In Colombia, the cultural sector was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Many venues and bars, following the instinct of survival, clung to their audience, the only thing that has always kept them afloat. Here are some of their stories.

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Author: Daniela Trujillo

Photo Credit: Calle 9+1

If any image of the pandemic remains for history, it is that of the closed door. We saw locked doors all over the world. From the smallest grocery shops, to the most enormous buildings in capital cities: homes and hotels, airports, terminals and borders. The entire planet became an inner dialogue, and we adapted to a way of life where the individual became more important. 

A notable gap in this new reality was that of spaces dedicated to culture and festivities, who became the last concern during this period. According to the Evaluation of the impact of covid-19 on cultural and creative industries, carried out by Mercosur, Unesco, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Ibero-American General Secretariat and the Organization of Ibero-American States, during the second period of 2020, the Latin American creative industry registered losses of 80%. In addition, 2.6 million jobs were lost and 83% of events in the region were canceled. 

Colombia recorded at that time more than 7,300 spaces completely closed to the public, including museums, cinemas, concert halls, galleries, theaters, bookstores, libraries and other leisure spaces. The impact of the pandemic left us with a sense of state abandonment and crisis in Colombia, which ended in a National Strike unprecedented in our recent history. 

What many venues, nightclubs and bars predicted as a few days’ stoppage, turned into a normalized inactivity of almost six months. The first trial reopening took place in August 2020 without partying or alcohol, authorizing only the sale of food inside the bars. In March 2021 alcohol was allowed, without necessarily being linked to the party, until midnight and gradually, during the following months of this year, the other restrictions were removed, opening the party areas with limited capacity until one in the morning, then until three in the morning and finally until five in the morning. 

This was from the outset an untenable situation for those who make their living from the nightlife, the dance floors and the public.

As a result, bars and discos had to find ways to cope with an apocalyptic event that promised to end the world as we knew it. Some of them were Calle 9+1 in Medellín, Asilo Bar in Bogotá, and Fecuencia Violeta (known as Elíptica) in Cali. Sites representative of the alternative electronic scene, which lived an odyssey to sustain themselves in the face of a deadly virus that prohibited contact, even on the dancefloor. The key? The answer, far from being state aid, was the support of a faithful and constant audience.

“Love of keeping on” preserved Calle 9+1

Calle 9+1 is located on Calle 10 con 40 in Medellín, Antioquia. Over the years Camilo Naranjo, known as Vandel and partner of the place, tells how tourism increased exponentially, along with a large public. This led them to constantly adapt the place: “The public demanded a transformation to which we gave in, the more people arrived, the more we became a community where electronic music and night parties prevailed”. In January 2020 they decided to go into debt for a structural renovation. And that big debt ran into a global health crisis. 

When we think of the pandemic we imagine a butterfly effect. And if you add to that a debt that is impossible to repay without an audience, the picture doesn’t get any better. When Vandel is asked how they managed to cope with the situation, he replies with a nervous laugh: “We don’t know”. Talk of state support to save these pandemic venues is a fantasy in his case. 

While Decree 818 of June 2020 was implemented, its resources fell short of the needs of those who sustain the sites. Its proposed tax freeze was not enough relief, leaving thousands of sites on tenterhooks during the quarantine period. Vandel and the other interviewees agree on one thing: “There was never any help from the state, nor from the municipalities, nor from the banks.”

Instead, they claim that the venues were saved by the audience. In June 2020, Calle 9+1, held the first ‘Distanciamiento Sonoro Independiente’, a virtual house and techno festival, which raised money and offered music for 36 hours on three rotating modular stages. The public could enjoy from home more than 30 national electronic music DJs on stage such as Ana Gartner, ADM, Julianna, Retrograde Youth and many more, in exchange for donations. 

The event raised enough money to cover some urgent expenses. “We sold merch and cocktails that we house-delivered, as well as food in collaboration with colleagues from restaurants. It almost felt like partying at the bar. We had all the production live, while people in farms and houses gathered to listen to us,” adds Vandel. But a virtual event doesn’t make up for the need to party that a seven-month lock-in produces, and the partners earmarked the money from alternative jobs for Calle 9+1 until it reopened. Everything was done “without knowing how, just for the love of keeping on”

Elíptico: transformation and awareness

In parallel, in the southeast of Colombia, one of the oldest and most solid projects of the Cali electronic scene, known as Elíptico (or Eliptica club), struggled to sustain itself. This project, run by Mauricio Hincapié, underwent a renovation of its concept to give life to La Frecuencia Violeta, a project with Juan Silva and Sebastián Varela. The cultural space, located in the north of the city, is for different audiences in Menga and hosts many more projects apart from the electronic ones. This has also been a method of survival for many venues: to renew and expand their bets. “But after so many years of activity and due to the pause of the pandemic, we chose this as the ideal moment of transformation,” says Marcela Mar, in charge of public relations for the space.

