TraTraTrax: Keep It Moving
Nicolás Sánchez is scribbling down notes on a scrap piece of paper. One side, in barely legible handwriting, is a list: Curation work. Check. Touring with friends. Check. Song of the year. Check. Always operate on own terms. Check. On the flipside to this tally of accomplishments are the works in progress: real infrastructure; scene-focused samplers; studio albums and fully immersive V/A compilations. Then, the final bullet point, in Spanish: “new visions for TraTraTrax beyond the hype”.
And there’s certainly been hype. The label has risen from the Colombian underground to dominate dancefloors, festival line-ups and electronic music conversations worldwide in a period of just over three years. Founded in 2020 by Sánchez (known as Nyksan), JP López (Verraco) and Daniel Uribe (DJ Lomalinda) as an outlet for musical experimentation, independence and community, global recognition wasn’t high on their list of priorities. As artists and curators, they’ve made their mark with a rhythmic, Latin-soaked electronic output that ranges from bolshy club bangers to spiritual communion – united by a sense of boundless creativity and care. In 2022, the label’s profile skyrocketed thanks to Nick León and DJ Babatr’s chemistry-altering raptor house smash Xtasis – which, as Sánchez seemingly manifested in his list, was crowned this very magazine’s Track of the Year. As the song’s intoxicating drum loops rippled across continents, conquering dancefloors from Sónar to Space, another rhythm shift was happening: club-goers, critics and bookers were waking up to the galvanising, syncopated rhythms that have long defined Latin America’s electronic music culture.
JP wears: LACK OF GUIDANCE, NIKE, Nicolás wears: ARIES, Daniel wears: LOST UTOPIAN VISIONS, CARHARTT
The global takeover led to global acclaim. This summer, TraTraTrax descended upon techno destinations like Amsterdam, where the crew shut down Dekmantel’s Greenhouse stage at peak-time alongside longtime affiliates León and Bitter Babe. To outsiders looking in, it felt like a watershed moment; a new chapter in the storied rise of underground Latin electronic music. “Alright, here we go, colegas,” enthuses López from across the table. “Let’s write our own history.”
We’re all sitting around a dining table in a friend’s Berlin apartment on an uncharacteristically clear September evening, our conversation soundtracked by crackling ambient soundscapes emitting from the decks behind us. It’s immediately clear that Sánchez, López and Uribe are all dreamers but play individual roles in their dynamic as a three-piece. Sánchez is an aesthetic fantasist whose mind’s eye is bursting with ravey, silver-coated images of Latin-coded emblems like prayer hands, rosaries or el Divino Niño. Uribe is calm and self-possessed, speaking in long, elegant strides, often tempering lofty statements with clear-eyed analysis. López, in turn, is animated and witty; a deep thinker who isn’t afraid to be playful, or say it like it is. When all three are in the same room, they whip up tiny storms of ideas, opinions and jokes, always buoying each other’s input with anecdotes and references. They also, in typical Latinx fashion, possess a god-given ability to poke fun at each other.
Daniel wears: COS, JP wears: LACK OF GUIDANCE, NIKE, OUR LEGACY, Nicolás wears: ARIES
As well as a collective, the trio are all accomplished DJs and producers in their own right. As Verraco, López is known the world over for unleashing his Paisa-fortified techno mutations onto unsuspecting dancefloors, from Berghain to De School, and recently put out his cerebrum-tickling EP Escándaloo on Pariah and Blawan’s celebrated Voam imprint. Nyksan, a sound artist who left Bogotá for London in 2019, is a mainstay of the capital’s small but mighty Latinx-fronted dance ecosystem. Uribe, a prolific digger with a sharp ear for sound design, is a key figure in Medellín’s electronic scene, loved and respected for his extensive vinyl collection and experimental taste. Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with; a headstrong but empathetic group who pull together their various experiences and interests to deliver the holy message of Latin-made dance music.
