One Night At The Pájaro Azul
The sky around Chiloé City lit up like a pinball machine. Wherever you looked, lightning broke through the fast-moving clouds, sunbeams appeared out of nowhere to be replaced just as suddenly by dark grey patches that could be rainstorms, maybe hail. If you stare long enough, you’d start to see patterns, as the calm and the violence chased each other around the island.
The Island and the City were in the eye of a storm. In fact, not one but many storms: some crashing in from mainland Chile a few kilometers to the East, others coming up from Puerto Chacabuco, still others from the Pacific with all the rage of its warming seas. The storms clashed and struggled around us but the island itself was left in peace, for now.
I ran down the service stairs on the outside of Chonchi Pyramid, taking the steps two or three at a time.
Normally I would have ridden one of the inside cable cars or express elevators but they didn’t accept manual payment, and I couldn’t use my wrist-card as the charge would have sent a notification to my family.
They couldn’t have forbidden me to attend the open mic night at the Pájaro Azul but would have been passive-aggressive about it. My dad would have commented on how my law studies were going without looking up from his screen, maybe a “joke” about cutting off my stipend. My mom would have said, “remember to bring a scarf in case it gets chilly, José Ignacio.” (She’s the only one who calls me that; to everybody else, I’m “Coté”.) My twin brothers would have made fun of me for wanting to be a musician, playing air-keyboards, and striking funny poses.
I couldn’t have stomached any of that.
I’d never stood on the outside of the pyramid before and the change in perspective and lack of separation made the City seem more real, vibrant, and present as if it were my first time seeing it: the bottom tiers, half in and half out of the water, made of plastics, pressed cardboard and discarded metal; the middle tiers, perched on stilt-like appendages over the lower levels, with more solid materials yet none of the dignity of the buildings like the one I was climbing down from; the skyscrapers looming over everything with their irrational and organic grown-in-place wooden shapes, showing off the power of the families that managed the last viable megacity left on the planet; and the bubble-villas tied to and floating above the towers, where the one percent of the one percent lived out their lives without ever sullying themselves on the ground floor.
The stairs were a jumbled mess, added to the pyramid as an afterthought. The design of the residential areas hadn’t taken into account that low-tier service employees might need to ascend the building—to work for families like mine—and they couldn’t afford the thirty-thousand pesos it cost for a one-way trip if they were making less than two-hundred-thousand pesos a day. The steps had been attached wherever and however it was possible, zig-zagging down, around, and sometimes backing up, keeping out of sight of the inhabitants of the pyramids.
It was a little bit scary, even though nobody gave me a second glance. It was also exhilarating. I got a feeling of freedom and adventure—maybe a little misplaced as I was just a few dozen meters from the same space I’d spent my whole life in.
I hadn’t known that people lived on the stairs. Blankets were strung from the handrails in tent-like structures with mattresses or whole beds sticking out and cooking fires stoked up nearby. Large pots of water were strewn about for drinking, cooking, and washing. People had set up shops offering street food—arepas, chapaleles, coxinhas, mote con huesillos, and other snacks I didn’t recognize—holding games of chance with many-sided dice, or selling homemade clothes, flags, and hats.
I ran past and around and over them as fast as I could without drawing too much attention to myself. Even though I’d pulled the case’s straps tight, my guitar and amp bounced on my back.
I was winded and glad we couldn’t afford to live higher up by the time I reached the bottom. Chiloé Avenue lay before me, a wide, multi-use thoroughfare, carrying a large portion of the thirty-five million people who lived on the island—as well as the goods they bought, sold, and consumed—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on automatic and manually driven cars, buses, trucks, trains, bicycles, and scooters.
The Sidewalk wound through the middle of it all. I’d never ridden it before, my mom said it was only used by “tourists, immigrants, and people who need to hide where they’re going.” I was firmly in the third category. I bought a ticket with some of the plastic money I’d traded with one of our housekeepers and got on the Sidewalk.
It was every bit as exciting as I’d imagined. I stood straight up in the middle of the moving surface as we zoomed past neighborhoods, my own Chonchi, Colhuín, Miraflores, Compu. It never slowed down, twisting and turning around the natural hills and water features of the island gracefully.
I got off at the end of the line, in Quellón Viejo.
