It’s a hot and steamy day in Cali, Colombia, and La Ruta Studio is buzzing with excitement. The team at hip-hop/electronic hybrid label Discos Fiera has convened rappers and producers, including JUANPORDIOS!, Alexis Play, and AfroFresh, for a new project. Suddenly, time seems to stop as Dawer x Damper enter the room. The impossibly stylish Afro-futurists are discussing strategies and photo sessions ahead of their brand new album Donde Machi, an in-depth exploration of Afro-diasporic rhythms and the complex barrio dynamics that shaped their upbringing.
Made up of brothers Edwar Vergara and Luis Vergara, Dawer x Damper hail from Cali’s district of Aguablanca, a colorful, bustling area historically wracked with inequality and violence. Cali’s barrios are often made up of migrants from throughout Colombia’s Pacific Coast, displaced by the exploitation of their lands and searching for greater financial access in the city while bringing their culinary and musical customs along. Within this regional melting pot, Dawer x Damper’s music captures a vertiginous balance of struggle and resilience, where scarcity stimulates resourcefulness and dance floor bangers are an opportunity for social empowerment.
“There has always been a strong artistic movement in Cali, but the scene is also characterized by its spirit of resistance,” reflects Damper, sitting next to his brother on the studio’s comfy couch. “Projects like [salsa ensemble] La Mambanegra and [currulao-trap trio] Afro Legends often tackle important social issues, so it’s natural for us to speak on our experiences instead of creating these stylized, fictional characters.” Dawer compliments this thought succinctly, adding, “We make afrobeat with música del Pacífico, infused with Afro-futurism and a powerful visual identity.”
As a project, Dawer x Damper had its genesis four years ago, although the brothers have been honing their groundbreaking voices since childhood. The title of their kaleidoscopic debut LP, Donde Machi, refers to the maternal family friend whose home became a nexus point for neighborhood band rehearsals, folk dancing, and even community theater productions. The boys began singing, dancing, and rapping, committed to amplifying the stories of their barrio and finding early inspiration in rap luminaries like Cuba’s Los Aldeanos and Venezuela’s Akapellah. They also frequented the Barrio El Vallado Cultural Center, meeting other music-obsessed kids and formally launching funk/hip-hop band Alto Volumen in 2012, which included drummer turned rising R&B star Junior Zamora.
In its infancy, the group covered ChocQuibTown and Herencia de Timbiquí, later crafting original songs that further exulted their proud Afro-Colombian heritage, stirring buzz and touring through Colombia and Mexico. “It was the first time we realized that music could literally take us places,” says Dawer. He soon approached Damper about starting their own thing, collaborating on new afrobeats and intrigued by Medellin’s reggaeton tidal wave, though more interested in honoring and uplifting the community than becoming a cog in the hit factory.
“As the project grew, we went through a very important process of self-reflection,” remembers Damper. “Colonization is not only about how we’re seen, but how we were taught to see ourselves. Our power lies within all the things we’re taught not to want, and el barrio is one of them. That’s where our conversation on Afro-futurism begins and how we use circumstances [like colorism and antiquated gender roles] in our favor instead of waiting on a white savior. We already have the tools to build our own future, but this is our version of that future.”
The idea of flipping the narrative in your favor has fueled some of Dawer x Damper’s strongest artistic visions. In the clip for “Bemba,” one of their earliest singles, they celebrate Black beauty while accentuating ample lips, often mocked by less gifted individuals. Meanwhile, on “Quilo,” the brothers wear enormous, impeccably styled garments to highlight how barrio hustle can make even the wildest hand-me-downs look fly. This is also one of the strongest conceptual glimpses into Donde Machi, asking in the chorus, “¿Vos creés que soy un alien, o qué?” (“do you think I’m an alien, or what?”), questioning classist stares from outside Aguablanca.
“Quilo” is also a standout within the musical film that accompanies Donde Machi, arriving as a surreal moment of catharsis in the wake of violent conflict. Produced by La Ruta Studio and directed by Iván Bernaza, the nearly 40-minute film unfolds like a play, guiding us through the lives of young parents, drug deals gone wrong, queer awakenings, and how the lines between family and community blur under precarity. The R&B-tinged “Afro” and “Suave”’s buoyant afroturro are the calm before the storm, introducing us to each character while the lyrics call out police brutality and pay homage to campesinos. On “Títere,” trap beats and vocal clicking amp up the tension that eventually explodes on “Qué Enzorre,” unspooling frustration over a defunct relationship while the film’s antagonist wreaks havoc on the screen.
Dawer x Damper’s rhythmic voraciousness is on full display throughout Donde Machi, dipping into dancehall on “En El Andén,” baile funk on “Guao,” and dembow on “Culo.” “Africa’s children are scattered all over the world, but we don’t forget,” suggests Dawer, considering the metaphysical implications of these rhythmic patterns. “Our tongues and feet still remember.”
“Africa’s children are scattered all over the world, but we don’t forget. Our tongues and feet still remember.”
The journey has only just begun for Dawer x Damper, but the world is already taking notice of their mold-shattering talent. They performed at Mexico’s Carnaval de Bahidorá last year and created four original songs for Netflix original series Ritmo Salvaje, which aired in early 2022. In a few weeks, they head to Salvador de Bahía in Brazil to perform at Afropunk, and they were also among the most hyped homegrown artists on Estéreo Picnic‘s stacked 2023 lineup. But even as the world opens up before them, storytelling and community remain at the heart of Cali’s Afro-futurist trailblazers.
“El barrio has a thousand stories,” says Damper, poignantly. “El barrio is not only struggle. We also fall in love and find joy in life. This is the best way for us to present a debut album, looking inwards, inside the house, and showing you who we are and where we come from.”
Listen to Dawer x Damper’s Donde Machi below.