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Meet Mexico City's Electronic Underground

From house music to chillwave and reggaeton, THUMP reports on the sounds bubbling up from underneath D.F.

DJ Smurphy. Photo Credit: Eduardo Caudillo

"To be banda is to be part of the crew, the tribe. Banda is the ultimate compliment," writes Daniel Hernandez in his 2011 pseudo-guidebook Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century. "Evoking youth, rock 'n' roll, and resistance, la banda is the umbrella under which all subcultures are accepted. "

Outside of banda's rock sphere, dance subcultures in Mexico City are equally cliquish. Known to locals as D.F., or Distrito Federal, this is a city of 8.9 million people (a population greater than New York City's) where tribes have coalesced around house music, noise, rave music, chillwave, reggaeton, tribal (or "3ball"), cumbia, and ruidosón (or "noise-folk"). "The social dynamic here in D.F. is that people are really niched up," explained Moisés Horta of the band Los Macuanos, whose members moved to the city six months ago from Tijuana. "A person who works for a company in an office building really fulfills their role of what's expected from them. People fit within the grid neatly, even musicians."


Tribal, cumbia, and ruidosón are all electronic hybrids of traditional Mexican regional music. For the past five years, they have been gaining traction inside and outside the country, their popularity accelerated by the internet. The groups who are still at the top of the Mexican electronic scene (via "Latin alternative" channels), Mexican Institute of Sound and Nortec Collective, are both categorized as electronica, an increasingly archaic term for dance music. But while musicians like these were pioneers in incorporating regional Mexican music, such as norteño and cumbia, with electronic production, the newest homegrown sounds are even more experimental.

Much of the sonic experimentation is in response to the corruption and breakdown of the Mexican political and economic system. Los Macuanos' song "Sangre, Bandera, Cruz" and Jack'ie Lo's "Memorandum Colosio" are representative of new sounds that are deeply psychologically dark in a way that North American witch house could never begin to touch.

And then there's N.A.A.F.I., a band which also lends its name to a party and record label. The band's core members are Fausto Bahía, Paul Marmonta, Lao, and Mexican Jihad, each of whom also makes music alone. The N.A.A.F.I. identity incorporates rave music trends, regional Mexican references, seapunk and vaporwave aesthetics, chaos magick spirituality, and subversive political messages. The band takes its name from the acronym for the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, but when I reached Fausto Bahía—whose real name is Tomás Davó—for a phone interview, he told me it also had to do with the band's interest in African house: "Apparently in South Africa, it takes that name in another context." N.A.A.F.I. is an Afrikaner slang term that stands for "No Ambition and Fuck-all Interest."


Fausto Bahía aka Tomás Davó, 2013. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When I asked him to elaborate on the group's influences, Davó brought the phone over to his record player and played me a vinyl field recording of "Viborita de la mar" by Eduardo Gallardo. The song is an example of the afro-mestizo genre chilena from the Costa Chica region. "For us, Latin rhythms are closer to us than American pop music," Davó explained. And while globally-minded electronic-music artists sometimes get away with slapping a 4/4 beat over an indigenous sample or digitally reproducing facsimiles of a drum pattern, N.A.A.F.I.'s members are more subtle about their influences. Siete Catorce, an artist in the N.A.A.F.I. roster who released a new album called EP2 on July 17, produces sinister, minimalist,  atmospheric tracks. In songs like "Flor de Lirio," he first sets a foreboding tone, then subtly folds in regional beats (including cumbia, tribal, and reggaeton), but never being defined by their power.

Written on a tab of N.A.A.F.I.'s website is "Noche de ritmos periféricos," or "night of peripheral rhythms." It's a poetic way to describe the ambition of the parties they throw. In addition to regional Mexican music, strains of the global bass underground such as hardstyle, ballroom, juke, hip-hop, and dancehall are key touchstones. They've even brought American outsider bass mainstays Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu to perform at their parties.


Total Freedom at a N.A.A.F.I party, 2013. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Events like these are crucial for musicians—it's difficult for an unestablished artist or promoter to put together a show in Mexico City. "I think the main difference between D.F. and Tijuana, as I just learned in these few past months, is that it's really hard," said Moisés Horta. "All the venues are going to charge you something just to have a party there. Then you have to negotiate with them how the bar is going to be split and how much you can charge. It's more business, because it's a bigger city."

Eric Gamboa of the website New Weird Latin America, which focuses on indie Mexican culture, has seen a growing prevalence of underground shows and pop-up spaces in the city. "There have started to be these parties in refrigerators—you know, large ones where they hang chickens and stuff," he said. "Little shows where around seventy people can fit into. These aren't really dance shows—mostly indie and punk. But that's just an example of how people are starting to create their own spaces."