Thick raindrops were starting to fall. I pulled the hood of my Trauko Football Club sweatshirt over my head. I was glad I’d worn it because I stood out less as a “pyramid boy.” I didn’t follow football so I’d picked a team based on the design of their gear and it seemed to be a popular one—I made out other people wearing the Trauko’s orange and green stripes too.
The Quellón quarter was near the southern tip of the City, protected from the worst of the ocean’s fury by some of the smaller islands that ringed the main one. It used to be a large port during the last hurrah of global capitalism when industry and business started to move towards the poles because of global warming. Multiple waves of immigrants—from all over Latin America, Southeast Asia, the ex-U.S., and the ex-E.U.—had made it a hotspot of eclectic and artsy nightlife.
A lot of the port’s infrastructure was still in place: the gigantic cranes, the floating dry-docks, the train tracks, and sheds. Some were rusting and falling apart, some had been given a second or third life as cheap housing, storage, and wholesale food sales. Hundreds of bars, restaurants, mini-casinos and clubs occupied long-unused containers, welded, epoxied, or tied together. Stairs, escalators, and thanks-but-no-thanks makeshift elevators provided access to the second, third, and fourth-floor venues.
At the very top of this glorious mess, in the rooftop park that some civic-minded urbanist had built on what used to be an elevated train track, was the goal of my escapade: the Pájaro Azul.
My uncle’s zeppelin bumped up against the top of my family’s apartments. I threw a rope around one of the buttresses that held up the large dome over the ballroom and pulled it tight. With a thank-you wave at my uncle, I jumped down onto the walkway and made my way inside.
“Mother,” I called out, “have my finest silks laid out! Tonight I go off to compete for fame, fortune, and perhaps a chance to play as the opening act for some random trap-metro-rock act down in Quellón. It is of utmost importance to our family’s honor that I not be slovenly or unpressed!”
“Yes, my first-born child, I certainly will,” she answered without looking up from her screen. She usually humors me and plays along, but I could tell she had other things on her mind this evening.
“What’s wrong?” I asked switching to my normal non-theatrical voice. “Something in the news? Trouble with the company?”
“No, dear, I was just reading about the war at the border with Perú. It seems dreadful, and all over that pisco that the Chilenos like to drink, which frankly tastes like alcohol with perfume in it.” She’d been born in Chile, but she still referred to the non-Arab population of the country as ‘Chilenos’ whenever they did something she disapproved of.
She was sitting in our smaller dining room, the one we use for family and close friends, tapping an annoyed rhythm on the table my grandfather had built from a fallen three-thousand-year-old Alerce tree. She usually knew better than to risk scratching it with the diamonds and emeralds sticking out from her rings.
“I’m sure pisco is just an excuse for whatever geopolitical unpleasantness actually started it,” I said, sitting down.
“Well, still, it’s a shame. I hope too many people don’t die. What’s this about some sort of contest in Quinchao?”
Glad to be able to turn her mind to lighter topics, I elaborated, “Quellón, not Quinchao. There’s an open mic at the Pájaro Azul, the most traditional music venue in all of southern Chiloé City. A lot of famous singers and bands got their start there, like Las Los, Nano Kul, and even La Banda Erupción.”
“Oh, I do like those Erupción boys. You’re going to be a famous metro-canto star now?”
“Cross-rock star, mother, incorporating my Bedouin heritage and merging it with the many cultures of this greatest of all cities!” I said, back in character.
“Our family hasn’t been Bedouin for three generations, Saleh, we’re settled now.” She made a gesture with her left hand and a silver-bell sound tinkled in the pantry. María Ester, one of the maids, brought in a tray with flavored water and small sandwiches.
I thanked María Ester. She’s a sweetheart.
“But the music of our ancestors runs through me, begging to be let out,” I declaimed around a mouthful of avocado and quail eggs.
“Weren’t you going to be a famous writer last week?”
“That was just a passing fancy, Mother, this is my life’s passion.”
“Well, that’s lovely, as long as you have fun. Please remember we have dinner with the Del Ríos tomorrow night. I think the oldest son likes you, or maybe it’s the daughter?” She patted my face and went back to her screen. “Oh, that’s a shame…”
I do love my mother, and she loves me, but sometimes I get the feeling that she doesn’t see me as the serious artist I’m destined to be.
I grabbed three extra sandwiches and went back upstairs to pick out my clothes.
