Brian Wilson and Berlin Techno on the Beaches of Mexico’s Most Dangerous City
Wilson and Seun Kuti reigned, but it was homegrown talent that impressed the most at Acapulco's Trópico, a rising boutique festival founded to resist cartels and prove that Mexican youth can live freely under the looming specter of violence.
Imagine FYF Fest, but one tenth of the size, on the beach in Mexico, and without the suffocating crowds, intrusive security, price-gouged drinks, or general sense of entitlement that often accompany a top-tier alternative festival in the US. Such a place does exist. It's called Trópico, and its fourth edition in Acapulco hosted the likes of Brian Wilson, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Devendra Banhart, Todd Terje, and a slew of underground indie-dance acts on the shores of one of Mexico's most beautiful and dangerous locales in an effort to exercise the growing power of nearby Mexico City's counter-cultural populous.
Once the preferred getaway for the likes of Frank Sinatra in the golden age of Hollywood, Acapulco has been the setting for intense cartel violence in recent years, most notably in February, when an assassin swam up to a beach populated by tourists, shot a beachwear hawker three times in the chest, and rode into the sunset on a motherfucking jet ski. Acapulco leads Mexico in homicides in 2016––but you wouldn't know that from the droves of hip kids from DF who poured into the city's resorts for Trópico.
Trópico was founded by an enterprising group of young Mexico City residents who, under the name Archipiélago, lay claim to a bar in Mexico City named Leonor, a brand of mezcal called Union, and now, the growing Trópico fest—they're a sort of one stop party culture machine. Addressing Acapulco's bad reputation head is central to their mission. Ahead the festival, which went down December 2-4, founder Tono Vilches explained that the three-day jaunt was founded as a means to show the cartels that Mexican youth can live freely under the looming specter of violence (Disclosure: Vilches flew us out for the event). Mexico City is booming culturally at the moment, and the community is bristling with opportunity—Trópico is leading that charge in the region. Previous years' editions have hosted everyone from David Byrne to Nicolas Jaar, and that higher-brow, ambitious booking is a sign of the festivals cultured perspective and precocious ambition.
The Trópico festival grounds snake around the Pierre Marques resort with stages nestled aside pools, on the beach itself, and tucked into leafy enclaves lined with rubber trees and exotic palms. The centerpiece main stage was a lesson in clever design. A waving canopy of galactic shag lined the stage, and above the crowd, a carpet of glittering strands rose and fell in the breeze. We have long-since reached LED overload, and it was enthusing to see a main stage without any screens that fluttered to life behind the festival's biggest acts. On night one, Bonobo performed much of the new material from his expectedly excellent new album Migration to a crowd that just seemed to be warming up.
All weekend long, the Mexican audience remained loathe to applaud at the main stages––apparently they're not big on clapping––but it was at the dance parties where the crowd came alive. A highlight of the first night was Philly tastemaker Dave P, who came outta the gates swinging with a truncated set at the neon-lit Pepsi Pool stage. I ran into one of the founders and he told me that they're not really fans of pool parties, but only a selector with the class of the Making Time boss could make it work. It doesn't matter if it's at an iconic Philly dive, on the radio at WXPN, on big festival stages, or little 3 AM Mexican pool orgies, the hirsute dude brings the heat.
Days at Trópico are spent either by pool or on the beach. The waves in Acapulco get big, and they pull across the shoreline in a straight line with a strong current. The beach teems with activity, services formal and informal. Coronas and Pacificos can be delivered for $2 each, families whiz by in rented ATVs, terrified kids take their first ride on horses, hawkers come by with everything from candy to clothes to shaved ice to massive fucking iguanas. One guy even had an alligator you could hold for a few pesos! Every hour or so, a couple distracted and sad looking kids will wander over, playing the guiro––one of those riveted wooden tubes that makes a ratcheting sound––hoping to guilt you into giving them some change. The danger of the area isn't apparent, other than a police jeep rolling by once in a while. If anyone's scared, they don't show it.
That a little-known festival with 4,500 attendees (a 25 percent increase on last year) could book Brian Wilson, an act that would be more at home on the Desert Trip line-up, is actually pretty astounding. Wilson's 12-person ensemble took the stage to perform Pet Sounds as part of the year's 50th anniversary rounds, with the aging legend led out by original Beach Boy bandmate Al Jardine. They kicked off with "California Girls," Wilson belting out the lyrics, wavering off-note as he has been prone to do for the past couple of decades, but even this late into his victory lap, the man still has power to move. As a California-raised music nerd and student of cultural history, I never thought I'd get the privilege of seeing such iconic songs performed live, particularly with Wilson's shaky history of mental health and performance anxiety. Sure, he was carried by his band, but if such an enduring, positive moment in American history was needed, it's certainly now––even if we had to go to Mexico to find it.
The festival's deepest grooves, however, belonged to the Red Bull Panamerika stage, where a selection of Mexican artists banged out an all-night rager on Saturday night and the dancefloor kicked up into a lusty, swampy bacchanal that did not relent from its raucous energy. It was there that I learned of the irrepressible groove of homegrown acts like Moon Runner and Daniel Maloso. Their music is equal parts heavy and melodic, with the sharp edges and high energy of electro and the big beats and darkness of techno. By late Saturday night, the grounds were littered with dozing bodies strewn across the grass or lounging in chairs in the balmy night breeze. For many, it made sense to get your disco nap in at the festival itself rather than go back to the hotel. Some way or another, though,
The way Trópico manages its programming is remarkably resourceful. After a brief seven-hour pause as Friday night ends, the festival rages on continuously through the wee hours of Monday morning. With five stages and 4500 attendees that can come and go as they please, Trópico gets the most out of the weekend by usually only having one act playing at at time. Further, artists are often stranded at the same hotel as all the partiers. Standing next to a bleary-eyed Bonobo in line at the breakfast buffet while a mariachi band plays behind you is certainly surreal, even more so when you see him again a few minutes later, admiring the resort's pet flamingos as they preen in the shade.
By Sunday evening, Trópico packs up all but one stage and the party retreats to the beach. The crowd swells on the sand and the vibes are thick in the way only a Sunday night can bring––everyone loose and dancing with each other like old friends, sharing drinks and other things in equal measure.
Thanks to clever sponsorship arrangements and resourceful programming, Trópico manages to pack the punch of a much larger festival, but maintains the size and the comfy conviviality of a boutique exercise. That the event and accommodations share the same site offers a weekender feel that finds everyone looser than if they had to trek back and forth to distant abodes. Partially due to its size, and partially because due its connection to the hip-but-relaxed, wild-but-conscientious Mexico City party scene, it offers a community affect that makes the whole thing an inviting proposition—a much-needed reminder that sometimes great music and a great party can be among the boldest, and most vital, forms of resistance.
Photos by Daniel Patlan.
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