes, two platforms that also share her fighting spirit, and that focus on various issues that seem to be alien to the local electronic landscape: gender violence, political tools of the party, models of self-management, etc.

Despite being immersed and active in these collectivities, Juliana was forced to go through the pandemic enduring one of her most painful personal stages. Yet she remained steadfast in embracing that wise uncertainty with love. It was then that she decided to move to Santa Elena, and thus became Miguel and Ross’s new neighbour. 

From that moment on, the mystique of this wooded region and its day-labouring elves began to have an effect on the artist. Acceptance is good. Pausing the daily routine as therapy and response is fine. The simple fact of seeking a new refuge in the mountains to understand herself as a vulnerable being, who prefers to get away to heal the pains that life brings, was perhaps the greatest teaching that this new chapter brought with it for her. And it is there, once again, where music appears to lift and search for ways out of endless tangles.

It was then that Juliana decided to take up sound production and creation again. This time with her dog Cuba, the sonic adventure sought to navigate the huge wave of emotions of that time. The gatherings in the forest, the meals with her grandmothers, the divine silences with Miguel and Kata… all these condiments fed Juliana‘s creative spirit again, something that resulted in a collaborative EP with one of the great icons of Latin American electronic music production: Matías Aguayo.

Composed of five tracks, Que si el mundo symbolizes a profound therapeutic exploration of rhythm and sound, full of both personal and collective fibers. The magical exercise took place through long-distance dialogues, bandying melodies and piercing synths between smiles and tears. A warm work that was carved out of emotional ruptures, but capable of liberating the necessary movement to confront the current dystopia.

Finally, to complete a fantastical quartet woven around the sounds of ambient and mountain electronica, Nicolás Vallejo landed at the dawn of 2021. Like a little star gazing at nothing, this chronicler of the altiplano arrived in the region to finish sculpting his most precious stone, the musical production he has been working on for years. Avoiding today’s digital swarm, Nico found in Miguel, Ross and Juli the intangible heritage he longed for. 

Traveling through the farms with organic vegetable gardens of his village, and taking care of his cat Satanás Pantera, Nicolás surrendered himself to the will of the Santa Elena forest to carefully harvest the fruits of his first electronic solo project: Ezmeralda. Sound ghosts that make their way through sad trails, a kind of peasant ambient that brings back, through the sound channel, the mysticism of the Bacatá musica.

“He who knows the secrets of sound discovers the mystery of the whole universe”, said the founder of universal Sufism, Hazrat Inayat Khan. And in the words of Nicolás, perhaps summing up the spirit of that beautiful comarca that Miguel, Ross and Juli forged on the outskirts of Medellín, “All you need in this life is love, music and a garden”.

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About the author

Cristian “Cope” Herrera is a journalist and copywriter based in Bogotá, Colombia. Formed in the fearless newsroom of VICE Colombia, he developed a special interest in the broadest spectrum of music and culture, specializing in three particular genres: electronic music, hip hop and reggaetón.

Since then, his meticulous writing has landed on media such as VICE US, THUMP, Noisey, Resident Advisor, Playground, Revista Arcadia and Shock. Producer in charge of structuring the stories, characters and locations for the Medellín episodes of LOUD: The History of Reggaetón, Spotify’s original podcast.

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