My room occupies the top floor of our three-story apartment, with a kilometer-high view over the largest, most amazing city left on the face of our beleaguered and battered planet. Lights were starting to come on, glowing with their different colors through the fog that had rolled in with the sudden storm. You could make out reflections of the setting sun on the windows of the other skyscrapers, bubbles, and pyramids. The light glinted off the bays, inlets, and canals the city was built on top of. The Avenue glowed, each kind of transport a different thread of moving lights, twisted together like some sort of dance-themed snake race.
I didn’t actually have any “finest silks,” but I laid out my new DolceGucci shirt with the smart-mesh that adjusted to ambient lighting conditions, eye-lines, and general vibe to make you look fabulous without it seeming like you cared. It was a hard trick to pull off; that’s why the shirt’s price had been a bit obscene.
I paired it with my oldest, most worn salmon-leather pants—I’d bought them second-hand for about as much as a really good sandwich would have cost—and dark-purple high top combat sneakers.
I looked amazing.
I mean, I always look good, but tonight I looked stunning. I had to—there was no way I was coming home without winning that spot.
I called for a driver to take me to Quellón. Not all the way to the Pájaro Azul of course—people get judgy when they see you step down from a flying shuttle—but close enough that I could walk the final distance as if I were just a normal person stepping off of the Sidewalk.
I jumped down from the loft canopy-bed I shared with my three roommates, landing on the balls of my feet on the springy material we’d had the Tower grow us.
The floor had been my idea and I’d written its code myself, back when I was still living in Southern Argentina, in my hometown of Kalfucurá.
I’d grown up on romantic stories of the long-gone Global Internet, from before the Crash, about how hackers would connect instantly from anywhere on the planet or near-Earth orbit and break into computer networks to pull off heists, right wrongs, punish evildoers, and generally have a great time.
Those days were long gone, but there were still smaller networks joining cities together and you could hop from one to the next to link up with farther places.
I’d found a message board in Bariloche that was connected over the mountains to Osorno, Chile, down south to Puerto Montt, and over the Chacao Channel into Chiloé. On a good day, messages only took a few minutes to make the round trip.
I’d made friends with a group in the City calling themselves the Wallmapu Free Zone Collective—mostly Mapuche like me—who had a scheme. You could call it a heist, even. One of them, Millaray, was an intern at an architectural firm where they were writing code for Torre Alto Huillinco, a skyscraper being grown using the algorithmic wood you can program.
Her company was in charge of the pneumatic shafts, empty spaces that ran the full height of the building with passive convection streams that moved fresh, warm air up and brought cold, used-up air down from the top. These large voids in the structure were set up, tested, certified, and then blocked off from human access for as long as the buildings stood. They were designed according to black-box optimization routines—you could set their parameters and evaluate the results but you wouldn’t understand exactly what they were doing.
Which is where we came in.
Millaray smuggled out the simulation software they used to test their code and published it on the Wallmapu board, along with the current version of the building’s model. Nacha, Pepe, Ji-Hoon—who was from a Korean family but a fellow Mapuche at heart—and I turned out to be the best at twisting the routines to make it do our bidding.
At that point, I hadn’t met them in person yet, but we spent twelve hours a day during the next six months testing and planning what kind of shapes and textures we could accomplish without getting caught.
In the end, our mod was just a short script that made a few changes in the directed growth algorithm of the tree, creating a small void connected to the large central one. Millaray slipped it in along with the work she’d been tasked with. It was undetectable, less than three-hundred characters distributed among the hundreds of thousands of lines that made the skyscraper cater to the whims of its paying customers, forming their atria, domes, walk-in panoramic closets, and triple-height smoking rooms.
Nobody caught it. Not Millaray’s boss, who was just happy he had an intern willing to work for free, and not the automated audits because our changes made the whole system more efficient, not less.
The skyscraper’s growth routine was triggered and a few months later we had our Free Zone, accessible from the ground-level via use-in-emergency-only registration ducts—far away from the fancy lobby used by the tower’s residents and safely out of sight of the entrances that their servants lined up out of every morning.
I’d come over from Argentina when the group had moved into the space and I never left.
