In the past two years, some of the most engaging and unique sounding music has come from a previously unknown source – Uruguay. Producers such as Z@P and Omar are well on their way to becoming stars in the scene but Uruguay has been a hotbed for musical talent longer than you might think.
Fresh off a European tour in which he visited Closer, Club der Visionaere and played three UK dates, we speak to DJ Koolt. Co-founder of the now-famous Phonoteque club, incredible DJ and Godfather of the Uruguayan underground.
Hi Edu, thank you so much for talking to Trommel. How are you doing?
Hi! Thanks for the opportunity. I’m super happy, I’ve just finished up my European tour and everything has been awesome. From the parties and the people to the venues!
You did a European tour back in 2018, how are you finding it this time around? Is there anything you’ve noticed about European crowds?
This is the third of my European tours and it’s been the longest and definitely most exhausting one! But I’ve noticed that this time around, the response from the crowds has been so much better. I guess it’s because people around here know me a little better now and have found out what our scene and our sound are about.
A lot of my Uruguayan friends have been playing here and there lately, either on tour or because they’ve decided to move to Europe, and I think that’s really affecting the vibe on the dance floors. Whereas before I think people might have left our gigs feeling a little surprised, now they come to hear us play knowing what we can offer and that, in turn, makes more waves somehow. I think there are more people into our sound and the gigs are getting a little better for all of us.
Have you been doing much digging whilst you’ve been visiting Europe?
Of course! I’ve been buying and digging up lots of records. Every time I come I make a point of acquiring as much as I can. My first stop is always Madrid and that’s where I started searching. Then I try and make some time in every city I visit to go to record stores and find out who’s selling privately so I can visit them in their home or wherever it is I have to go.
It’s always been like this for me, I rifle through absolutely everything. The treasure is always where you least expect it! On this trip in particular, the place I found the most records was Barcelona, as opposed to Berlin like on previous tours. Add to that all the gifts, promos and dubplates, and I’m going home with a few extra bags.
Let’s start at the beginning of your career. Where did your interest in electronic music first begin? I’ve heard Bruno Gervais mentioned a lot…
I first discovered electronic music as a child, many years before I started to play. Simply put, my family’s inclinations led me to come into contact with alternative sounds, very different from what people listened to in Uruguay in the 70s or 80s. I was born in 1973 and started playing in 1999. I was 26 and I had already spent a lot of time going to parties.
I met Bruno in the early 90s and, I believe a great part of what I do has been directly influenced by listening and dancing to his musical magic, but I have to say that Uruguay has a lot of nightlife culture and clubbing traditions since before Bruno came onto the scene.
Uruguayans are great at partying, going out—I think it’s a defining feature of ours, part of our peoples’ idiosyncrasy. Uruguayan DJs have always been really up-to-date and connected to whatever was happening in Europe or the USA. We’ve never been really isolated from the great artistic and cultural shifts on a global scale, even before the internet.
So were you aware of global musical trends, say the minimal scene in Frankfurt in the early 2000s?
I always tried to stay on top of whatever was happening in the world, musically. Firstly out of curiosity, because I wanted to know what it was that I was dancing to weekend in, weekend out.
I would listen to the radio stations that played electronic music all day long, and I’d go check out records at a lot of the stores in Montevideo, before the arrival of CDs and the vinyl crisis. Then I started DJing and the search got even more rigorous. Before discovering Juno and shopping on there, I’d go to Buenos Aires, where there were still five specialised record stores, and I’d spend entire days shopping for records.
Otherwise, I’d buy from a friend who used to import from the big US distributors like Watts Music and others like it. I would also buy from older DJs in Montevideo who didn’t want their underground house and techno records anymore because they were moving on to CDs.
I always tried to be aware of the trends, especially because in those days we didn’t have the local producers we have today. Something that is totally different these days is that, if I wanted, I could make a set of 100% Uruguayan music, with records that have been mastered and pressed in Europe or dubplates made here or in Montevideo.