López, Uribe and Sánchez met nearly a decade ago in their home country, though they were dispersed between Medellín – López and Uribe’s hometown – and Bogotá (where López and Uribe also lived for a period). In 2015, Sánchez and López met at a work party in Bogotá, where they bonded over their mutual love for exploratory IDM and Detroit techno (Sánchez was already throwing his own Motor City-inspired raves called Unterbog in the city). “It was like love at first sight. We instantly hit it off and became best friends,” smiles Sánchez. “We looked at our surroundings and realised we had so much to construct and deconstruct together.” López, already a rising player in the Colombian underground, often returned to Medellín to visit family and touch grass; heading back to the luscious capital of the Antioquia province, nestled within the comforting embrace of the Andes, felt like a spiritual reset. It was there where he regularly ran into Uribe at a now-defunct local record shop called Doce, which was run by friends and DJs Julianna and Merino. “We’d started chatting about music and realised we resonated with a lot of the same sounds,” Uribe says.
Uribe often minded the shop while Julianna was out, and one day in early 2017, López sheepishly appeared at the till. “JP came in with a little bag of records,” Uribe describes, “and it was all very secret. I didn’t know what was [inside], musically.” The tote bag was brimming with vinyl copies of Resistir, López’s first EP as Verraco; a four-track collection of percussive braindance for his nascent label, Insurgentes. In a matter of months, Insurgentes became both a hub and directory for experimental electronic music coming out of South America, releasing cherished projects by the likes of Argentinian sound traveller Seph, and Chilean producer Tomás Urquieta. While appreciation was growing at home and further afield, López felt stifled by the invisible parameters around IDM – not set by himself, but by the wider, misguided perceptions of what cerebral dance music should sound like.
Daniel wears: COS, JP wears: LACK OF GUIDANCE, Nicolás wears: ARIES
“It was time to unlearn and decolonise our mindsets, and our sounds,” asserts López. “I remember a conversation at JP’s house, where we were talking about having a new kind of outlet. We quickly realised there was so much talent around and a gap in platforms, so why not put some effort into this, together?” agrees Uribe. Soon they tapped Sánchez for his involvement, who, serendipitously, was already setting them “exercises” when they’d hang out: mix reggaeton into techno. Put a dembow over this jungle. TraTraTrax was born as Insurgentes’ “naughty little sister”; a hungry child who craved something more true to its culture, something raunchier, something new. “Nico has had many moments of genius in his life, but coming up with our name was his best one yet,” laughs López. He’s right: the word TraTraTrax is an undeniable stroke of brilliance, not just in its playful nod to DJ culture, but in its devilish, onomatopoeic reference to the tra-tra-tra sound of the old school reggaeton that defined the social lives of every Latinx millennial.
Like so many aspects of the label, the sonic DNA is informed by the pirate dealings of López, Uribe and Sánchez’s childhood. “There was a lag in the commercial culture of Antioquia, so combined with remnants of the narco culture that is so embedded in our city, this spurred us to download reggaeton when we were barely ten years old,” says López. They’d all obsessively scroll the pages of the still-active music pirating site blinblineo.net – blingblinging.net, what else? – where all the latest tracks from Puerto Rico were being uploaded. “We downloaded them, burned them onto blank CDs, and the next day they were selling like hot cakes at recess. Looking back, it’s basically the same thing we do today. They were the first exercises of curating, compiling and extracting,” says López, gesturing spiritedly with his hands.
Pirating is deeply entrenched in Latin pop culture, from the makeshift flea market stalls slinging fake Jordans to the cracked versions of Hollywood blockbusters with unofficial Spanish dubbing that served as time capsules for local slang. Like Blinblineo, these bootleg artefacts became a cultural exchange, with its own coded language; a sharing and resharing of ideas that sustained regional ecosystems. For TraTraTrax, it was imperative that this source of inspiration was made explicit. Every project they release features artwork superimposed onto the layout of a physical CD; a leitmotif honouring the pirateo that formed their creative backbone. “Our artwork takes us back to that time. All those rhythms of Black origin have collided with all the other expressions and visuals that are so entrenched in us,” explains López. “It’s absolute hybridism.”
This is a word that comes up often during our conversation: hybridism. It’s perhaps the most accurate word you can use to describe the musical output of TraTraTrax, which, at any given moment, can transport you to a perreo de marquesina (or homespun marquee party), or down a destabilising techno wormhole. Nick León and Bitter Babe’s 2020 EP Fuego Clandestino, for example, is a filthy exercise in apocalyptic post-perreo, fuelled by bass-driven tension so coiled it threatens to snap at any moment. Released two years later, Pliegues, the standout project by Peruvian mystics DNGDNGDNG and Prisma, is a winding, rhythmic odyssey that showers you with ambient dembow and Amazonian mist.
