James Zabiela hops onstage with a wide smile and excitedly shakes his short blond hair. He looks like a tennis player stirring up the crowd on center court. The Englishman greets the audience and prepares his tools of the trade: turntable, iPad, headphones, and all kinds of electronic gear, as the crowd dissolves into applause and piles up in front of the elongated stage.
Zabiela drops the first beat and the people go crazy, pushing against each other, taking his picture and holding their tickets to the show high in the air. The initial commotion from the encounter with the DJ-turned-rock-star passes, and the mass of people—some 600 in all—move together in spasms, heads bobbing, hips thrusting. They all dance.
It’s just another weekend at the Hardpop, a medium-sized club with sober décor that’s nestled in a shopping mall in Ciudad Juárez, the deserted, chaotic and deadly city that shares a border with El Paso, Texas.
On this night, no one remembers the thousands upon thousands of dead the city has buried in cemeteries or clandestine pits. They don’t remember the brawls between drug dealers, the gunfights, the extortion, the torture, the brutal murder of women or all the other horrific headlines that have come to define Juárez and made it infamous for being one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Instead, the frenzy of Hardpop’s patrons, their dancing, and their almost ridiculous devotion to the DJ have earned the club another distinction, one that’s far more superficial but a million times more encouraging: According to the U.K. publication DJ Mag, the club is one of the top nightspots in the world.
No other club in Mexico boasts Hardpop’s weekly roster of major DJs, including James Lavelle, Magda, Damian Lazarus, Deadmau5, Jesse Rose, and M.A.N.D.Y. This week in October is the club’s seventh anniversary, and Berlin DJ Acid Pauli and Zabiela are in charge of the party. “I’m convinced music helps people go against a state of violence, because music is safe,” Acid Pauli says.
The young crowd celebrates as if nothing violent had ever happened—or will ever happen again.
WORTH THE RISK
In the early evening on the day after Halloween, Perla Chavez drives up to her friend Denisse Arias’s house to get ready for a night on the town. Perla is 20 and looks it, unlike Denisse, whose petite frame and sweet, winsome face make her look younger than her 18 years. “I’ve been going to Hardpop since I was 17. I had a fake ID someone printed for me, and well, yes, Juárez was very dangerous, but I wasn’t afraid—although my parents always threatened to keep me home, I always went out,” says Perla, reclining on a bed and straightening her hair while her friend applies fake eyelashes with surgical precision.
“My mom wouldn’t let me go out because it was too violent and she was afraid, but she had to trust me,” says Denisse. “I need to have fun and I need to go out. Nothing has ever happened, except one time they held me up outside my house. It was really sad, but, well, something had to happen. This is a scary city, something’s happened to everybody.”
It’s almost 9 p.m. and the girls are finally ready to go. Carlos, Perla’s brother, has been waiting with his buddies for them to finish their pre-party ritual. They want to get to Hardpop early because, even though every week features a top DJ, the lights come up and the place shuts down at 2 a.m. sharp—sometimes before.
Outside the club there’s already a long line of people, but no one over 25 years old. They’re all wearing their shortest skirts and carefully ironed shirts, shivering in the cold as they wait to get into the club, located in the same mall that was the scene of murders and gunfire years before. There isn’t a single street corner or citizen of Juárez without a bloody story to tell. Perla and Carlos count four murdered relatives.
“About two or three years ago, they killed three cousins, and last year an uncle. Maybe they were involved [in drugs], but one of my cousins I know for sure wasn’t doing anything bad. I was afraid for my family. I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but even if you do nothing, it touches you,” Perla says.
“My friends from El Paso said, ‘How can you live in Juárez?’ Well, we have to adapt to what we have,” Carlos says.
From 2007 to 2012, that meant an average of 5.8 murders a day; over 11,000 murders in all, according to statistics from the Chihuahua state attorney’s office. They adapted to living unafraid at the possibility of being killed. But this night, inside the Hardpop, all they wait for is Zabiela’s beats.
