Smoove Like Butta

On a raw stage elevated slightly above a throbbing crowd bathed in red light, Butta B leaned over the decks, squished on both sides by her friends, all of them swaying back and forth blissfully. This was the Kitsuné Club Night party in Manila from July and was the biggest underground dance music event since the pandemic started two and a half years ago. Butta—who goes by Bea Alonso Te during day light hours—is the it-girl around town there, so Kitsuné didn’t hesitate to book her for such a special event. The party signaled the restart of nightlife in the Filipino megacity, which was decimated by the pandemic.

It had been a a bit of a struggle for party people across Metro Manila even before the Rona hit. Iconic venue B-Side, which helped usher in today’s progressive club culture, shuttered its doors in late 2018 due to gentrification. A few months later, techno mainstay Time also closed up, a casualty of the active drug war. Just months later, The Void opened as a new haven for techno and house only to shut down nearly immediately for undisclosed reasons.

Then in March of 2020 COVID hit fast and hard, the start of what was one of the world’s longest and most strict pandemic responses. For 18 months, a curfew no later than midnight held sway, starting much earlier during the series of revolving lockdowns that kept people indoors for months at a time. Liquor bans were common and travel was heavily restricted. “It was pretty rough,” Butta recalls. “I basically lost my livelihood for close to two years. It felt like my whole life and career were just stuck on pause.”

Even when bars were allowed to open sporadically, they often ran afoul of regulations, and popular spots like reggae bar Pura Vida and the new Casa Bamboo rooftop spot were forced to close permanently for violating quarantine restrictions. Soon, a trickle of well-loved staples also announced their closures, unable to hold on without a semblance of business. Live venue Route 196, gay-friendly bar Today x Future, and nightclub XXXX all fell like dominoes. The center of club culture, Black Market, which was owned by the same people as B-Side and XXX, held on the longest. Its doors were shut for two years, but they never gave up hope, until finally even they fell victim to the same fate as so many others.

Around Xmas in 2021, the government finally lifted curfew and nightlife restrictions, due to strong vaccination numbers and the upcoming elections. But there weren’t too many places to go. Poblacion, the red light district and nightlife hub where Butta has lived since 2016, felt kind of like a ghost town, and the complex where Black Market and XXXX once thrived had more closed gates than open businesses. “Those were two venues that really molded me as a person and an artist,” says Butta. “I owe a big part of my career to those two venues and I’m sure a lot of DJs feel this way as well. So when I heard about the news I lowkey shed a tear, it felt like a part of me died with the venue. It was the end of an era. But wow was that a legendary run.”

Butta—who held down the decks last month at our very own Blaq Lyte 11 club here in Bangkok—had been a fixture at Black Market since at least 2014, when she started working with the Bad Decisions party crew, who are known for the most successful club rap parties in the country. She was previously a dancer, who started as a youngin with ballet and Filipino folk dancing and became a notable hip hop dancer as she got older. But she had a bad knee injury and tore a ligament, sidetracking what she expected to become a career. “I was pretty depressed and lost for a while,” she says. “I attached so much of myself and my identity to dancing.” But a friend who wanted to start a DJ school reached out to her and enlisted her as a guinea pig to test his curriculum. “I didn’t want to fall into the cliche of a promoter turned DJ, but honestly at that point I had nothing to lose. Now I’ve gone full circle, from dancing to making people dance.”

By 2017 Butta started taking gigs regularly, and she found it fit in well with her lifestyle, which was already nocturnal and dance-oriented. She spins a lot of rap but feels like people think that’s all she plays, because of her association with Bad Decisions. In fact, she plays lots of music, everything from electronic to Afrobeats and amapiano, pretty much anything the crowd is looking for. “My main rule is that I’ll only play songs I can listen to alone and enjoy.”

These days, the Manila nightlife scene is slowly gearing up, trying to find its footing after such a long absence. “It’s exciting!” Butta says. “We’ve been cooped up for so long and now that everything is open again, people are just excited to create, produce events, go out, all that. We can finally express ourselves again.” Everybody went their own ways, exploring different types of music while cooped up at home. And there’s a new generation of DJs laying claim to their own rights with new kids out on the floor.

When Kitsuné rolled through town, they picked up where everything left off. Black Market and Bad Decisions both helped organize it, and although neither has a permanent home large enough for crowds like that night, they easily found a space at a photography and events studio. You could see the joy and relief in Butta as she played her set, surrounded by friends, all smiles and moving. “It was extra special for me since that was the first Bad Decisions party since the pandemic happened,” she says. “It made everyone feel like the scene in Manila was back again.”