The Living History of Changa Tuki
Thirty years ago, in the improvised hillside barrios that overlook the skyscrapers and fancy homes of Caracas, a group of kids developed a passion for electronic music. These kids – many of whom were Black and darker skinned, and led lives of great economic precarity – created a vast and complex subculture around a new dance music genre that mostly escaped the notice of the city’s elite, but which still influences dance music culture in Venezuela and globally to this day.
Changa tuki is an umbrella term for a set of related genres of electronic music that emerged from this underground party scene in the ghettos of Caracas. Sonically, this movement – which also includes subgenres such as street house, raptor house and hard fusion – is in every way a child of its frenetic mother city: raw, energetic, violent, witty, Caribbean. The music is fast – up to 150 BPM at times – and is a style developed by the push-and- pull of the beat and the dancefloor, a collaboration between DJ and dancer.
Pedro Elias Corro, a.k.a. DJ Baba, is one of changa tuki’s foremost progenitors. Growing up in Propatria, on the west side of the city, he learned to mix at just 14. “I learned how to sync music on two turntables and Afrika Bambaataa’s Just Get Up and Dance,” he explains. Baba began his career as a DJ in the 90s in the minitecas, Venezuela’s iconic mobile sound systems that brought the discotheque experience – DJs, lights, and, most importantly, incredibly loud speakers – to the streets. One day, while working for a cable company, a kid in Los Naranjos gave him a CD with Fruity Loops burnt onto it. “I had no idea about the implications of making or producing music,” Baba remembers.
“It was always just a simple curiosity.” He began to make a name for himself as a DJ when in 2001, inspired by huge parties on the rooftops of a set of buildings in Lomas de Urdaneta near Baba’s barrio, he created Lomas, a song calling out the neighbourhood. “It said, ‘baila, baila, Las Lomas!’ It was the first time I made a song for the barrio.” The track became an underground hit.
“We lived an adolescence rife with crime and found an escape in music”
– DJ Baba
On the other side of the city in Petare, another young DJ called Yirvin began learning to mix by playing around on equipment belonging to his father, who owned a miniteca. He experimented by making sounds on his dad’s drum machine, and practised synchronising music on the decks; by 14 he was already a dab hand mixing. As soon as someone told him there were computer programmes for making music, he was hooked.
“Without having any real knowledge about creating music, of course,” he laughs. He refined his skills and recorded his own loops. In the early 2000s, he linked up with Baba and formed the Raptor Crew. “Baba was the best on the west side [of Caracas], and I was the best on the east.” Soon they formed a formidable squad, including DJ Linares, DJ Deep, DJ Elieser, DJ Armando and DJ Byakko. They collectively named this new style of changa they were creating ‘raptor house’.
Changa – the name given by Venezuelans to the house and eurodance that was gaining global notoriety in the early 90s – was already hugely popular in Venezuela, including in the Caracas barrios, where FM radio’s changa programmes were in demand. The minitecas played salsa, merengue and whatever else was danceable – and this always included changa. Baba credits Byakko with coining the name ‘changa tuki’ when he used it as the name for one of his changa mixes, an onomatopoeic reference to the music itself: tuki-tuki-tuki-tuki.
The subculture at its core was a youth movement. Its signature parties were matinées, starting at noon, to get around the age restrictions in place at most clubs. “It was for high school kids, young people,” Yirvin says. The scene soon developed beyond music, becoming an underground social and cultural phenomenon with its own codes. Kids developed a strong visual aesthetic, dyeing their hair wild colours and donning bright clothing, at-brimmed hats, US athletic attire and sneakers – usually knock offs – like Nike Air Jordans. Dancers became an integral part of the scene. “The dancer has a very essential role in [tuki] because its music was made for dancers,” explains Elberth ‘El Maestro’, possibly the most well-known tuki dancer. Dance battles began taking place, and those involved produced videos that would come to be watched – though conservatively – by hundreds of thousands.
In some ways, changa tuki was everywhere; on buses, in stores, blasting out of cars driving past. It was a major boom. “But it was an urban boom,” Baba explains. “That didn’t exist for the upper and middle class. They didn’t even know that music was made in Venezuela.”
Like many nations with oil wealth, Venezuela was, and remains, a society of great chasms between the rich and the poor. Already deeply divided by class and plagued by the racism embedded in all of the Americas’ post- colonial nations, the height of changa tuki’s popularity was also beginning to develop the deep and immutable political polarisation that characterises the country today. Populist leader Hugo Chávez had been in power for just a few years, promising a reworking of the social order that never quite materialised, and posing a threat to the nation’s wealthy – whose longtime disgust with working class and poor Venezuelans became even more barefaced and bold. “We haven’t been able to rid Venezuelans of that bad habit,” Yirvin says of the racism and classism that is so deeply woven into the country’s cultural fabric.