AN UNLIKELY STORY
The man behind Hardpop is Ricardo Tejada, a young Juárez entrepreneur who heads Pastilla Digital, an event promotion firm. Although both the company and its owner have impeccable credentials, Hardpop’s rise was really the result of a series of coincidences.
From the time he lived in London in the late 1990s, Tejada has organized DJ shows with the likes of Tiesto and Paul van Dyk. He had hoped to channel his techno-underground leanings into profitable events, initially trying to open an electronica club in San Pedro Garza García, the wealthiest municipality in Mexico. But, stymied by permit issues, he ended up moving everything to a space in a shopping mall owned by his father.
The result was Hardpop, located in the very last place he could have imagined setting up a business. But it turns out that the city of 1.2 million offered a big niche for an alternative club that featured progressive DJs.
Bill Weir, the club’s house engineer and Tejada’s friend for years, says the Hardpop has united the city. “Places like this prevent chaos. Cities that don’t have a strong identity have a fragmented scene. Hardpop promotes a scene. You won’t see these artists in any other place in Juárez or probably any other place in Mexico, because Hardpop is an island of truth in a sea of falsehood.”
That truth is borne out by the club’s eclectic crowd. Everybody in the city comes to party, from high-class girls dressed to the nines—hair, makeup, stiletto heels, designer handbags (mostly knockoffs but some real)—to your run-of-the-mill young guys in T-shirts, soccer jerseys, Converse sneakers, and messy hair. The only filter is the ticket. “Here we have people of all social classes. They’re all welcome. You buy your ticket and you come in,” says Eduardo Espino, the club’s chief of security.
But even though it’s now on the upswing, the oasis that Hardpop is for the youth of Juárez wasn’t always immune to the crude reality that invades the city. Just a few years ago, Tejada was forced to shut the club down for 10 months after an extortion attempt. “We didn’t want to put ourselves or our artists at risk, because things started to get difficult,” says Edgar Cobos, the club’s PR director. “They began to ask other businesses for quotas, and kidnappings surged. We wanted things to cool down. But we never moved. We’ve been one of the main businesses that never took our eye off the city, and we were always here.”
During that time, Tejada presented a few events in El Paso and little by little began to revive the Hardpop, discreetly organizing shows in the club once a month.
“It’s my third time here, although it should be my fourth,” Zabiela says. “The last time the gig was canceled over all that craziness in the city. The first time I came, I knew nothing about Juárez or Mexico, and I must say, it was a shock to be driving with armed soldiers in the back of the truck. I’d only seen that on television. It was surreal.”
“Hardpop is the essence of the city’s healing process, because violence in Juárez is all about greed, selfishness, trampling over everybody to get what you want, and when you come here, honestly, it’s all about peace, love, and respect,” says Weir. “There’s a huge line outside, and this is the city where people were gunned down in the streets.”
The city is changing-—slowly, cautiously, but persistently. In September 2013, César Duarte, governor of the state of Chihuahua, where Juárez is located, used statistics to tout to the press that Ciudad Juárez was quickly becoming a safer city: During 2012, “high-impact” murders were down by 84 percent; kidnappings dropped by 75 percent; carjackings dropped 82 percent; commercial robbery went down 64 percent and bank robberies 92 percent.
The fact that there were only 86 murders during the first three months of 2013 was a breath of fresh air compared with the hundreds registered in a single month during past years. Even the city’s façade has a new shine: The houses with peeling paint, the dozens of businesses that closed to avoid extortionists, and the oppressive, ghost-town atmosphere have been replaced by new storefronts that are open for business and people out walking the streets.
Denisse, Perla, and their friends are enjoying Zabiela’s final set. They’re happy. The Hardpop came through once more. “We’re going to forget the trauma we’ve had with all the violence because this music has a beat that distracts you, it lets you go,” Denisse says. “The energy the artist receives from the audience is incredible,” Weir says. “You can’t have a bad night at the Hardpop because the audience won’t allow it.”
Check out the February 2014 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 14) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.