Photos and gifs by Ana Blizzard
In today's music festival landscape, there are few things as important or valuable for a festival's value as the wow factor. Those surprise reunions or special guests in Coachella are part of what makes the experience in that festival so unique. And in Pa'l Norte, one of Mexico's biggest festivals, they've managed to perfect the craft with a spark of genius: instead of having some of the biggest bands in the world reunite to play a show for unimaginable amounts of money, they have two surprise acts per day, who only have one mission: to play their biggest hit.
This year, the people in charge of doing the honors were two international acts—Lou Bega singing “Mambo No. 5” and The Baha Men doing “Who Let the Dogs Out?”—and two mexican bands—Magneto, singing and dancing one of the biggest hits of the 90s in Mexico, “Vuela Vuela”, and Caballo Dorado, who in the mid-90s managed to turn a cover of Billy Ray Cyrus's “Achy Breaky Heart” into a megasmash in a nation where country music is completely unpopular. Although this is, of course, something utterly kitsch, while being on the festival grounds with your friends having fun, awaiting for one of the headliners, like 50 Cent, it's also wholly unexpected and incredibly fun, since you only get a quick spark of the band and they're playing a song everybody knows. To give you an idea, past editions have featured Inner Circle playing “Sweat (A La La La La Long),” Crazy Town doing “Butterfly,” Vanilla Ice with “Ice Ice Baby,” and the Village People's “YMCA.” It's like if NOW That's What I Call Music was granted its own space within a festival and it was met with unbelievable excitement.
Of course, that's not just what P'al Norte is about. Hosted in Parque Fundidora, a former foundry-turned-gorgeous park in Monterrey, Mexico's third most populated city and the second wealthiest, the festival has quickly become the most important music festival in the North of the country, and is quickly competing with Vive Latino for the title of best Hispanic-American festival in Mexico—no small feat, considering Vive Latino is the grandaddy of all music festivals in Mexico, happening almost yearly since 1998, whereas P'al Norte was founded only five years ago, in 2012. While sadly the Vive Latino has become a shadow of its past self, lacking nowadays the excitement it used to generate on music fans in the past (this year, the festival even slashed a day off of its programming, going from three days to just two), P'al Norte has managed to keep growing each year (this year's edition had 134,000 attendees between both days) with lineups targeted not to hardcore fans of music genres, but instead with a mix that would feel oddly out of place in a radio station, mixing Latin America's biggest acts regardless if they play rock, ska, pop, reggaeton, cumbia, rap, reggae, norteña or heavy metal, and adding some international headliners in the mix just to make sure people get their money's worth (50 Cent, Felix Jaehn, and Marky Ramone this year, just to name a few; Snoop Dogg, 311, Flo Rida, Garbage, The Kooks, AFI, Imagine Dragons, and Foster the People are some that have played in past editions).
Although this blending of genres has been repudiated by some (a website even called this year's lineup “the most disgusting lineup of all times”), this trend is on par with the listening habits of young music lovers around the world, who, as Nielsen has reported, have more eclectic tastes and are less fixated on listening just one style of music, unlike, say, 20 years ago. This, of course, also shows just how diverse (or casual) music listeners are in Monterrey, a city where other shows or festivals have struggled in the past (Nrmal, perhaps Mexico's most musically forward thinking and exciting music festival, even had to move to Mexico City to gain the audience it craved). And even though an increasing number of festivals with Latin American bands have sprung recently in the US (Ruido Fest, Viva Pomona, Supersonico and Pachanga, to name a few), this is still perhaps the best chance someone in the South Central and South Western US has to see the biggest bands in Latin America.
That being said, lineups aren't just what create a successful music festival, and in this regard, the festival's organizers have everything thought out: they take advantage of every single space the park lets them offer, hosting beside its four stages a food truck area, a food court (both with local stands and some vegan offerings, although this being Monterrey, almost everything has to do with meat), a cantina with a norteña band that plays every few hours, some local arts & crafts stands, an arcade, some carnie games, and they even use the planetarium on site for the oddballs who want to see live the press conferences that are taking place in the press area. Perhaps the only thing uncertain is how the festival plans to expand, considering that viewing an artist in one of the two main stages (which are right next to each other, alternating between bands to save time) proves to be uncomfortable if a) you're in the other stage and b) everything is packed, which was the case with most headliners (especially Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and J. Balvin).
Considering P'al Norte was founded after a wave of narcoviolence and insecurity struck the city in 2009, increasing the murder rates by 200 percent and crippling the city's cultural life, its success, on par with the declining violence rate in the state of Nuevo León (which nonetheless is still far from the lows of the early noughties), is perhaps a good way to measure the general public's level of confidence and safety in the region, and a beam of light on the cultural prospects of the city. This isn't, of course, a perfect festival: they could counterbalance the power of their headliners' big names to promote even more forward and up-and-coming bands, something they're still somewhat lacking in, and is very much needed—unless they plan on running out of headliners, which is perhaps Vive Latino's biggest caveat. Nevertheless, this is a fun, incredibly well organized festival, with very bright looking prospects ahead.
P.S. If you get a chance to see J Balvin live, do not hesitate, just GO.