The inside of the Wallmapu Free Zone looked like a series of connected air-bubbles hollowed out of the Tower’s wooden structure, intersecting each other to define five dormitories and smaller communal areas around a large central working, cooking, and eating space. We had rugs and bamboo mats strewn everywhere and different sleeping infrastructure like futons, large canopy beds, hammocks and even sleeping bags for the less gregarious. Fifteen permanent members plus twenty or so hangers-on were usually here, working, playing, or planning new hacks and schemes. We all chipped in for food and other consumables and put in the work necessary to keep our air breathable, our water clean, our lights on, and our sewage non-smelly.
“Mailén! Are you ready for a wild night on the town?” yelled Nacha who was in the cooking area watching Ji-Hoon make a batch of his famous Congrio Bulgogi.
“Don’t know if I’d call an open mic at the Pájaro Azul ‘wild,’ but yeah, of course.”
“No, we’re going dancing at the new club in Castro, the one with the A.R. rigs, remember?”
“I told you, I’m going to the open mic.”
“But that’s so boring, and we discussed this, we already picked out our avatars, unicorn-fairies with top-hats, remember? Everybody’s going!”
“I’m going to Quellón,” I said, maybe more forcefully than I should have.
She looked at me with a thoughtful expression. “You’re so authoritarian sometimes,” she said.
“Why? I’m not telling anybody else what they should do, am I?”
“But you’re acting as if your decisions don’t impact the people around you, and not taking into account what they think or feel.”
I loved Nacha as much or more as I loved anybody in my hacker-tribe, but ever since she’d started studying Social Engineering at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiloé, she’d gotten a little too theoretical for my taste.
“Relax, Nacha, it’s just a night out on my own, not a big deal.”
“Is that what you’re wearing?” she asked, pointing up and down in my direction.
“What? This is what I always wear!” Black boots, black utility pants with lots of pockets. Black t-shirt. Black smart-jacket over everything with more onboard processing power than most small companies.
“That’s my point, don’t you want to stand out a bit more on stage?”
“You don’t get it. It’s about the music, not how I look.”
“Ok, I guess I don’t get it. Good luck at the open mic, hope you get picked this time,” she said and went back to discussing with Ji-Hoon whether you can make gochujang sauce using merkén, the Mapuche smoked chili and coriander mix—you totally can—and whether Korean had a more logical writing system than Mapudungun—it does.
I went upstairs to switch my black t-shirt for a bright red one, then headed down the entrance shafts, being careful to stay out of Nacha’s sight—I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of my listening to her—grabbed my bike out of its hiding place in the reeds around the lake, and pedaled to the Avenue. I used the pass I had coded to “pay” for the Sidewalk to Quellón.
A bright holo floated above the Pajaro Azul’s iron industrial revival structure, flashing over and over: “Open Mic Night—Be Discovered—No Free Drinks—Impress Your Friends—Add Meaning To Your Pointless Life—No Free Drinks.” It also had 3D-clips of some of the famous acts that had gotten their start at the bar. It was welcoming and intimidating at the same time.
I took a deep breath and walked in. Nobody looked up or seemed to notice.
There were tables in the middle, most occupied by people holding some sort of instrument or interface. Lots of leather, magenta, black, unnecessary sunglasses, post-ironic hats, and faux-VR rigs.
The small stage on the left side of the room was occupied by two musicians. One was a skinny boy, about fifteen years old, singing in Haitian Creole—or maybe French—and beating on his chest in a syncopated rhythm which wasn’t so much complementing his vocals as antagonizing them. The other one had a dozen boxes arrayed about the stage. She was kneeling, constantly tweaking knobs and sliders, plugging and unplugging the short cables that connected the interfaces. This produced chirps and slides that constantly changed in pitch and tempo but never sounded like actual music.
An almost comically large man walked up to me. He was wearing a white fur jacket that made it look like he had four arms. Two horns stuck out of his short, silver-white hair. One of his real—I think—hands had a large screen in it. “You here to perform?”
“Yes, please. My name is Coté, I play guitar.”
He grunted and made a note on his tablet.
“When they call your name you have sixty seconds to get on stage and start performing if you take longer than that you’re out you don’t get any freebies while you wait if at the end of the night your name is called out congratulations you’re performing this Saturday questions?” he said in a single breath with no pauses or inflection, then turned and left without waiting to find out if I had any questions.
The dissonant pair had finished their set to scattered applause and got off the stage. A red-haired woman of indeterminate age who was sitting on a large throne at the back yelled out in a surprisingly loud voice “Caporales!”
