Underground struggle: The Santiago Drum and Bass scene

Newer, more mainstream scenes have come and gone but drum and bass’ urban vision of the future continues to prosper and find a dedicated crowd in Santiago. Revolver gets the story behind the scene from DJ Roach, one of its key founders.

Santiago Chile

Drum and bass reached Santiago in the late '90s, in large part as a result of the musical passions that returning exiles from the UK brought with them. The scene's origins lay in the council housing estates of London and other large English cities like Birmingham and Bristol. Growing up in these poor but ethnically rich environments in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a generation of kids were becoming influenced by black music from Jamaica and the US: dub, reggae, early hip hop and electro.

Santiago Chile

Franklin Roach aka DJ Roach - a Chilean exile who had arrived in London in 1975 aged one - was one such kid. Like many of his generation, Roach got into DJing through the UK rave music scene that emerged in the late '80s. And it was the broken beats and heavy basslines of this electronic dance music scene that would soon give rise to drum and bass - or 'jungle' as it was first known in the early 90s.

As with rave music, part of the appeal was that anyone could start making music at home in their bedroom using synthesisers or decks. But more than than that, drum and bass somehow managed to be emotionally engaging despite not having a vocal component. It captured the essence of an urban upbringing on the streets, of the day-to-day struggle to survive on the estates - even the challenges of commuting in London. As Roach puts it “The music was originally called ‘jungle’ - and that’s how a lot of us felt it was.”

For Roach - a child of the Star Wars and Bladerunner generation - drum and bass also had something cinematic and romantic about it. “Living in the city with not much contact with nature, as kids we had fantasies of the future of technology and space. Drum and bass had something of this fantasy about it. It took you somewhere else.”

The Santiago music scene of the early '90s was by contrast fairly staid. Radio stations invariably played Anglophone top ten pop or rock, or commercial Latin pop. Nightlife was low key and similarly restrictive, and what there was of an underground scene was limited to punk, heavy or death metal.

It's not surprising then that leaving the UK and returning to Chile in 1991 following the end of the dictatorship came as a major shock for Roach, as it did for many exiles. “I was so immersed in it: going to record shops, listening to pirate radio stations, sharing tapes with friends, going out together. It was like a void when I came to Chile.”

Santiago Chile

The years that followed were frustrating for Roach as he struggled to access any music he wanted in Chile and instead relied on the records he'd brought with him and on tapes of pirate radio stations sent from friends in London. "I was having withdrawal symptoms - every tape I'd be sent would convince me more and more I was missing out on something."

His response was to seek out others with similar tastes - but in the pre-Facebook days of the mid-nineties, this was easier said than done. Roach managed to hook up with a group of other guys who'd grown up in Britain and were starting to play techno and house music in Santiago. Despite not being exactly on the same musical wavelength the crew admired Roach's proficiency as a DJ and his sizeable vinyl collection and so they took him on board. The imported drum and bass sounds that Roach played were still a little radical for Chilean tastes of the day, so he would be limited to early slots or back rooms - but for now it was enough that he was able to play the music that he lived and breathed.

The late '90s saw some growth in the wider electronic music scene in Chile which Roach and others were able to piggy-back modestly. Occasional club nights and festival appearances were a step forward for the drum and bass scene but, for Roach, the pace of progress was painfully slow. Then his first trip back to England in 2000 gave him inspiration. He came back with a plan to create a bigger sensation.

Realising how old-fashioned Chilean perceptions of the UK were, Roach approached the British Council in Chile with a plan to update the UK's image, to move it on from The Beatles and the Sex Pistols and show its multicultural diversity. His plan included a big party featuring drum and bass DJs. The British Council jumped at the chance and the party - held at Ex-Fabrica, an old textile factory - was a major breakthrough for Roach and his crew, attracting over 1,000 people.

Santiago Chile

The scene began to really take off with a diverse crowd attending parties sometimes twice a week. "After that, people wanted more." says Roach. But it's clear that this was also about more than just numbers, "At first, I was here representing my English upbringing. Now I started to feel like I represented Chile and that this was a Chilean scene we were creating."

Wider changes were also helping to fuel things. At the same time that Roach and his associates were getting more exposure in Chile, pioneers of drum and bass in Brazil were developing their own Latin-influenced sound. But perhaps more importantly, Santiago's nightlife was blossoming. Economic growth and higher incomes played a part, but Roach suspects that attitudes were also changing. "Going out started to be seen as an essential part of surviving life in an urban city. Taboos were broken. And there was also a kind of pride in being from Santiago."

Come the middle of the noughties, though drum and bass was thriving, it was still very much the underdog as more mainstream forms of dance music began to take off even more dramatically. Promoters were starting to bring the biggest names from Ibiza, Ministry of Sound and Creamfields and bring a more corporate, super-club culture to Santiago. Roach is quick to point out, "Drum and bass has nothing to do with that super glam level of production." And perhaps for this reason, and because for such people it's never been about the money, Roach and his crew were happy to take a back seat for a while and let others hog the limelight.

These days there are really two drum and bass scenes in Santiago. One with a much more commercial outlook - more dance-floor oriented focusing on popular tunes and a younger, mostly teenage audience. The other - where Roach's heart lies - remains fresh, edgy and experimental. The audience for the latter scene is more likely to be in their their mid-twenties, but they are perhaps more open-minded - as evidenced by the popularity of new sounds like dubstep at these events.

Santiago Chile

Saturday June 12 sees Roach's current crew (Caja de ritmos) play host to DJ Die - a guest DJ from Bristol, England and a veteran of the scene who has worked with the likes of Roni Size, Photek and newer artists such as Clips and Break. The event - around ten years on from those first big parties in Santiago - is clearly something Roach is proud to be involved in. "For many years we were playing his [DJ Die's] records thinking, 'God, we're so far away from where it's all at.' Every time we bring someone like him over we feel everything's been worth it."

As befits a movement often tagged as 'futuristic', Roach and his associates are also looking to the future of drum and bass in Chile. Of course, perhaps more than most other genres, drum and bass music continues to evolve and spin out new sub-genres. But Roach is keen to progress another, more distinctive vision of the future, "The next step here in Chile is to get more into the production side of it - to have people from Chile actually making the music." With this in mind there are plans for a new Santiago-based drum and bass record label.

Despite his upbringing on the streets of London, Roach is keen to see how Chile's specific musical traditions, its emphasis on the melancholy and on the emotions, and the country's diverse immigration influences might influence a new form of drum and bass. "It will be interesting to see what is going to come out of our experience ... Don't be surprised if the next wave of Chilean drum and bass has a new slant!" Roach says this with a smile that suggests he knows something very interesting but is, for now at least, holding it back. It sounds like a future worth waiting for.

Caja de ritmos international presents
DJ Die
FatPablo / Roach
Vega / McPab
Dubless / Noseñor
Bongmastah

Saturday, June 12, 2010
Ex-Fabrica
Asuncíon 426
Patronato
Santiago
CP$5.000 all night
Metro: Patronato
http://www.naciondnb.com

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