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Voices from the Mexican Underground: Community, Commerce, and Festival Nrmal

Before Festival Nrmal was a reality, it was an idea—the desire of a few friends to create something inspiring when forces outside their control were threatening to fragment their community, inciting fear and alienating individuals.

During my visit to Monterrey for Festival Nrmal, I had the unique opportunity to connect with a number of people involved in the independent music and art community throughout Mexico. In the process of writing the Voices from the Mexican Underground series, I kept returning to the same questions: what makes this kind of community possible, and flourish? can the underground--a vital aspect of which is its ephemeral and ever-changing nature--really be sustainable without losing its spontaneous impulse for self-destruction and consequential reinvention? what are the roles of outsiders, like promoters, bands and fans from other parts of the world? does this cultural exchange enrich or dilute the essence of a community? I talked to three of Festival Nrmal's main organizers, Pablo Martínez, Moni Saldaña and Sergio Palmero, about the motives that sparked Nrmal and the role of the festival in the development of the independent music and art landscape in Monterrey and Mexico. In this final piece of the Voices series, I look at Festival Nrmal as a case study, bearing witness to how a few individuals with initiative and determination have spurred a thriving, far-reaching creative network from the underground up.


Before Festival Nrmal was a reality, it was an idea—the desire of a few friends to create something inspiring when forces outside their control were threatening to fragment their community, inciting fear and alienating individuals. The so-called drug war in Mexico that was declared in 2006 has been a provocative political issue nationally and extending to the neighboring United States. Gruesome photographs and stories of the victims of the violence associated with the Mexican drug cartels, propagated by mainstream news media, have built a macabre picture of Mexico, very real albeit incomplete, overshadowing the many vibrant attributes of a country that has had to fight consistently to defend and uplift its reputation. This fodder for unpleasant stereotypes and divisiveness has prevented Mexico and the US, two countries that are, in many ways, bound together by a complex history, from realizing the profound potential they have to help and enrich each other. While locals will be the first to tell you what is wrong with their government, they have a deep pride for where they live, their community, and Mexican culture.

Some projects emerge in reaction to a thing or event, and some arise out of their own unique propulsive force. The urgency behind Festival Nrmal was not due to the violence, but it was heightened by it. When Nrmal was created five years ago, it was because there was a palpable need for this kind of project in Monterrey, a project that was creative in the truest sense of the word, that recognized how it could use and build on the resources of its community to make something really special and exciting, with experimental music and art as the chosen connective agents. "Everyone was really scared. Bands were afraid to come to Mexico. It was a challenge, but it was something that made us believe in the idea more and helped us grow," Palmero said.


The Nrmal Studio

Nrmal have a studio they built from scratch in the upscale neighborhood of San Pedro in Monterrey, which they share with the design firm Savvy Studio. A small team of five take care of the festival's pre-production, which evolves into a vast collective effort as the event nears, involving numerous volunteers, artists, musicians, independent promoters and labels, and others. The name Nrmal, intentionally omitting the "o", implies a subversion of the status quo and setting of new precedents. "We approach bands and shows in different ways that the regular mainstream and corporate promoters in Mexico, first of all by decentralizing the cultural offer from Mexico City. We feel we are part of a growing community of independent promoters, labels, artists and musicians that are approaching music and the arts differently to what's established. It all comes down to the necessity of building and strengthening the emerging cultural scene in Mexico and Latin America," Martínez said.

The enthusiasm that followed Festival Nrmal not only extended to other towns and cities in Mexico, but to various parts of the US and the world as well. "It has definitely helped change the perspective people have of Mexico and Monterrey. At the same time, it has become an event that each year creates a uniquely diverse coming-together of multilingual music cultures," Saldaña said. It seems appropriate that Nrmal maintain an international scope, as music and art have always had the exceptional ability to transcend the barriers of nationality and separateness. It is a great achievement, and probably the most impactful aspect of this festival. "The inspiration behind Nrmal and Festival Nrmal has always been the desire to create a cutting-edge project in the city of Monterrey with international projection. We think of Mexico and Monterrey as a beautiful country and city, and that's why we get very excited to have people from different places who share similar tastes in music and feel passionate about creativity and culture gathered for a fun and great experience," Martínez said.


The cartel violence in Monterrey has diminished in recent years. Nrmal opened three new venues in Monterrey--111999555, Gomez and Sergio's--where they held this year's showcases leading up to the festival. Previously, Nrmal hosted shows in houses, parks and public spaces. This most recent Festival Nrmal was the best turnout yet, with 6,000 people and the most international attendees. According to Palmero, the number of festival-goers has generally doubled each year. "It has definitely changed things in Monterrey, because of the past context of violence. Along with new spaces for events and promoters here in the city, the festival has helped rebuild and strengthen the cultural offer in the city, and therefore the rest of Mexico," Saldaña said.

