La Sierra (2005)

Jake Meaney

In this film the politics behind the Colombian civil wars are negligible; what matters are these lives, these kids, kids with guns, kids giving birth to kids, kids living in a ceaseless wheel of unending, senseless violence.

La Sierra

Display Artist: Scott Dalton, Margarita Martinez
Director: Margarita Martinez
Cast: Edison Flores, Jesus Martinez, Cielo Munoz
Studio: Icarus
Distributor: First Run
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2007-02-20

The first thing we see is a body lying prostrate down in a gully by the side of the road. Then we notice the unnatural angles of the limbs, flung out painfully akimbo; then we see the deep brown splotches soaked through the blue shirt; and we finally come to rest on a face, covered in flies, the mouth agape, the eyes closed shut.

The close-up is grotesque but hypnotic. The boy – and he can’t be more than 17 – casts a spell, compelling us to stare though all we want to do is turn away in horror. And then, a banshee wail from off camera suddenly breaks the spell -- a young girl, a sister, or a cousin, screaming and crying and collapsing to her knees, imploring God “Why, why? He was so young!”, while her friends drag her away, and some other young men come to gawk at their friend, or brother, or comrade.

Such scenes are simply part of the daily struggle in La Sierra, a hilltop barrio above the city of Medellin in Columbia, all too commonplace and frequent. Exponents of nationwide civil unrest, armed youth gangs patrol the streets of the sectors ringing the city, engaging in turf wars with rival gangs, skirmishing with police and Columbian military. Spawned out of political strife between warring national factions, these groups loosely align themselves along party lines; the left-wing guerillas stick to the fringes, the jungle, making occasional sorties into the cities, while the right-wing paramilitaries try to consolidate their home bases, and expand to reclaim areas they perceive to be under threat.

Yet such allegiances are specious at best; genuine motives are murky, but seem more to have to do with a conflation of territoriality, machismo, and the rush of violence than any sort of political philosophy. Strip away the looming shadow of civil war, and you could easily see these gangs roaming the streets of Los Angeles, or Hong Kong, or New York, or any other crime plagued urban jungle on the planet.

Which is why it was a good strategy that the filmmakers’ chose to focus on the personal side of the story, concentrating on the lives of three individual youths growing up in this war-ravaged, run down little neighborhood. Edison, a charismatic charmer who goes by the nickname “The Doll”, has, at the age of 22, ascended to the rank of commander of Bloque Metro, the local cell controlling his neighborhood in La Sierra.

Articulate and candid, he admits to getting a rush from the power he wields: his life’s defining moment was the first time he shot a rifle. He basks in the attention of local girls (and has sired six children by six different mothers); and he is crafty and intelligent, a master strategist who knows just how to outfox his opponents in the most ruthless way possible. And yet he is righteous in his belief in the cause, in his dedication to preserving the traditions and peace of his home. And he also seems to see something beyond the fighting, to a time when he might escape, might educate himself, might come back as an engineer or a doctor and improve the town he so dearly loves.

Such contemplative thinking doesn’t seem to trouble Jesus. At 19, he’s already been in numerous fire fights, and had his hand blown off by a grenade. Reckless and living only for the moment, he sees only the present, surviving on cocaine and marijuana and a smattering of street sense. An anonymous foot solider in a conflict he can’t comprehend, he’s presented as a counterpoint to Edison, though his story is ultimately less compelling and tragic. By the film’s end he realizes that, if only for the sake of his son, he needs to quit this life.

Cielo, just 17, has a two-year-old son whose father has already been claimed by the fighting. Both her own father and her brother were killed by guerillas, as well. And now she is dating another gang member who is locked up in prison. Edison’s boasts of bagging girls with his guns and his collection of motorcycles may sound like so much hormone fueled bravado, but there’s an element of truth here: the girls of the barrio flock to these boys, and think nothing of bearing their children at ridiculously early ages (one of Edison’s pregnant girlfriends is 14).

It’s an interesting, and disturbing regression -- the never ending wheel of violence has so reduced life expectancy here, that gang members are considered elderly if they make it to 30. And thus, this urge to preserve their lineage, to birth a son to avenge them, with ever younger girls – and we’re suddenly set back in time, and we are living in tribes and survival of the species is only guaranteed by profligacy of seed.

La Sierra never seems to address this issue head on; the filmmakers’ are rather hands off the whole way, never editorializing or seeming to slant the film in any direction. The film wisely sacrifices context and wider consequences for immediacy, in the hopes that particular life stories may engender the sort of outrage a more wide-ranging documentary might not. The politics behind the Colombian civil wars are negligible, almost laughably irrelevant; what matters are these lives, these kids, kids with guns, kids giving birth to kids, kids living in a ceaseless wheel of unending senseless violence. Is there hope, is there life beyond these turf wars and this poverty?

The film concludes on an incongruously upbeat note, with a ceasefire, a disarmament, and an amnesty for all the irregulars of both sides. And yet, couldn’t this just be the calm before the resumption of the storm? The graveyard Cielo visits halfway through the film, a vast sea of small crosses, seems stretch beyond the horizon, limitless, a testament to an eternity of violence. It seems to blot out the future, to blot out hope, to blot out life. The end of violence is only the beginning, again…

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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