Three young men hopped up on the stage. They looked alike enough to be brothers and were dressed identically, with shiny red jackets, white trimming and tassels hanging down from the sleeves, white pants, and red boots that reached above their knees. One had a keyboard hung on a strap, the other a large ribbed metal can that he stroked with a wooden stick, and the last one a set of electric-congas around his midsection.
“We are the Caporales de Chaitén and we own the night!” They yelled as one and then started playing. The keyboard player kept a simple melody going up and down over the same three chords. The congas and the metal can set up a steady beat. All three took turns singing about people who didn’t love them the way they should, or who had loved them and didn’t anymore or would love them soon. They had a set of dance steps that they repeated over and over.
People stood up from the tables and started swaying and dancing in place. I didn’t like the Caporales’ music, but I was jealous of how they’d just stood up and started playing. Like it was no big deal. Like they didn’t hyperventilate just thinking about it.
I caught a glimpse of the throne woman—the owner, Ekaterina López, according to the research I’d done preparing for this night—she wasn’t dancing, but she smiled, bobbed her head, and wrote down a note. I guessed the brothers might be back on Saturday.
The next acts were: a trap-percussionist, an interpretative dancer dressed in LED-activated tights, and a harmoniphonist backing up a ballad singer. None of them impressed me, the crowd, or Ekaterina very much.
Then came the moment I’d been dreading since walking in. The red-headed woman called out, “Coté!”
It was about the same distance to the stage as to the front door.
My grandfather, Mehedi Mohammed abu-Rabia Al Heuwaitat, was born and grew up traveling through the Arabian desert before the heat and storms forced our family to come to Chile and settle in Chiloé. He told me stories of how—while the desert was cooling down after a hard day’s work—his extended family wouldn’t drink or gamble or watch screen; they’d make music together in their tents under the stars.
The main players would start a melody—usually, one everybody already knew—and the others would drift in and out, the stronger players leading and shaping it, the weaker ones just keeping up, but each one adding a little bit to the music they all made together each night. He taught me to sing their old songs, and how to make up new ones over his oud—a fretless, pear-shaped ancestor of the guitar with eleven strings—saying more than once, “Saleh, this is the music of our family. I’ve taught you everything my father taught me, and everything his father taught him. It’s up to you to make sure it never dies.”
I love Chiloé City and its culture and all the people it’s taken in from around the world. I’m proud to be one of its many sons. But I’m also proud of my family and our history. That’s my heritage, what I was bringing with me as I walked into the Pájaro Azul and gave my name to the man with too many arms.
A long bar, shaped from a single rock, stretched along the right side of the club. I walked up to it and struck a pose with my elbows on its slightly sticky surface, looking out over the crowds waiting for the next act.
I’d attracted a lot of looks entering the place and had to set my onboard to private because I was getting pinged by so many people. As cute as some of them were, especially that one with the pink spiked hair, I was there to enjoy the vibe, play some music, and get discovered—not for some random hookup that I could have scored at one of my school’s parties.
Somebody called out “Coté.” This guy climbed up on the stage. He was wearing an ugly orange and green football sweatshirt and looked like his father dressed him and cut his hair. You could tell he was more than a little scared.
He pulled out a guitar, one of the old-style ones with knobs and metal parts, and connected it with a cable to a small black amplifier.
He fiddled with it and I got the feeling he wasn’t doing anything, just trying to buy some time before he had to play, maybe run out his sixty seconds and leave quietly. I felt bad for him.
Then he started playing, softly at first.
Something about it reminded me of the music my grandfather had taught me and told me about. The way the melody moved around the chords and how the rhythm wasn’t always in sync with either, like three people were playing at the same time, shifting scales and harmonies and time without ever really straying from a center.
It wasn’t showy. You couldn’t dance to it. No congas were involved. It was amazing but too subtle, too musical for the Pájaro Azul crowd.
The fact that this beauty was happening right in front of us and nobody except me seemed to notice or care made me despair—if they didn’t understand him they wouldn’t understand me either. His art and mine would get lost in the indifference of the semi-cultured masses. I’d have to go work in my family’s seaweed export business. A long and boring life stretched out in front of me with appalling clarity.