The festival has also grown each year in terms of number of bands, stages and days of events. An important factor of this development has been the increased participation of international collaborators, according to Martínez. One of these is Todd Patrick, who has acted largely as the Brooklyn arm of Festival Nrmal the past two years. Martínez was aware of Patrick's interest in cross-cultural exchange between the Mexico and the US, as well as his background and interest in independent music. (Patrick organized his own music festival in Monterrey called MtyMx Fest in 2010.) During a visit to New York, Martínez met with Patrick, and they discovered a shared vision of Festival Nrmal as an international platform for underground emerging artists. Following this visit, Martínez invited Patrick to co-curate the third edition of Festival Nrmal in 2012, mainly booking US bands. Patrick has simultaneously served as unofficial US ambassador of Mexican culture. "Todd has been an important figure in demystifying what bands, media and the public perceive of Mexico and Monterrey. It's a difficult task, but each year we have more positive interest in the festival and Monterrey as a destination point for cultural events," Saldaña said.


Festival Nrmal distinguished itself in many ways from other music festivals and similar events, one of which was its diverse lineup, reflecting a distinctly continental vibe, bridging indie bands in the US, Mexico and other Latin American countries, with a few acts from Europe and Australia. "We look for emerging artists from Latin America, the US and the rest of the world that we think are original and interesting for the public and aren't necessarily credited by mainstream media. You don't often get to see cutting-edge Hispanic and Anglo artists playing the same stage. That's definitely something special of Nrmal," Martinez said. For instance, Costa Rican garage-punk duo Ave Negra shared a stage with the experimental dream-pop band Run DMT. "We try to look for the most interesting upcoming Hispanic acts, bands that no other festival in Latin America or the US books, basically underground artists that are mainly known on blogs or in local scenes, and balance it with more established international indie acts to come up with an eclectic lineup, genre-wise," Martínez said. "We like to think of it as a festival where people go to discover new music and let themselves be surprised with what they'll listen to," Saldaña said.

Festival Nrmal also integrated creative elements not typical to most music festivals--artfully designed stages; art installations, including a 16-wheeler truck that featured suggestive black and white photographs and drawings on its inner walls that also served as a pop-up performance venue; and a market including work by local artists, publishers and designers, in addition to band merchandise. "We've always tried to find ways in which music and art can coexist in the festival," Saldaña said. "We feel it is something very important because it's part of what we do, and it allows us to involve more people in this project--not only musicians but also designers, photographers, illustrators, visual artists, and others who all contribute to the experience of the festival. It truly creates a surrounding community of creatives and artists."


This community isn't limited to people with expertise. Festival Nrmal feels very open and inviting, not at all like the exclusive high culture club that a vanguard music/art scene can be at times. The festival grounds were easy to navigate, with four stages that were less than a five-minute walk from each other. There was little distinction between musicians and festival-goers. More than once throughout the day I saw artists invite people onto the stage or jump down from the stage and engage directly with the audience. “Everyone is hanging out with the audience. There is no such thing as a back stage. There are no barriers at all," Palmero said. It is evident that Nrmal genuinely want to get people interested in new experimental music and create a community around it, one that equally values everyone involved, whether artist, fan or organizer.

One way they lower the barrier to indie music/art is by making the festival incredibly affordable, just 350 pesos, equal to about $28 US dollars. "We've always tried to make it as accessible as possible in terms of cost, and that's something unusual for any festival, but especially in Mexico, where you usually pay higher price to see one band. We do it this way because we want everyone to be able to attend the festival and help build a larger independent music scene and platform in Latin America," Saldaña said. (As a comparison, Vive Latino, one of the most popular rock music festivals in Mexico, costs $50 per day and $115 for all three days.) Nrmal was helped, though, by the Mexican beer Indio and Red Bull, which sponsored the festival. Nrmal has collaborated with Red Bull in the past on their Panamericana project, which searches for new bands throughout Latin America and brings them together in one place for shows. Unlike other music festivals, where advertising can be at best distracting and at worst obnoxious, it was tasteful and innocuous at Festival Nrmal. "We see sponsorship as a way of financing more of the creative endeavors we want to create in the festival but can't finance with ticket sales alone. We always make it a priority for sponsors not to be invasive, finding a way for these brands to integrate in the concept of the festival. We also work with cultural institutions in Mexico and outside that have interest in the cross-cultural exchange and help us finance the festival," Martínez said. "We try to keep it as personal and DIY as possible," Palmero said.

As Festival Nrmal expands, there is concern that, like other now-ubiquitous music festivals that started out small, it will outgrow its idiosyncratic focus on underrecognized, groundbreaking bands and community-building. Festival Nrmal becomes more sophisticated, and in a way more systemized, every year, and as it grows more established there is a risk that it will lose its ability to sporadically change direction and evolve. However, the organizers are dedicated to their mission. "We obviously want the festival to grow each year, mainly in terms of its reach and international projection. We want more people from other cities in Mexico and other countries to travel to attend this festival and have a fun and great experience in Monterrey while discovering up-and-coming, cutting-edge acts. We want to keep growing without losing the intimate essence and vibe of the festival," Saldaña said. "The festival gets better each year, and we feel very excited about the outcome, but at the same time we learn each year and try to perfect and change what's necessary to make it a more enriching experience. We want to keep growing in terms of booking bands from more countries, diminish the distance between global independent music scenes and embrace cross-cultural exchange. Each year we are a step closer to achieving it, and that's very gratifying."

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