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Friday, January 3, 2003

++ Letter From Chile: Drum 'N' Bass, Red Wine, Surging Bodies

Valparaiso, Chile — For anyone who was expecting a continuation of my last column about Brazil, mil disculpas, because this week we're on the opposite side of the continent, balconating above the tin-roofed toy-town of Valparaiso, Chile, and my thoughts and theses and polemics and flights of fancy are as tangled as the salt-encrusted beach towels hanging here, twisting slowly in the cool afternoon wind.

The CD case for Super_Collider's Raw Digits sprawls 20 feet down on the corrugated roof of the house below us, lying insensate where it landed two days ago when the 4-year old Amanda, the unlikeliest member of our techno crew, tossed it off the patio. And in a land of symbols, that seems about as appropriate an indicator for my current state of mind as any: my deadlines have flown the coop, and all the music I should be writing about lies just out of reach. What else to do, then, but lie back and roll with it?

I realize that I'm skirting the edge of a precipice much deeper than the ravine on which our house is perched by invoking the infamous mañana-isms of Latin American culture. The very idea of "Latin America" is often nothing more than a patchwork of clichés loosely stitched together with a twined rope of contempt and desire. But there's also something very powerful about this place that challenges you to confront your assumptions about work, pleasure, worth, and leisure.

Time is slower, if only because people spend it together. Our meals have been massive family affairs, where family is an improvised assemblage of Chileans and gringos. I can't put my finger on the sense of interconnectedness that I'm trying to articulate. In fact, all my descriptions of this place — a tumbledown town carpeting this complex of hills and ravines that spill down to the harbor, a field of colored balconies and corrugated tin, Victorian turrets and aquamarine tile — are horribly inexact. I feel like I need to start from scratch, and as an exercise I stare out at the houses on the opposite hill, picking out detail after detail in the attempt to come up with a picture of the place that transcends abstraction. (So far I've failed in these endeavors.)

++ The Big Picture: what every travel writer tries in vain to capture. Failing that, they usually just assume, or embellish, or lie. I hate travel writing, truth be told, or at least most of it. But with more and more of the world coming to look alike — Santiago, for instance, looks even more like an American or European city than it did six years ago when I last visited, and the edge of the city crawls slowly outward in a glacier of sparkling glass office blocks and shopping centers — I hold out in the belief that it's worth telling stories from the other side of the world, if only as a reminder that the "Western" way, which is to say the American way, isn't the only model for living.

(And who knows: to add another reservation to the pile of doubts, surely my idea of American culture is a product of my particular experience as a young, single, middle-class city-dweller. Which is to acknowledge that the particular isolation or anomie I experience in the U.S. isn't necessarily endemic to the culture at large; surely there are small towns or communities in the States where this kind of interconnectedness, the comfortable slowness, exists as it always has.

But let's take it as a given that the United States is a profoundly materialistic culture in which family and community ties have atrophied for years, where leisure is based on consumption, where a blandly liberal relativism masks a deep-seated arrogance regarding American values, where food-court multi-culturalism covers up a profound incuriousness about the world at large. Believing these things makes it easier for me to understand what I'm looking for abroad — whether it's in alternate worldviews, the signs of assimilation often filed under the imprecise phrase "cultural imperialism," or signs of resistance to the latter.)

++ So what have I found here? I couldn't even begin to tell you, because I haven't figured it out yet. It's too early to tell you about the electronic music scene, which is growing rapidly, and which carries great risk and promise alike. My lone experience with said scene so far has been a New Year's Day party featuring foreign top-shelf DJs and performers — Luomo, Common Factor, Swayzak, Rob Mello, Ricardo Villalobos — where the Chilean crowd drank and drugged and danced pretty much like dance music communities everywhere. Certainly, at first glance Chile's scene looks outside its borders, and its primary players are well-off members of the "jetset" (the word is the same in Chilean Spanish) modeling themselves after European and American examples.

The night before was another thing entirely, though. New Year's Eve is apparently a crown jewel of Valparaiso (or "Valpo," as Chileans affectionately call it), with thousands upon thousands of people coming from Santiago for the festival and the fireworks. By evening, the streets are filled with people heading down to the waterfront, and practically every hillside balcony seems to play host to some kind of gathering, from soiree to blowout. Before midnight, we quit our own apartment and wound through the labyrinth of alleys and staircases until we arrived at a smallish plaza set on a plateau above the city, in the improbable shadow of a massive Tudor structure.

If I came looking for interconnectedness, here it was. A DJ set up in one corner of the plaza was playing hip-hop and drum 'n' bass to the dancing crowd, but that was just the sideshow. The real performance was the crowd itself, roaming and bustling and waiting for the first flare to explode. The fireworks began modestly, but as plume after plume went up from the harbor below, it became evident that these were no minor pyrotechnics. They seemed to feed off the crowd itself, drawing energy from the hoots and hollers and surging bodies.

At the strokes of midnight (because there were several countdowns), bottles of champagne exploded in a fusillade of corks, and bubbly rained down from every direction, a wildly cavalier gesture from an otherwise staid, industrious people. This was the Dionysian spirit in action, and when the fireworks finally ended — after an extended climax that fed energy back to the crowd, which first screamed out of a kind of obligatory participatory spirit but ended up hollering its lungs out in true, delirious elation — the party only gathered strength, with conga players joining in with the DJ and still more bands and DJs audible on every passing breeze.

I roamed until 4 a.m. that night, aimlessly ascending and descending stairs. No details stand out, only endless people and unmitigated good spirits. Right before sleep I sat on our front step, sipping the last of my wine, as a family came walking by. "Happy new year," cried the smartly dressed matron, a smiling woman in her 60s, perhaps. "What are you drinking?"

"Red wine," I answered, as she took the plastic cup from my hand and helped herself to a sip before handing it back to me and tottering off, happily tipsy, in pursuit of her family.

++ When I awoke at 7:00 the next morning, straggling revelers still roamed the streets. One crew of teenagers sat next to their pickup truck, making avocado sandwiches from out of a cooler. The rock band and drum circle in the plaza opposite were still in full swing, if sloppier than a few hours before. By 7:30 the band had finished, but the hand drums staggered on, a loose and rippling accompaniment to the sunrise. When they finally stopped — first breaking for a moment or two and then, eventually, quieting completely — the voices of the last partiers rose up above the sloping roofs and commingled with the sounds of the arriving day. It felt less like a new year than a very old one, unspooling in perfect order.


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