Chulita Vinyl Club Brings PhD Students into DJ Scene

A crowd gathers on the dance floor. They jostle their hips and throw up their hands as the upbeat rhythm of cumbia music blares through the speakers. Onstage, Ana Cecilia Calle, along with other members of the Chulita Vinyl Club, spins her assortment of records she’s collected from Austin and her parents’ home in Colombia.

While at night Calle can be found DJing, she often spends her days surrounded by research papers and bibliographies. An international student from Colombia, Calle came to UT to pursue her PhD in Spanish and Portuguese. She says when she’s not studying, she’s working with the Chulita Vinyl Club, an all-women DJ crew that started in Austin and now has seven chapters across Texas and California. “Being part of the collective has been a way to root myself to this land and contribute what I have,” Calle says.

She’s not the only Chulita member pursuing a PhD. Five others among the group are UT students who moonlight as DJs, and another two are alumnae.“So many of our Chulitas are representing higher education,” Xochi Solis, BFA ’05, head of the Austin chapter, says. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’re a PhD student?’ There is this element of surprise.”

The Chulitas also work to bring women into the largely male DJ community. The term “chulita” is a Spanish term of endearment, similar to “cutie” or “sweetie.” The club has taken the diminutive word and turned it on its head. “All of a sudden it takes on this powerful meaning,” Solis says.  

Founder Claudia Saenz began Chulita Vinyl Club in 2014 as a way of connecting women who love vinyl—especially women of color—with the DJ industry. Saenz grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, where she was surrounded by music.

“Music was a part of everything in my life, from hearing it on the radio, to going to weddings and quinceañeras on the weekends,” Saenz says. “I learned from it.”

For Saenz, vinyl is a way of connecting to history. Her collection of hundreds of vinyl records is teeming with Chicano soul classics from the 1960s. “When we collect vinyl, I see it as archiving,” Saenz says. “We are not just DJing but we are also taking into consideration that all of the vinyl we collect is a piece of history.”

As a PhD student, Calle incorporates her passion for music into her studies. She studies tropes of the genre cumbia in music, literature, and the press. Cumbia began as a mixture of indigenous and African culture in Colombia and then spread and evolved throughout Latin America. 

“People doing cumbia in Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, started to cross-pollinate the music,” Calle says. “Sounds from Peru started sounding Colombian. What we have now is a transnational rhythm.”

For the first time, the collective is bringing their eclectic music selection to South By Southwest. They’ll also be performing at the Marfa Myths festival on March 10 in Marfa, Texas. But the vinyl club is selective in the events they choose to perform at. Solis says part of the group’s ethos is that they are a movement; The fact that they are an all-female DJ group is an act of resistance to the norm.

“We don’t want to play with an organization that is not respecting our beliefs, where we’re just tokenized,” Solis says. “We do get calls like, ‘We would just love to have some brown women’ because that checks off a box.”

Aside from performing, the group also serves as an outlet for discussion. Sometimes the members get together to put on a few records and just talk. They also head to flea markets, thrift stores, and estate sales together to forage for new vinyl to add to their repertoires.

While the group primarily serves women of color, any self-identified woman with an interest in vinyl can join. When Calle first joined, she had a meager collection of 20 records and little DJ experience. During her first performance, she said her hand was shaking as she held the needle. But, now, she feels empowered.

“It made me more confident in what I have to offer to my community,” Calle says. “It has opened my eyes and my ears to new sounds, new people, and new ways of talking about life. As an international student, I thought I couldn’t participate in a community. Now, I know I can.”

From top: Chulita Vinyl Club members at Sahara Lounge, photo by Jackie Tey; Xochi Solis, BFA ’05, performs, photo by Nadia Tamez-Robledo; Ana Cecilia Calle, PhD UT student, performs, photo by Nadia Tamez-Robledo.

 

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