Cali is conceived as a place of endless partying. Marcela says that before the pandemic, the city had parties from Monday to Sunday, including venues such as the “After-office”. Because of this, the impact of the pandemic on Cali’s nightlife was felt more strongly. Many of these venues, which housed everything from students to workers, closed with the restrictions. However, the pause was a great opportunity for awareness-raising around the party for projects such as La Frecuencia Violeta

The question of meaning was a starting point. As closing was not a possibility, it was Mauricio, the owner of the space, who kept the place afloat by doing gradual events under a pre-sale model until June 2021, when they opened permanently. Although her space did not apply for any local or national incentive either, Marcela affirms that in Cali several support groups were born, convened by the community, which functioned as mediators between the cultural sector and the Mayor’s Office to find alternatives to protocols that the spaces found counterproductive.  

La Frecuencia Violeta @ We are Europe
© La Frecuencia Violeta

Marcela says that “After that pause, La Frecuencia Violeta, established itself as a place of conscious enjoyment of the music itself, where everyone is in a safe space and in a particular tuning. (…) There is an intention of internal contribution where we also want to reverse the damage caused by the pandemic“. Now their aim is to maintain a space where everyone fits, where music brings together everything that the virus separated.

“We understood that Asilo belongs to the people”.

From the boiling mountain streets of Cali, we move to the cold corner of Avenida Caracas and Calle 34 in Bogotá. There, a two-storey corner house has housed one of the city’s most alternative and post-punk audiences on its checkered dance floor since 2011. Asilo Bar was founded more than 10 years ago by Pasajero, Sandra Quintero and Daniel Calle. What used to be a brothel became a cult space for Bogota’s nightlife. For a decade, its commitment has been to recognise the value of the independent. 

The arrival of the pandemic took them by surprise. Asilo is more than a business for us, it was hard emotionally. At the beginning we underestimated the situation, we didn’t think it would be so long,” Sandra says, adding that the place “has sustained itself partly because of the emotions that revolve around it, because of the good and bad moments. Not being able to move, canceling everything and living in absolute uncertainty was very difficult. It took us until May 2020 to realize that everything was serious and that it wasn’t going to end there”. Despite the world crisis that we lived through that year, the owners of Asilo never thought of closing. 

In August 2020 came the anguish of closure. Asilo was maintained by the informal economy,Sandra acknowledges. “The country promised us a thousand things: aid, incentives and discounts. We lined up, knocked on doors and nothing ever happened. The aid was only for the banks“, she says, hinting that, according to her, the economic logic in Colombia still obeys the feudal system. 

“Small entrepreneurs were not given anything. It was very complex: the banks were savage, they gave installments, but with interest increases. Here you work, but you live condemned” The three venues ruled out state aid from the start. In the case of Asilo, the place was sustained by the odd jobs of its partners and also thanks to the people.

La Frecuencia Violeta @ We are Europe
© La Frecuencia Violeta

“We went around the city handing out T-shirts and keychains. Every time we knocked on a door, people said, ‘I hope you stay alive, I hope you manage to survive. We were very touched by that affection. We held a Vaki (editor’s note: Colombian crowdfunding platform) and people helped us en masse. We understood that Asilo belongs to the people. Then we turned the space into a gastrobar, where we sold vegan food and beer together with our colleagues, while the DJs were on stage because it wasn’t possible to dance,” says Sandra. The salvation was the tireless yearning of the public, people who have built memories, friendships and cultural ecosystems there.

Asilo, like the other venues, survived by joining forces with other venues in crisis, making virtual presentations of DJs and selectors such as El Sindicato DJ Gang playing soul, rockabilly, punk, post punk and more. Contrary to Vandel, who refuses to go back to the virtual party experience, Sandra considers that this opened a door that should be explored to reach more venues.

With affection, these three projects proudly name the scope of their audiences, which range from 20 to 60 years old, generations that have been sheltered under the same party concept in each of these cities. And which is now a transformed public after two years of pandemic. Both Vandel, Marcela and Sandra, comment strangely on this change. Many are still frequent customers, others have retired from the fiestas, and a few have started to use their ID cards to get to know these places. However, there is a lingering memory of customers who are no longer there.

After so much silence, and so many days with the doors closed, Calle 9+1, La Frecuencia Violeta, Asilo and surely many other spaces in the country, assure that music and alternative music scenes have a key role in the construction of society. Forced to live in a world that has reduced our lives to work, study and to neglect contact with others, dance floors, live music, DJs and enjoyment, these cultural managers and their struggle to remain remind us of the importance of feeling alive around music and understanding that it is always the people who save culture. Culture is the people themselves. 

About the author

Daniela Trujillo is a student of Literary Creation at the Universidad Central. Currently also dedicated to journalism, she writes with a particular concern for Latin American music and the participation of women and dissidents in it. Member of the collective In-correcto, a publishing label dedicated to disseminating alternative, experimental and Latin American artists.

She’s a member of the collective Vozes, dedicated to portraying through literature the territory, memory and women from the Organización Femenina Popular (Popular Women’s Organization). She has published in media such as Cartel Urbano and Shock.

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