It’s not terribly easy to play music with one hand, but Durango DJ Fidel Castro manages to do so with ease. He learned how after a stroke rendered his left arm and leg paralyzed a little over two years ago. All it took was persistence, and perhaps a bit of stubborn pride, to figure out how to take on the turntables once again. These days, Castro can even spin vinyl records – provided he has the help of a spare set of hands to put them back in their covers.
“Otherwise I’d just be tossing them back there,” DJ Castro said, laughing.
For most people, losing the use of their appendages would be a life-altering change. For Castro, it was merely a setback.
As one of just a handful of local DJs, Castro’s ability to face challenges head on could be a metaphor for the resilience of Durango’s small, but thriving, DJ community. Only four bars – Pongas, El Rancho, Starlight Lounge, and Joel’s Bar – regularly schedule DJs, and all of the bars are within a couple blocks of each other. Some nights, DJ Hakan spins right down from his buddy, DJ Fidel Castro. Other nights, DJ Ralphsta plays just down the street at Joel’s.
But, even with the road blocks and close quarters, these local DJs have managed to make the scene their own. They’ll take the floor or stage wherever and whenever they can get it, all to make the bar patrons, and local EDM fanatics, dance.
DJ Ralphsta: Joel’s BarDurango native DJ Ralphsta started making music 18 years ago while living in New York. At the time, the electronic scene was up-and-coming, so he got a set of turntables and started going for it, he said. But after 9/11, Ralphsta left New York for Durango, his childhood home, where he began making music with friends instead.
“Dubstep became this huge thing. So what we would do – because they didn’t want that in a bar, that type of music wouldn’t make money – we ended up just buying a sound system from Radio Shack and going into the woods with a generator,” Ralphsta said. “We had a group of kids that were pretty loyal to it. After a few summers, the bar owners started noticing that their summer crowds are disappearing.”
About 10 years ago, Ralphsta and his cohorts finally landed a regular gig in a bar on Main.
“We started at Starlight, or Moe’s, at the time. It was the first bar to let us actually play consistently every month,” Ralphsta said.
These days, Ralphsta has a DJ residency at Joel’s, where he took over for another well-known Durango DJ, DJ Noonz. At Joel’s, hip-hop is king, which initially took the house music DJ out of his element.
“I was barely getting by on the skin of my teeth for the first few weeks,” Ralphsta said. “I actually opened myself up to taking requests, which I never do, and I would go home and research like those tracks and that type of music. A few weeks later I ended up holding the crowd down.”
He has managed to work in some electronic music into his set, though.
“The last few times they’ve really taken a liking to electronic music. Yeah, and we’re gonna keep that going. Slowly,” Ralphsta said.
Whatever Ralphsta is spinning, it must be working, because the weekends on that block can feel like a revolving door, with bar patrons hopping from 11th Street to Pongas to Joel’s, sometimes more than once in a night.
DJ Fidel Castro: Starlight Lounge and El RanchoLife after the stroke and aneurysm wasn’t easy for DJ Fidel Castro, but the Farmington native, who had a steady gig DJing at Pongos before the stroke, knew he had to get back up on that proverbial horse, if only to distract himself from his thoughts.
“What happened after the stroke was I lost (use of) my left leg. I lost my whole left side. It is what it is,” Castro said. “Of course, in the beginning you ask yourself why?”
Castro tried to return to Pongos, but when he approached management about playing his old nights, he was told a new DJ had taken his place. Always the optimist, Castro wasn’t phased. He just used his connections to land a new gig at Starlight Lounge instead.
“They always say there’s a second life, and it’s true,” Castro said. “I learned to love and learned to accept and I’ve learned to forget.”
He’s also learned to make do with just the use of his right arm. Doctors say he’ll regain some use of his left hand and leg – nerves grow, Castro said – but he’s not quite there yet.
“Everything I have to do now with my right hand. I’m still pretty fast, but there are nights where you break down, of course,” Castro said.
Luckily, those nights are few and far between for Castro, who’s widely credited as being the hip-hop DJ pioneer of Main Avenue.
“Different types of people, like Fidel, started a few years after I did in the scene here. Fidel actually started bringing more top 40 hip-hop, rap, (and) different, more diverse crowds to Durango,” said Ralphsta.
Castro not only brought hip-hop to Durango; he’s also the first DJ to regularly play at El Rancho. Back in April, Castro managed to sweet talk owner Chip Lile into letting him play the bar on Saturday nights, and he’s been crushing it at The Ranch ever since.
“I’m very happy now at El Rancho,” he said. “It’s a completely different crowd from most. They love rock, they love all that. And to me, it’s like a place where you just can’t have enough.”