How has the internet changed your digging? I know the Phonotheque DJs are known for having to buy vinyl in bulk to match shipping costs…
Importing records has always been easier for Uruguayans than it has been for anyone else in South America. There’s a law that protects the import of records and books, so we pay very little taxes on them. That’s really helped local DJs keep their taste for buying vinyl, even when other formats like CD or USBs have come into fashion everywhere else in the world. Lots of us just kept buying vinyl as much as possible, either on trips or online.
Did you feel a responsibility to mentor younger Uruguayan DJs, even if they would leave for Europe later on as some have?
I’ve watched generation after generation come up, evolve and decide to leave the country. But there’s always groups of new talent who are enthusiastic about doing things right and reaping what the older generations of sown. We always aim to keep the vinyl DJ culture alive and that’s what’s still happening. So these days, with this massive revival of records, things haven’t really changed for our scene!
There are now two specialized record stores in Uruguay, “Lado B” in Maldonado, run by my dear friend Jorge Delgado, and “Alma” in Montevideo, set up by another close friend, Fede Lijtmaer. Both are new and both offer a really serious selection of music via new and second-hand records.
The Uruguay scene is now known all over the world, with DJs such as Omar and Z@P gaining significant recognition. Do you feel a sense of pride to see these younger DJs blossom from your teachings?
I think this has been a really natural, organic process. I’m one of the oldest on the scene, as I started DJing in the early 2000s. I never considered leaving the country, because I’m too close to my family and the place. Since that was never a part of my plan, I watched almost all of my friends and colleagues leave. Over time I realised and accepted the fact that there are some things that will never change. Uruguay is a small country, with a considerable brain drain across every field and industry and electronic music is no exception.
It’s likely that a young DJ or producer would want to move to Europe after going once or twice and realising how much cheaper and easier it is to buy records, have them delivered, get gigs, go to parties, etc. So it’s to be expected that only a few of us would remain in the country to show the others what this path is all about. I’m a DJ that loves what he does very very much.
I like to tell the younger ones stories, and I love showing them old music and new music. I do this from my heart. Music is one of the most important things in life for me and all I want to do is share it and pass that feeling on to other people. I’m really proud of the entire Uruguayan scene and of what everyone has achieved through lots of effort and hard work over these past years. I’m happy to be a part of that.
Is there anything European DJs and club culture can take from Uruguay?
I think we all have interesting things to learn from different parts of the world. A lot of times just little things are different, but that doesn’t mean things are better or worse, it’s just a different language. I see a big difference here in the infrastructure parties are held with, especially small or medium-sized events. Here in Europe you sometimes play for 150 or 200 people on a Void or Funktion One sound system, which is unheard of in Uruguay. You might get a system like that for a huge event, but not a small party.
Also, I don’t encounter Technics M5G much here and that’s what we’re used to playing on in Uruguay, pretty much exclusively. These are technical details, but sometimes they can affect the outcome of a night. Life is a constant lesson, and it’s always great to travel and see how people do it in other places.
How did you first become involved with Phonotheque?
The technical aspects I just mentioned is how Phonoteque came to be, as a result of our desire to have a place of our own and Christian’s trips to Europe. In 2013 we were finally ready.
We couldn’t wait any longer and the conditions were all set: We had a space, our friend and founding partner Seba had the sound system and, most importantly, we realised there was a gap in the nightlife offering in Montevideo. It had been a few years since the city’s main underground club had closed and we wanted to gather all these people that were attending sporadic parties into one single space.
Of course there are still other quality events in the city and the region, and we all know each other. Phonotheque opens on Saturdays and the other events are usually held on Fridays, so as not to affect the attendance too much. But things have definitely changed over the past six years—these days there are more projects, more artists and a greater understanding and acceptance of electronic music. It’s more respected than ever.
Perhaps the most well-known Uruguayan DJ is your good friend Nicolas Lutz, how did that friendship begin?
