I always read up on countries I'm visiting now. I have for many years, just because I have an interest in where I go and what's going on in my surroundings, be it culture, food or history. I always try to dig a lot deeper than I used to, I suppose. I find it very interesting.
When you first start touring, you're sort of lost in your own world, because it's all very exciting. Generally, the way it works with DJs is that you arrive, you go to your hotel, go for food, possibly soundcheck, sleep a little, play and leave. That's the pattern. I try to pack in as much in as I can, from doing research prior and knowing what I want to go and see, whether it's a museum or a vineyard.
I first visited El Salvador back in November of 2005, as part of my Central and South American tour. I remember feeling excited at the prospect of visiting and playing in a country I honestly had no idea about, and in not knowing what to expect, El Salvador would be another first for me on this particular tour.
Out of the heat and humidity that instantly made you feel exhausted, the drive from the airport was engrossing, the passing countryside deep with tree tops on rolling red hills that stretched far into the distance, this unspoiled scenery literally went on for miles and felt tranquil. At the side of the road were small, self-made stalls with women and children selling coconuts. With their produce hung up proudly, these stalls became more frequent as we pressed on. This was the first sign of what became a gradual change, as I was witnessing the transformation from organic to urban.
The road to San Salvador begins with the slight build up of traffic, on opposite sides of the road makeshift houses built from corrugated metal or what seemed to be anything that could support a roof and walls graduate up the sides of the hills, further on the odd side road of waste dumped around desperate looking but everyday people, beggars hustling car drivers for money. It became very clear this was the bleak reality of "those" without, a contrast of most cities. Carrying on into San Salvador, on approaching the hotel in the distance, the streets were bustling with city workers going home, packed buses, cars bumper to bumper and stifling exhaust fumes mixed with the heat and humidity, another complete contrast from just some 10 minutes earlier. On turning off from the traffic into the hotel drive, the Real Intercontinental was a sudden and welcomed change.
Arriving early at the outdoor venue, the Amphitheatre Feria Internacional, similar to a large disused factory space that I was told earlier had a capacity of 5,000, I walked around the periphery and was recognized and greeted by a very friendly bunch of young people with cameras (mobiles weren't as common then) eager for photographs with me. It was an enthusiastic welcome, with many thanking me for coming. I was taken aback, as it was obvious just how much this gig meant to them and actually just how much it was anticipated for both myself and them, but unfortunately it wasn't to be.
Just 10 minutes into my set I was made aware that the police were in the building and I was then asked to turn down the music. I was very surprised thinking it would all be over and they would leave and we would be allowed to carry on, but it didn't work like that. The raid was effectively to shut the party down, with the main police officer now ordering for the sound and lights to be turned off immediately and for everyone to vacate the premises. Despite the organizer calmly appealing for a reason, the officer in charge just shook his head and said (as I was told in translation) there was far too much noise. But the venue was on a secluded industrial estate? The organizer then offered to keep the music low, again with a refusing shaking head the officer was adamant to close the party.
At the time for questions of why and how, rumors rather than reasons were given. Some said the possibility of another jealous promoter or club owner made a complaint, while others claimed that enough "gratitude" was not given to the police. Either way, it displayed just how relentless the police were and that they did not want to consider or understand how much that gig meant to those young people.
Unknown to me during my visit in 2005, youth violence in El Salvador rose dramatically from its temporary drop in 2004. It was only after I had left that I learned the real magnitude of gang-related deaths in 2005 that finally made its then head of state Antonio Saca along with other heads of states in neighboring Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua faced with the same scale of youth violence to make a formal appeal for help and technical assistance from UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.)
In response to this appeal, UNESCO established the Declaration of Tegucigalpa, a Youth Development and Violence Protection Programme in April 2005. Its aim was to address the multiple causes of youth violence, with their goal to help the plight of young people in those countries giving them support by integrating them into Youth Development Programmes that would provide them with a structure of a 'broader' integration' and activities for social development, basically offering them help and access in getting away from the gangs that had an influence over them, UNESCO also implemented a preventative strategy for the fight against youth and gang-related violence.
It's very possible that some of the youths who came to that party in 2005 chose music as a path out of violence.
On my recent return visit back to El Salvador in July 2013, I was interested to find out what developments had been made concerning the youth of the nation since my last visit eight years previously. Via a mutual friend -- documentary filmmaker Giles Clarke -- I got to meet and talk with Emilio Valanos and his co-founder Diego Garcia of the Break-Stars dance crew, who back in 2004 had organized a hip-hop dance team that works directly within the youth community.
I met with him with his dance crew outside my hotel before my gig and talked with them. Emilio tells me their approach to gang violence is to have dance competitions or crew battles in cities all over to help keep kids out of trouble. "We help to prevent violence," he said. "From our work, we go out to teach to dangerous communities to talk about social politics and youth and movements to solve problems within their own communities. For example, we teach 10 kids -- taking them 3 times a week 4-hours per day --practical skills that take them away from dangerous places where they would be robbing or taking drugs."
Emilio informed me that the youth in the program range from ages 6 to 25, and that some of their mothers ask him to get involved in their children's lives. As a crew, they sometimes get stereotyped as another street gang; in fact, just before I met them, the police were called by the hotel and asked them to move.
"Through break dancing sometimes you don't just teach break dancing, but you form a new person, you give them self-esteem, you make them be proud of themselves and to be somebody else, so you see dance is not just dance, you know, dance is alive," Diego said.
"Because nobody gives anything to people who come from our communities," Emilio added, "because if you come from a dangerous place you might just be a really bad guy. But when you are a writer or a dancer or a DJ, this changes the minds of the people who look at you like this. This is the positive work we do."
I asked if there were any dancers that have gone back into the gangs. "We have some examples," he explained. "One of our members, he was doing break dancing 2 years ago, until he decided to join a gang. For us, this was sad because we have no resources, here money is money. You know they offer him money and drugs, and then they take him away. But if he wants to go back, we have no problem with any side gangs or police. We are impartial."
The Break Stars have become well-known and respected and praised for being a positive force for the youth to look up to within Latin America. Unfortunately, the day I left the truce, which had previously been made: "They said after 9pm there's gonna be a madness -- a war," Emilio told me. "Five persons had been killed that same day and three more previously!"
No matter how much positive influence and work is made to help the youth of El Salvador, sadly it seems there will still always be another price to pay. It's tough there. I just don't know if things will ever change. Their choice is all too often drugs, prostitution or some shape or form of sport. There is no other way out if you're born in the slums or a poor neighborhood.
You want to do as much as you can, and I don't know what good this story will do, but certainly if people read it, it will shed a light on what is happening there.
I am also starting a DJ academy in my home city, London, to help underprivileged kids. That's something that is being put in place and will hopefully launch in the end of the year. We're going to do it online, and why I felt very strongly to do it online is that then it isn't just London, England. It becomes international and gives kids an opportunity to get involved in music and DJ'ing and also make music and send it to us and have it be released on my record company. They can be showcased around the world. Who knows, maybe one kid can do it and come from a disadvantaged community and become a popular DJ. If there are other DJs and producers who want to get involved in helping these third-world countries, then great.
The point being: You do what you can do.