REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Kevin Santana remembers with a blank disenchantment the night he threw a party in his hometown of Ciudad Juarez and soldiers came to break it up.
It was in 2009, the young music producer and DJ recalls, and he and his friends had set up a sound system at a raquetball court and invited other teens to come dance. "There was nothing else going on that night and people in Juarez like to party," he explained a few days ago.
"They put us with our hands against the wall, made us close our eyes, they said they were going to rape the girls. We thought, 'This is it, they are going to break us.' "
I paused and asked for an explanation. Quebrar -- to break -- is slang used to signify killing someone in Ciudad Juarez, one of the most violent cities in the world and a sad symbol for Mexico's brutal drug war.
In the end, the kids were let go and the party was over. Santana shrugged and added: "There have always been soldiers in Juarez."
Santana just turned 18 in August. Troops were first sent to Ciudad Juarez in early 2008. Put another way, Santana has lived in a city with armed federal forces on the streets for most of his teen years.
Known by his DJ name Mock The Zuma, Santana is part of a loose generation of electronic musicians and producers based predominantly in Mexico's northern region that are attracting attention among tastemakers in the capital and in Latino-heavy cities north of the border.
Their cutting-edge sounds draw on diverse Latin American rhythms -- such as cumbia and son -- filtered through easy-to-access editing software that allows the music-makers to mix, scratch, and cut it all up with spacey and aggressive electronic beats.
To call them very young is apt; most are still teenagers.
And if there's any way to unify a description, the new national electro sound could be called bass-heavy, liquid, tropicalized, and -- in a time of war -- sometimes leaning to the dark side. The energy may be violent and jarring at times, but at the root, it's still dance music meant to turn on crowds. Among the acts are the popular MTY 3BALL crew in Monterrey, led by teen whiz Erick Rincon, and Los Macuanos from Tijuana, who mix computerized beats with live instrumentals.
In Monterrey, youth are dancing to an updated version of the 90s "tribal" scene in Mexico, and now refer to the sound as "tribal guarachero." In Tijuana, the dance-party "ruidoson" genre that Los Macuanos represent is giving Tijuana music-watchers something else to talk about besides the world-renowned Nortec sound.
Like many of his teenage contemporaries, Mock The Zuma's music is influenced by the British dubstep movement of previous years and often grouped as "post-dubstep." While he acknowledges the jittery "two-step" quality to his sound, Santana, like any self-respecting producer, declines to concede he belongs to any kind of movement.
Tracks like "Viva la Muerte" ("Long Live Death") reflect both an international awareness of the electronica avant garde and a local awareness of the horrific realities on the ground in a war zone. It is music that pushes relentlessly into the future.
"In some form, for it being Juarez, I use that two-step rythym, so that's the violent part, like Juarez," Santana said before playing at the eighth annual Mutek music festival on Friday night. "Juarez is the part that is bizarro, sick, the hallucinogenic part, and that's two-step."
Los Macuanos and Mock The Zuma were invited to play at this year's Mutek, the premiere platform for new electronic acts in Mexico and a festival considered geared toward sound connoisseurs. Mutek director Damian Romero, also a well-known producer in the Mexico City scene, said this year's line-up is "special" because there's a focus on national talent and experimentation -- as someone like Mock The Zuma shows.
"They're young and doing something that is very sharp and very good," Romero said in an interview just before the two-stage Nocturno 3 event on Friday, at the crumbling old Casino Metropolitano in downtown (link in Spanish).
"Think about how informed this generation is, how much information and communication has evolved in the last eight years," Romero said. "We haven't seen a group like this, that is young and has such a vision."
Santana, who speaks with the lilting rancho accent of Mexico's border region, using phrases like "simón" for "yes" and "arre" for "right on," said he doesn't expect to make a living out of his music. For him, mixing is simply "about experimentation," like when he experimented with piano and guitar as a child.
He just entered the Chihuahua state university to study communications. He says that despite the violence and culture of fear that dominates Ciudad Juarez, he doesn't expect to move across the border to El Paso as many of his friends and neighbors have.
"It's out of control. Everyone is going to El Paso," Santana said. "The truth is, it's cool to live in Juarez when you have your friends."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Producer and DJ Kevin Santana, 18. Credit: Sony Mutek.