Nico and I met on the dance floor listening to Bruno, back before either of us was a DJ. In the beginning we were just party acquaintances. Then he moved to Europe and we stayed in touch and eventually became really good friends. We always shared a taste for underground music and culture and made a point of getting together every time he flew back home, which we still do to this day. We play together every chance we get, and now that I’m coming to Europe more, the odds of hearing us play together are getting better.
Do you think the club world is perhaps a bit too European centric? For example, Phonotheque was hosting amazing events and fantastic DJs for many years before most people knew about it. This could be happening anywhere in the world! Do we have a responsibility to push forward and find these smaller scenes?
Look, I think there are no scenes “in development”. They’re already developed, you guys just haven’t noticed yet! Ha!
We’re all in our own world and focused on making things the best they can be, to give our audiences the best experience possible. So we try to give it our all every single weekend. I think this is a great reason to get out and see other places, so that we can realise that what we have at home is really high quality and that other places are good also, but have nothing on our scene back home.
In Phonotheque we try to make everything work smoothly, the way we, as DJs, like it to be. I think that’s why this place has had a global response. Every time an international artist visits us, they go back home saying there’s an incredible club in a tiny little country of 3 million people way at the bottom of South America, a place that’s probably one of the best clubs in the world. That makes me think that this is probably going on somewhere else in the world.
One advantage your compatriot Kino made to RA in 2018 is that in cities such as London and Berlin, a lot of people are following trends as it’s easy to know what everyone is playing. Do you think you are better for not being hyper-aware of trends?
I think it’s important to be up to date but also to keep an open mind. You should have a clear enough vision to know where things are headed but also be very certain of where we want to take them ourselves. As a DJ, I’ve always preferred going against the grain and not paying too much attention to trends. I play a pretty wide variety of music within my sets, I think it’s something that characterises me and something I always preach. So it would be impossible for me to follow these trends, as I’d only be able to play one or two kinds of sound and I’m into taking more risks!
A linear set with no surprises is boring to me as what I want is for the crowd to connect with what I’m proposing, for all of us to have a good time. I make a point of looking at the dance floor a lot, trying to connect with every single person that’s there. Of course, the trends are always there, I’ve even heard about the “Uruguayan sound”, and since lots of European DJs are playing it, then I guess that’s also a trend perhaps. But it’s not just music, there are trends for headphone brands, record bags, etc. I still prefer to stay away from all the noise.
In Europe there’s a culture of guarding ‘track IDs’, as in not letting other people, aside from close friends, know what you’re playing. Is music like this in Uruguay or do you share music with anyone who asks?
That being said, every DJ has their own formula and the same track can be played a million different ways. I don’t really worry too much about the track ID thing. I see there’s a sort of obsession here with that…I once saw a guy cut through a dance floor with a pen and paper to write down the name of the track. Then he left! He didn’t even dance to it! I think the best thing is for everyone to pave their own way and not worry too much about the tracks anyone else is playing.
A documentary Michel Franco Paris on electronic music culture in Uruguay.
What makes a great party for Mr. Koolt? What are the key ingredients and what keeps you motivated to keep playing these parties?
Like the Inner City anthem said 30 years ago, “We don’t really need a crowd to have a party”. I still believe this to be true. With just music and people who are connected to each other, you can create a beautiful moment. There has to be a bit of positive energy and the will to dance as well—the most primal of things. Music and dance. That’s what I’ve dedicated my entire life to. What moves and inspires me.
Going out to party today still makes me feel the same way it did when I first went to a club, and I still get nervous before every gig. That’s my motivation. I like it all as much as I did the very first day. Music is in my blood and I try to honour it every day of my life. I feel the deepest gratitude to my parents and my siblings for teaching me to love music. I just want to show people how much it means to me.
What’s next for DJ Koolt?
It’s what I always say—I want to play right up until the very last day of my life. And I’m doing everything I can so that it’s like that. Taking my sound to as many places as I can, meeting new people on the dance floors, looking them in the eye when I play and discovering where we can go together. If I can create just a moment of happiness and magic, I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world. I am infinitely thankful to the music.