In Off the Street: Music in Santiago's Casonas Under

It’s at least 1:30 in the morning when Carlos gets a call from a friend, who gives him an address somewhere in downtown.

“A couple of groups playing I think you’d like,” he says. “You want to go?” But he’s already hailed a taxi before I can respond. I only nod as I slide into the backseat.

Typical Santiago <em>casona</em> (photo by Daniel Pérez)
Typical Santiago casona (photo by Daniel Pérez)

He’s got an idea where it is: south in the direction of Bustamante. The taxi takes us across the river and straight into the quieter branches running from the trunk of Alameda. The mood in the taxi is irreverent and drunken and I don’t pay attention to the route the driver takes, so once we step out onto a corner ten minutes later the concrete jungle has all but swallowed me up. The buildings down here at this hour are similar, short and concrete and roofed in Spanish tiles, lifeless as statues in a park at midnight.

“Are we close?” I say to Carlos, who’s standing with his hands in his pockets, staring this way then that.

We’re looking for someone’s living room, because there’s a band I might like in the corner, jabbing their guitar necks around the foreheads of people reclining on sofas. We’re looking for someone’s kitchen where beers are selling for a luca. There’s a punk group or a cantautor, playing for 20 or 30 people who all seem to know each other (and who seem to know Carlos). We’re looking for the night’s casona.

This part of town doesn’t seem the place someone would go to court the night, but that only increases the appeal, so I trust in my friend and follow Carlos for a couple of blocks south. As we walk we call out the building numbers we can see through the street lamp lighting: the goal is to find the address corresponding to the call Carlos got back on the other side of the city. The only sounds are our own steps and our own voices. Everything’s gone off to sleep, and here we are, characters in the city’s dream.

We reach another corner and stop. All is quiet. Carlos’ phone rings again, and from the other end he receives information more crucial to our situation than he was offered previously. He hangs up and points to a black door behind us, like any other black door on the block, a heavy eyelid closed until morning opens it again.

“I think that’s it,” he says.

Santiago by night (photo by Daniel Pérez)
Santiago by night (photo by Daniel Pérez)

The casonas under of Santiago are remnants of a phenomenon that took root in the eighties in many parts of the Western world. After trudging out of the Second World War, bringing modernism and its discontents with it, the West gave birth to the underground movement. Traditional institutions still attempted to claim moral and cultural authority, and in this hemisphere Latin America saw the rise of the military dictatorship. Though the second half of the century promised to liberate, a tangled contradiction arose: liberation wasn’t guaranteed to all, but the ability to express frustration with that denial was. Often in the shadows of the underground.

Santiaguino bands played their anti-establishment punk to small but fierce crowds in cultural centers and casonas, and Las Yeguas del Apocalípsis (a feminized play on the Bible’s catastrophe cowboys) performed their disrupt-art at institutional public gatherings. Recognition was of course small (hardly the point anyway), but probably vital. Bands such as The Pinochet Boys—whose first ever concert was ruined by someone throwing a bag of mud on the instruments—and Fiskales Ad Hok sang of the reasons for absorbing the streets.

In these times of transition, alternatives were needed. Space too.

*

Carlos and I ascend a flight of stairs. I’m introduced to people through the thick sound of the music and then am happy to have a cigarette and lean against a support beam, taking in the scene.

As a foreigner and observer, there is something intriguing about the casonas beyond a meeting place of local radical politics, with which I’m not active, or even the “scene”, of which I’m not a part. I glance at the burgundy-leather couch, and next to it the night stand with a small lamp. I notice the pictures and fridge magnets as I’m sold a beer. The sink has a cup filled with toothbrushes. And what hits me is this: I’m in someone’s house, a house tied to no customs or values save those that are determined within. I get the sense, however foreign I feel here, that I’d been expected, not had space provided for me.

Old casona flyer (photo courtesty of google)
Old casona flyer (photo courtesty of google)

And so it is: an old anarchist row house with oak-wood banisters is not a bad place to hear a singer-songwriter rebuke neo-liberalism and the oppression of the indigenous. The sound is immediate and intimate. The bathrooms are (relatively) clean and the drinks are cheap. Likewise, the space of what might have been someone’s master bedroom, carpeted a deep green and with cream-colored walls, is a fine way to experience a post-hardcore instrumental three-piece. What is common to both experiences is that there is no point at which the living space ends and the show begins.

We pay our luca at the door, dropping the notes into a plastic bowl, but it feels like more of a gesture of good will than an entrance fee.

One could be forgiven for pointing out the exclusivity of such places. If they are advertised it is with notepad-sized flyers stuck to electrical boxes, memos left for those who know where to look.

But it seems to me that its modern value derives from my initial reaction. If there is a stage, it only rises a quarter-meter above the floor. After the show, the bands are diluted back into the crowd, as if they had just been watching themselves. Political or not, what you’re left with is the contemporary musical rebellion: from the pop invasions; the mythos of the back stage; the “legends of rock”; from the generally strict distance between the performer, and the crowd.

Two hours later, having had a few conversations and a few drinks, Carlos and I are back out in the dead night, still waiting it out until the day and the people return, which, at this point, is coming on in about two, two and a half hours. The lights are still on inside, but the noise has died down, and it’s time to walk the night off and slip into bed.

“Do you know how to get back?” Carlos says.

“I have an idea,” I say, and head what I think is west.

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