A young man wearing a very three-years-ago upcycled fishing-net onesie came up and started trying to talk to me.
“Hello, I’m Paul. What’s your name?”
“What?” I said without taking my eyes off the stage.
“I’m a crypto-capitalist, working on destabilizing the carbon-sync markets. What do you do?”
“I don’t care what you do, it sounds evil.” I grabbed him by one of his plastic collars and turned him towards the stage, “listen to this guy, he’s really good!”
He gave me a nervous smile and turned back to a group of similarly dressed young men who made hooting noises and strange gestures with their hands.
I’d have to make them all listen.
I’d spent most of my evening alone at a small table near the back, fiddling with my interface and code. I had to get it right this time.
For my first try at the Pájaro, I’d come in with some kids who hung out at the Free Zone. They were pretty good musicians, but we couldn’t mesh. They’d wanted to play a cover of SoundSistemaSouvlaki, with tropical keyboards and staccato vocals, but I had insisted on an original piece. We hadn’t come to any sort of agreement and had ended up not performing at all.
The second time wasn’t much better. I’d rehearsed with some Zambians in the downtown Castro neighborhood, but it didn’t gel, either. I had played an original song by myself and had gotten some mild applause from my fellow musicians but not enough to be picked.
This was my third try and I’d promised myself it would be my last.
Now, what was happening on the stage?
The basic-Chilean kid in his never-been-to-a-game football gear was bad enough. He could play but it was weird. Also, who plays the electric guitar anymore? It was not at all what people came to the Pájaro Azul to listen to. And he looked really out of place, more like a law or engineering student than a musician.
People weren’t paying attention to him, just waiting for him to finish, bored or nervous about their turn to play and whether or not they’d be picked at the end of the night.
And then this other guy—who looked like he might have lived in the normie parts of my building—jumped up on stage like a fashion model turned action hero only instead of a sword or gun he was holding an old-style microphone. He was the polar opposite of the guitarist: too shiny, too put together, too look-at-me. And he seemed even more out of place at the Pájaro, obviously slumming for the night.
Until he started singing.
You know how when you’re cooking you add something, say salt or some sort of pepper, and it makes the other flavors pop, balances out the acid or the fats, and it’s nothing like the other ingredients but it makes the whole dish just work? This was like that only multiplied by ten and with music instead of food. Guitar-boy’s playing was good but brainy like he was thinking and theorizing before each note—no matter how experimental the music he played was, every measure was a logical consequence of the one before it. The new guy, though, was all flash and risk, singing in what sounded like a made-up language, veering in and out of the guitar’s space, trying things, modulating and changing rhythms, harmonies, and scales—constantly on the verge of failing badly but always recovering at the last minute. You could tell it was all improvised—each one bouncing off the other, copying and expanding on melodies as they came up—but it also sounded as if they’d been playing with each other their whole lives.
The guitarist had started hunched over, staring at his instrument, and making no eye contact with the crowd. With the addition of the singer to his set, his whole body language started to change at the same time as his music did, opening up and becoming more confident, taking up more space. I could see him looking up from his instrument and smiling at the new guy, like “hey, look at us!” The singer grinned right back.
Neither one was cool, not how they looked—one too pyramid-boy, the other one overly dramatic—or the music they made—they sounded like they hadn’t heard any popular music from the past fifteen years. But their music was true, in a way that the flavor-of-the-week post-nostalgia indie kids couldn’t touch. And the way they meshed, making music together, even though they seemed to have just met, was like nothing I’d ever seen or heard. It was frightening. It made me feel as if I wanted to lose control—and I hate losing control—and let these two odd-looking nerds take me wherever they were going.
I closed my eyes to listen, not trying to understand what they were doing, just feeling the sound wash over me. Then I heard people’s comments.
“What the hell are they playing?”
“Bring back the Caporales!”
I opened my eyes.
Some people in the crowd were enjoying it, you could see it in the way their heads were swaying to the complex beats and melodies, in their smiles, but the rest were not vibing with the music.
Somebody started to boo. You could hear jeers and whistles.
I was most definitely not having any of that.
It had been a long time since an open-mic night at the Pájaro had been so eventful.
It’s usually a bunch of karaoke singers and their versions of the latest metro-pop hits, with maybe some more artsy hipsters doing their take on whatever they thought of as “real” music this month.
That night, though, there was something special going on.