These profound divisions meant that, while it became a national sociocultural phenomenon, it’s impossible to know any exact numbers. Established record stores in Venezuela didn’t carry changa tuki records; the entire operation was always bubbling beneath the surface. Everything, from the creation of the music and artwork to its distribution, happened through informal economies. Burnt CDs and dance-battle DVDs with art produced in the barrio were distributed at parties and through street vendors at local markets. Changa tuki was everywhere, if you bothered to look. Venezuela’s wealthy, white elite, for the most part, did not.
But the parties often ended in violence. Though at its height there were thousands of kids attending each matinée, it only took a few altercations to cause violent scenes – fights that over time resulted in the deaths and injuries of many young people. “The issue was controlling those kids when they left the party,” Yirvin explains. “And as a result of that, there was a lot of controversy.” Baba compares his crew back then to something like NWA. “We lived an adolescence rife with crime and found an escape in music.”
A moral panic erupted. Caracas’ upper classes saw masses of kids leaving matinées, jumping subway turnstiles, engaging in petty crime and getting in fights. “Every time they saw someone from the barrio they called them ‘tuki’, and that term ended up becoming offensive,” explains Yirvin. Despite a populist government, a law targeting matinées was passed, making it legally onerous to continue. Changa tuki in turn was blamed for any number of societal ills, but, as Baba says, “it’s known that it was just smoke and mirrors to disguise the ongoing misery happening in the country”. By this point, Yirvin had already split from the Raptor Crew and Baba, feeling responsible for the scene he helped to birth and crushed by the growing opposition to it, quit music in 2008.
“Every time they saw someone from the barrio they called them ‘tuki’, and that term ended up becoming offensive”
– DJ Yirvin
Changa tuki experienced a lull, but a few years later Caracas producers POCZ and Pacheko got wind of the music and were floored by what they had discovered. “We were privileged and [tuki] was what happened in the barrio,” says Carlos Mayoral, a.k.a. POCZ. But they loved the music’s deep sense of the city, and how energetic it was – just like Caracas. “We were like, ‘This is super interesting, and it’s from our city.’” They started the now-defunct Abstractor crew, and a much more mixed-class scene in Caracas emerged. For a while, there were also changa tuki parties in the wealthier parts of town, with POCZ and Pacheko collaborating with Yirvin and inviting dance crews into these spaces. They produced a documentary called ¿Quien Quiere Tuki? (Who Wants Tuki?), which led to a flurry of global interest. Changa tuki caught the attention of Portuguese progressive kuduro project Buraka Som Sistema, who, with their understanding of both techno and Afro-diasporic rhythms, instantly fell in love with the genre. Swiss imprint Mental Groove Records released a compilation of Changa Tuki Classics. But changa tuki’s big global moment never arrived.
More than 5.6 million Venezuelans have left the country as a result of the political and economic turmoil – the largest external displacement crisis in Latin America’s recent history. But as Venezuelans spread across the globe, so does changa tuki’s legacy. You can hear it in Arca’s remix of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s Rain on Me from Dawn of Chromatica, which includes a sample from DJ Yirvin’s classic tuki cut Sácalo Mételo. You can see changa tuki’s influence in the NeoTuki editorial by clothing brand Garzez and in Venezuelan label Roca Tarpeya’s fashion film PAN, which was scored by DJ Baba. And you can read about it in Poética Tuky, a collection of poems by Luis Alejandro Indriago released in September last year.
These days, the figureheads of the original scene are not just feeling the renewed interest, but a real sense of what they accomplished back then. The vast changa tuki musical canon mostly exists on burnt CDs and on the hard drives of the DJs that made up the scene 20 years ago, with a tiny fraction of it appearing on Bandcamp and YouTube. But its legacy endures. Despite the discrimination and anti-Blackness he faced in the early days, Baba is making music again, and has uploaded a selection of his expansive changa tuki catalogue, along with newer work, to Bandcamp, where he sees movement from London to Brooklyn. Yirvin is also planning to upload his music to streaming platforms. And Elberth is running dance schools. The scene’s pioneers are slowly realising that, two decades on, they did something truly meaningful in their city.
“I never considered that I’d done something,” Baba reflects, a modest smile beginning to form on his face. “I simply wanted to play music for people.”