In 2022, TraTraTrax stepped into uncharted territory with their first-ever compilation, No Pare, Sigue Sigue. Translating to ‘don’t stop, keep moving’ – and winking at the Latinxs in the room by referencing Proyecto Uno anthem El Tiburón – it featured 16 tracks exclusively created by some of the most prolific underground producers of Latin descent, spanning the wide spectrum of sounds found in the region. DJ Babatr’s Cabo E is an intoxicating raptor house pounder with a tropical flair; Safety Trance’s Indiferencia plunges deep into industrial dembow; López’s own entry with Ronaldinho Hace La Elástica is a tribal tek cut that finds its groove in propulsive repetition, precising the conceptual core of the compilation. The influences behind the productions perfectly encapsulate this hybridism; a sonic bastardisation grounded by its Latin roots but brushed with the electronic styles that made huge impressions on them as young music fans. “It’s impossible for us not to be influenced by our youth spent listening to Aphex Twin,” quips Uribe.
JP wears: LACK OF GUIDANCE, NIKE, Daniel wears: JACQUEMUS, SALOMON, Nicolás wears: COMME DES GARÇONS, VEILANCE
This cross-pollination is more present than ever on the forthcoming No Pare, Sigue Sigue Vol.2, where Uribe, López and Sánchez expand the TraTraTrax family and fold non-Latinx artists into the mix, too. Alongside luminaries such as WOST, Doctor Jeep and Siete Catorce, Australian-Sri Lankan producer Surusinghe, the Cairo-based 3Phaz and French selector Maoupa Mazzocchetti produce entrancing club workouts that zone in on the cross-rhythmic potential across diasporas. “It was important for us to experiment and allow ourselves to bring other artists into the picture,” explains Sánchez. “To not feel boxed in by people’s projections on our music.”
In recent years, these projections have all been neatly filed under the catch-all term ‘Latin club’. This has been a phrase endlessly uttered by fans and critics alike, as the rest of the world attempts to make sense of the rich and complex sonic histories of Latin America. “We don’t like the term Latin club,” asserts López. What does it even mean, really? “A club,” interjects Uribe, before sarcastically sniggering, “in Latin America.” This lazy attempt at universalisation only reinforces the idea that Latin American culture is monolithic, conveniently collapsing a continent made up of 33 countries – each with their own traditions, sociopolitics and geographies – into a meaningless but catchy buzzword.
“It was time to decolonise our mindsets, and our sounds” – JP López
Sometimes, though, it’s easier to give in and protect your own peace, or even find a shared dialect. “A time we have used the term ‘Latin club’ – with disdain – is when we were trying to explain the music we play to someone from a festival team. They were very far removed from any knowledge of where we’re from or what we do,” says Uribe. And did it help them understand? Roars of laughter from the entire table: “No!” López immediately sits up, a mischievous smile forming on his face. He looks across the table to Sánchez and Uribe, who are still giggling, then ponders, “Hopefully one day a Latinx journalist can come up with a tag that’s a bit more…” Uribe cuts in: “Flavourful.”
This reductive tag is just one of the myriad tools the west uses to oversimplify cultures it doesn’t care to understand – and highlights missed opportunities for genuine enlightenment. At times this appears as a musical steamroller, diminishing the thrilling diversity of styles like, say, guaracha, champeta or cumbiatón. Or a cultural flattening achieved by drawing parallels to established figures or institutions from the Global North. “TraTraTrax,” Resident Advisor published in a 2022 review, “feels like it could be this decade’s Hessle Audio.” This sort of comparison, likely made in good faith, is widespread and understandable; both trios are made up of gifted artists who are deft tastemakers, world builders, and, in their unique ways, era-defining minds. But to deny TraTraTrax their own identity is to tumble headfirst into the scheming trap of erasure. “There’s an imperative need for us to free ourselves from many veils,” says López, graciously, “and get excited about our own music.”