Unlike most of his Durango counterparts, Castro said he doesn’t have any interest in the EDM side of DJing. He’s much more interested in playing and mixing early ’90s and 2000s hip-hop, which he layers in with old rock staples at El Rancho.
“I was obsessed and I still am kind of obsessed with Lil Jon. Yeah, in it’s (his music)...it’s like metal,” he said, laughing. “Lil Jon to me is the most underrated producer.”
You throw on some Lil Jon – any Lil Jon song, really – and the crowd goes nuts, he said.
But while Castro may not be interested in making dance music, he respects that DJs like Ralphsta have worked to create an EDM scene in Durango.
“I think that’s amazing that there’s an electronic scene where kids and adults all wanna have their music being loved. And I think, to me, it’s the most wonderful thing because we need them. We need that diversity,” Castro said.
DJ Hakan Aybar: PongasLike Castro, DJ Hakan Aybar began his career at Pongas, or Colorado Pongas, if you want to get technical. The bar has a rowdy reputation, and for good reason. Unruly nights, owners, and customers’ bad behavior earned the bar 109 calls to authorities from March 2017 to Dec. 4, 2017.
But, over the last year, there has been a change of tone – or perhaps tune – according to Aybar.
“Last year, I agree, there was a lot of fights, but when I play there (Pongas) right now, there’s a really big change.”
For Aybar, changing Pongas’ reputation is personal. He plays there one night a week and Starlight Lounge another, but Pongas is the first place that gave him a chance after he moved to Durango. There are still some rowdy patrons at Pongas, Aybar said, but he’s traded out most of the gangster rap that used to dominate the bar for music that appeals to a more diverse crowd, and with that change has come a new vibe.
“When I changed the music I play, I believe I really made progress. I don’t see too much drama (anymore),” Aybar said.
It’s a relief for Aybar, who said while Pongas may be rough around the edges, Durango needs that place. There are only a few bars willing to take a shot on a live DJ, after all, and losing one of them would be a big hit to the local scene.
“I’m glad Pongas is getting a little better. It was for me, always a question in Durango of, ‘Is it going to work?’ Because right now, when you look at it, there is (sic) really only live DJs playing two or three places,” he said.
Aybar said the ultimate goal is to land a gig in Las Vegas – the pinnacle of DJing – and while he’s in talks with a couple of places, for now, Pongas and Starlight Lounge are his home.
DJ Spark Madden: On his ownNot all of Durango’s DJs make the bar rounds. DJ Spark Madden has been an electronic musician since 1994, and he steers clear of the bar scene, preferring to create and produce deeper, more obscure tracks. He still understands the plight of the bar Durango DJ, though. After all, that is where he got his start.
“I got started just by messing around my buddy’s house in the early ’90s,” DJ Spark Madden said. “So it’s been going on for a long time.”
Madden said he wasn’t always into electronic music, though. He fell into the genre after punk – his first true musical love – went mainstream.
“Actually, I was very punk rock and heavy metal back in the day, and it kept going commercial, and I kept looking for something more underground. Eventually I ended up getting into electronic music,” he said.
Madden has played everywhere from the (now-defunct) San Juan Room to local house parties and weddings, but these days, he mostly plays warehouse parties and bigger shows in Denver and Albuquerque, or at places like at Club Freedom in Phoenix, Arizona.
“I’ve gotten calls at 2 o’clock in the morning in Denver. ‘Hey, you want to play?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Okay, you’re on in an hour.’ Those are the days. That was before Red Bull was a big thing.”
He’s taken the summer off to work on improving his skills, but when he returns to DJing, it won’t be on Durango’s small bar scene, he said.
“I just hold out for the bigger shows,” Madden said. “I don’t play a lot of the smaller bars anymore.”
Sustainable soundBut while these guys may have found their niche, does Durango have what it takes to continue building a strong DJ scene?
Castro thinks it does, and thinks the saving grace may be Fort Lewis College.
“Every year you get a brand new batch (of college students). That brand new batch gives you, as a DJ, new ideas where to go to...where to transport them. Where can I make it bigger,” Castro said.
And, despite the current trend of laptop DJs playing computerized tracks, Madden said he thinks there’s enough interest to support a thriving electronic music scene in Durango.
“(DJ Posh) Josh help prove that this when they had they put on the sold out at The Animas (Theatre) for the first time,” Madden said.
“It’s a good time right now (for electronic music in Durango), honestly. It’s an amazing time, because Animas City (Theatre), they’ve been putting a lot of love into their scene, building that up, (and) everywhere else is following suit,” he said.
So, as long as the DJs here keep moving forward, Castro said, things should be all right.
“I’m a big fan of progression of people progressing in their life and not staying in one place,” Castro said.
“So with that said, I wish this scene would grow a little bit more, because it’s capable of doing that in this community. Music lives here.”