The “Caporales de Chaitén” had been a treat. Not my style but they were fun. You could tell they loved what they were doing and the audience loved them. The whole reason I’d cashed out a lucrative career as an environmental attorney, bought the Pájaro Azul, and turned it into South Chiloé’s main music venue (and indie label) was precisely to find and sign new acts before they were famous or in fashion. So that was a win.
Then there were a few forgettable sets but that was pretty standard—you had to go through a lot of crap to find one or two good ones.
And then whatever this was.
The two kids up on my stage didn’t seem to know each other beforehand. Their music was weird. Interestingly weird, good weird even, but a large part of the audience did not understand what was happening. It looked like it might get a bit ugly. I might have to send Iain to calm things down.
Then, from the back, near my seat, a young take-no-shit-looking woman shot up and rushed the stage. Everybody focused on her. Was she going to attack the other two? Shut them down?
She was not.
She took out an interface, not one of the shiny new ones or the old type they sold for a discount in the shops around Quellón Square. It looked like she’d made it herself out of spare parts and attitude.
She had already hooked into the Pájaro’s sound system before climbing up, as well as taking control of the lights and darkening the whole place except for a single spotlight aimed at the stage. She shouldn’t have been able to do any of these things, especially not so easily. I’d have to have a word with my people.
The new girl stood front and center on the stage, forming a perfect triangle with the other two as if they’d been saving the spot for her all along. The three looked at each other for a beat. The two boys nodded at her as if some sort of agreement had been reached. She nodded back and turned around to face the crowd.
Behind her, the commandeered light system projected a terminal screen. Computer code appeared and started scrolling up and down as she modified it in real-time.
If you looked closely, and I did, you could see how her changes to the code resulted in different sounds. If she wrote chord_seq_1 = [G2, C3, G3, B4, D4, G5] a new chord progression came up. Or sample bass_thick_c and a deep bass started thumping along. Other commands seemed to control the light show and make it follow the music.
She set up a twisting and changing beat that was still simple enough to dance to but also reacted to the guitar’s chord melodies and the vocalist’s microtonal musings. She pulled in small melodies and rhythms from her fellow musicians and twisted them, making them more organic and mechanical. A bassline came in, took control, and made the music move forward. High-pitched arpeggios burst out the top end.
She never stopped writing and changing her code and took what had been a promising but strange jam session and turned it into what sounded like a language, a system. A new kind of music, even.
Nobody could have ignored the three of them together.
COTÉ & SALEH & MAILÉN
We kept playing, not sure for how long. The sound moved around a center, sometimes close to it, sometimes far, almost flying out through the Pajaro Azul’s facade, before flowing back into our hands.
We’d sneak looks at each other, or make small private jokes in the music itself, knowing that wherever this was coming from was a place that hadn’t existed before we met onstage. Something that no one had heard before.
And the people in the club were with us too, even if they didn’t understand what we were doing or where we were going. They were just happy to be along for the ride.
There were ecstatic parts, sad interludes, long stretches that were more rhythm than melody, loud blaring sections that sounded like there were fifteen of us on stage instead of just three.
We never stopped, never had to use actual words to decide what the music was doing next, which parts to make louder or softer or faster. The sound sprung out of the three of us fully formed—pulling us forward rather than being propelled by our conscious intent.
When the time felt right, we let it slow and cool down, come back down to earth, and rest.
The lights came back up. We stood on the stage, out of breath, waiting for our sweat to cool down, and grinning at each other like idiots.
People stood up, some climbing on their seats, cheering and clapping, caught up in this event that had just happened to us. To all of us.
The owner sent her many-armed bouncer pushing his way through the crowd next to the stage to bring us to the back near her throne.
“Okay, you’re playing this Saturday, and, if we work out the details, you’re signing a contract with my label.”
She stared at us for a bit, looking each one in the eye.
“You’re a mismatched-looking bunch, but you are a band, right?”
We smiled at each other for a bit, then answered, at the same time:
“Yeah, we’re a band.”
Rodrigo Culagovski (he/him) has worked as an architect, designer, and web developer in Chile and the U.S. His pronouns are He/Him and he has published previously in Future SF. He currently lives in Santiago, Chile, where he teaches a Strategic Design workshop in Chile’s most important design school, and tweets as @culagovski. He misses his Commodore 64.