Latin American countries also fall victim, and even pander, to these Eurocentric views. In fact, a culture of western aspirationalism consistently afflicts the Latinx identity: it’s American and expensive, so the product must be good. Europe is the cultural centre of the world, and so the art must be superior. As advocates of counterculture – and reculturing – TraTraTrax haven’t always been accepted in Colombia. Local promoters have monopolised the club circuit, prioritising nights that settle for the kind of 4/4 techno you’d find in the most soulless corners of Berlin, or the unremarkable tech-house giants that dominate the industry. “This has made things go completely backwards. The first response is always to imitate, imitate, imitate,” sighs López. “There is no effort to extrapolate these codes to our environment, our society, our dynamics.”
I nod in agreement; it’s a self-termination that happens in my own home country of Venezuela, where raptor house is vilified in favour of featureless minimal. Uribe, true to character, calmly chimes in. “There is a rhythmic base that is already internalised in the body of any Latinx person. Sometimes, when [some people back home] are presented with Latin rhythms but also techno, it can create confusion.”
Dancing is an intrinsic component of Latin culture, innovated by Indigenous communities such as the Aztecs, Guayani and Incas, among others, centuries ago. Back then, these rituals were used to tell stories of everyday life, such as hunting, farming or astronomical observations. It’s a language we all still speak. This physical response to our surroundings carries in it our ancestors, our folklore, our deliverance. The atrocities of colonialism have worked to silence this inherent desire for motion, for daily celebration, to divide our societies – racially, financially and religiously – from not only the rest of the world, but from each other. “This is trauma that we carry in our bones,” says Uribe. “Our backgrounds are complicated and extreme.”
And yet, despite our continental differences and intricate histories, there is something intangible that unites Latinx people. Perhaps it’s this affinity for movement, or an almost supernatural ability to stay resilient in the face of violence, precarity and systemic oppression. “What unites us is precisely that story of passion and violence, and how we understand it as such an intimate relationship. And still, I believe that every Latinx person living in their country would say, ‘I live in paradise,’” says Sánchez. López perks up and finds a phrase to succinctly capture this state of being: “Perreando y llorando.” The loose translation from Spanish is ‘twerking and crying’; a bodily manifestation of innate joy, complex interior life and strength of character. We’ve got problems but we’re also the life of the party. The horrors persist but so do we. No pare, sigue sigue.
“It was important for us to experiment, to not feel boxed in by people’s projections on our music” – Nicolás Sánchez
Daniel wears: LOST UTOPIAN VISIONS, CARHARTT, JP wears: LACK OF GUIDANCE, NIKE, Nicolás wears: ARIES
For TraTraTrax, this is a philosophy that will take them into the future. López, Uribe and Sánchez all feel a responsibility to platform the endless possibilities of their hybrid club music, both on home turf and beyond. “We genuinely enjoy what we do so much that everything that follows is just a consequence,” says Sánchez. Right now, those consequences, first dreamed up on that scrap piece of paper, are taking the shape of an ambient sub label, cleverly coined Ambie—Tón; a forthcoming debut full-length from one of Uruguay’s most transcendental sound designers, marking a TraTraTrax first; and sampler projects, curated by artists they admire, that explore specific rhythmic propositions across the diaspora. “It’s impossible to separate who we are from our creative lives,” says López, resolutely. “This is how we understand the world.”
There’s a text by the late Colombian Nadaist poet Gonzalo Arango that López brings up in conversation. Medellín, a Solas Contigo (or Medellín, alone with you) is a complicated love letter to the city, in which the narrator traces his relationship with his home. “A bus leaves me halfway,” Arango starts in Spanish. “I climb the mountain on foot, panting with heat until I reach the summit. I haven’t had a drink yet, and I’m already drunk. The voluptuousness of the air intoxicates my senses. Oh, my soul, how bitter is beauty!” In Medellín, the landscape is inextricable from machinations of day-to-day life; it performs as both its most beautiful blessing and greatest curse. This duality, this hybridism, is what propels TraTraTrax forward. “This is only the beginning,” López says with a sense of tranquillity in his voice. “There are few who actually imagine other worlds, who are fortunate enough to see what lies beyond the mountains.”
No Pare, Sigue Sigue Vol. 2 is out early 2024
Listen to the Issue 149 Cover Mix now