N.A.A.F.I. parties first began three years ago in members' apartments around the Centro neighborhood downtown, then spread to other areas. "We have created our own spaces and built our own crowd," Davó explained. "There weren't any clubs taking us in, so we had to start making our own clubs at pop-up spots. We've also thrown parties in Roma and Condesa, which are the most common 'club' neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are where the institutionalized parties and clubs are. It's kind of hard not to do something there."


The new wave is moving all over Mexico. Los Macuanos may have brought their dystopic post-cumbia to D.F., but fellow ruidosón artist María y José and Santos continue to rep TJ. Teen Flirt and Zut Zut are in Monterrey. Experimental electronic artists like Ñaka Ñaka and Marbeya Sound, both of whom move between Mexico and the United States, are just a few holding down the molasses-BPM end of things. You name a type of underground electronic music genre, Mexico's got producers and bands making and performing it.

Ñaka Ñaka at a N.A.A.F.I. party. Photo courtesy of the artist.

As musicians network at parties and events such as Mutek Mexico, they are slowly chipping away at the walls that used to partition Mexican music culture. Moisés Horta also pointed to digital connectivity. "I think has to do with the internet and distribution networks. Everything is so decentralized now," he said. "If one scenes feels that other scene in a different area [of Mexico] is relevant to them, they can connect [with them] easily." Every year, more and more Mexicans start using social media—with an estimated 17 percent increase since last year alone. Increased access means shrinking cultural distance.

Net label Maligna released the digital compilation Negative Youth México last year, bringing together artists such as goth-electro pinup Selma Oxor and tribal producer DJ Javier Estrada, alongside the ravecore of N.A.A.F.I. members Lao and DJ Smurphy. The Soundcloud description for their track on the mix, "México Pyramide de Amor," roughly translates to: "It is well known that Mexico is a country at war. There is social injustice, electoral fraud, death, chaos…[The theme of this song] is love. We propose a mantra to attract our country's positive energies and everything that is cool here, forgetting the chaos we live in for five minutes. This track is loaded with Mexico's cosmic energy to the world."


Siete Catorce Record Release Party, 2013. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

In some senses these groups are proliferating in the wake of the group 3Ball MTY. The teen trio, composed of DJ Otto, DJ Sheeqo Beat, and Erick Rincon began performing techno-mutated "pre-Hispanic" Mexican cumbia and African percussion-derived sounds at parties in the late aughts, part of a growing wave of underground producers. Taken under the wing of super-producer Toy Selectah, they became dance-music idols and helped catapult the Aztec-inspired trance subculture to national heights and international recognition. (Member Erick Rincon even went on to produce the soundtrack for a telenovela called Porque El Amor Manda). But between their sponsorships and a controversial blessing from Diplo's Mad Decent label, some started to grumble that 3Ball MTY had sold out. "People got kind of tired of tribal," said NWLA's Eric Gamboa. "Especially after the guys got sponsored by Pepsi. They couldn't help but become like any other product that gets affected by its surroundings."

Some of this has a classist undertone—tribal and other, more zany dance scenes (such as the reggaeton gangs and cumbiaton super stars covered by Noisey MX) are most popular among D.F.'s poorer citizens. And because these subcultures have been viewed as curiosities outside of Mexico, their exposure also serves as a cautionary tale. "It's interesting how tribal started out as a real movement of kids who came up from the emo and trance scenes and then basically became these international rock stars," said Moisés Horta. "It was a sound that could be exploited just because it's a regional Mexican sound. Somebody saw that there was a niche that wasn't being filled and saw the opportunity to trim these guys into a huge cash cow. And a lot of people are living off of them, in some sense."

In Down and Delirious, Daniel Hernandez writes about the lack of DIY spaces in Mexico City. "There is no Mexico City version of a 'trailblazing' Bushwick or South Central," he says. "In Mexico City, hipsterdom is essentially an expression of middle-class comfort." Even just since Hernandez's book was published in 2011, this has begun to change, for better or for worse—the better being inclusiveness and the worse being the specter of gentrification. Regardless, Tomás Davó, for one, sincerely believes music can dissolve the barriers that have divided people in the past. "If you go to a N.A.A.F.I. party, it's a place to dance and get shitfaced or whatever, but also we believe it's a place for tolerance," he said. "In normal clubs there are the pretty people and they want to taunt the ugly people. [At our parties], there's no violence. No judging. Just dancing and having fun."