Scene Spotlight: The Radical Sounds of Venezuelan Changa Tuki

"On this dancefloor you’d find an inner city teenager shuffling alongside a middle class bank worker who popped in on their lunch break. What mattered was that they were dancing, together."

Words by Rachel Grace Almeida

Rachel Grace Almeida is a Venezuelan-American writer and editor based in Berlin, and is currently deputy editor of Crack Magazine. All views and opinions represented in the article are wholly writers own.

Caracas is rarely quiet. Move through the Venezuelan capital and you’ll find a cacophony of sounds, no matter the time of day. There’s the squawking of rainbow-hued macaws, squabbles over street football, the palpable joy of people laughing on their porches. You’ll hear salsa blaring from DIY sound systems in the distance, the ambient chaos of city centre traffic, dembow reverberating from cars. The city is defined by a distinctly Caribbean essence, where music and life are inextricably entwined, filling up each corner of society like guarapita.

Over thirty years ago, on the west side barrios of the city, a group of like-minded kids banded together to create a sound that reflected this frenetic environment; one of unbreakable community but also extreme socio-economic precarity, underpinned by an increasingly fascist political climate. These musicians, many of whom were Black and poor, created a rich and complex subculture they dubbed ‘changa tuki’; a catch-all term that encapsulates the movement’s many musical offshoots, such as raptor house, street house and hard fusion. This is a sonic style that is as indebted to the ancestral rhythms of Afro-Venezuelan tambores as it is jacking techno, its rapid shuffle often climbing up to 150 BPM and staying there. Changa tuki became a shared language between DJ and dancer, and its message was clear: this was a place for Venezuelans to experience liberation on the dancefloor, even as their home country plummeted into a crisis that, to this day, it still hasn’t found a way out of.

At the helm of this nascent underground movement was Pedro Elias Corro. Known to most as DJ Baba, the 46-year-old producer from Propatria learned to mix at just 14 with a pair of cracked turntables. He began his DJ career in the 90s, where improvised minitecas – or, mini discotheques – coloured the streets of Caracas. The iconic Venezuelan mobile sound systems became a staple for local club culture, as the city’s youth raved under DIY lights, rigs and, most importantly, incredibly loud speakers. Baba’s rhythmic selections became the soundtrack to working class youth culture, the pounding kick drums an onomatopoeic reflection of the music itself: tuki-tuki-tuki-tuki.

One day, while working on site for a cable company out in the east side district of Los Naranjos, a boy handed Baba a CD with Fruity Loops software burnt onto it. In 2001, he released his first-ever original production, Las Lomas. Inspired by the famed rooftop parties of Lomas de Urdaneta, a neighbourhood near to Baba’s barrio, the track is as animated as the city it was conceived in. Underpinning Las Lomas’ maximal, big-room synth line is an infectious Latin rhythm that recalls tribal guarachero. It was an instant underground hit.

Alongside Baba, a young DJ and producer called Yirvin was making his mark on the other side of the city. As a teenager in Petare, Yirvin refined his mixing skills on the sound system of his father’s miniteca. By the early 2000s, he met Baba in the underground party circuit, and, alongside DJ Linares, DJ Deep, DJ Elieser, DJ Armando and DJ Byakko, formed the pioneering collective Raptor Crew.

Together they threw parties and reinvigorated a community that had the odds stacked up against them, creating a space where Venezuelan creativity could not only be discovered, but nurtured. Tuki culture also spurred an unmistakable visual aesthetic, where garish, neon-coloured hair, track suits and knock-off brand trainers, like Nike Air Max and Jordans, were main characters on the dancefloor, the bright garments as integral an element to the dance as the ravers themselves. These parties, usually starting around midday to circumvent mainstream club age restrictions, were welcoming people of all social backgrounds; on this dancefloor you’d find an inner city teenager shuffling alongside a middle class bank worker who popped in on their lunch break. What mattered was that they were dancing, together.

Like the perpetual noise of Caracas, changa tuki was inescapable: the music was constantly pumping from carritos (local improvised buses), spilling out of shops, lining the streets with mischievous glee. Tuki was the sound of the barrio; a place where relentless hardship coexists with unconditional love and understanding, held together by a working class community – most living under the international poverty line – who have never experienced a Caracas that isn’t marred by deprivation and violence.

It’s impossible to separate the rise of changa tuki from the conditions in which the movement shot up. Despite a period of prosperity in the 60s and 70s, Venezuela is a country defined by its political and economic turbulence. Although a site for the richest natural oil reserves in the world, extreme corruption, democratic backsliding and authoritarianism have long characterised Venezuela’s social landscape. And like many developing nations in post-colonial Latin America, the gap between the rich and poor is astonishingly stark; the racism inherited by our European oppressors bone-deep.
This provided a complicated backdrop for tuki’s nationwide ascent in the early 00s. During this time, president Hugo Chávez was a few years into his first term and started to implement a so-called new socialist order that never materialised. Tuki’s rapturous popularity revealed – and established – the political polarisation that still afflicts Venezuelan society today. The success of the working class and poor Venezuelans posed a threat to the nation’s white, upper middle class elite, their racism and classism increasingly insolent and bold. Sometimes, the discrimination was implicit and coded – ‘tuki’ became a thinly-veiled derogatory term for anyone and anything considered ‘ghetto’. Other times, it was explicit and dangerous: it wasn’t uncommon for changa tuki parties to erupt into violence.

As a result, the movement slowed down. A law targeting these matinée dances was passed by the government in reaction to the moral panic surrounding tuki culture. In 2008, DJ Baba retreated from music entirely and Yirvin split from Raptor Crew. It wasn’t until a few years later when emerging Caracas producers Pacheco and POCZ spurred on a city-wide resurgence, encouraging a new generation to engage with the energetic musical style that so perfectly encapsulates their hometown.

Today, changa tuki is firming its grip on the underground once more. Baba made a comeback to music in 2020 by re-issuing his tuki anthems and compilations on Bandcamp, as well as releasing new original productions. In the summer of 2022, experimental Colombian imprint TraTraTrax released Xtasis, the explosive collaboration between DJ Baba and Colombian-American producer-0f-the-moment Nick León. The track made its way across career-launching dancefloors like Berghain and Dekmantel’s main stage, as well as earning the remix treatment from Hessle Audio co-founder Pearson Sound. Xtasis’ sharp, syncopated percussion mimics Afro-Venezuelan drum traditions, before sparkling Korg M1 synths and a heavenly vocal sample fade into focus. There have also been mainstream rumblings, too: in 2020, Venezuelan experimentalist Arca sampled DJ Yirvin’s classic tuki banger Sácalo Mételo on an official remix of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s Rain on Me.

In some ways, it’s the perfect continuation of what Baba, Yirvin and their Raptor Crew set out to do all those years ago: melding sounds and people through the power of club music, regardless of their perceived differences. And as displaced Venezuelans continue to spread across the world in one of the largest refugee crises since the Syrian war, so does changa tuki’s legacy and influence, crystallising its message of unity.

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