Because of their prohibitive costs and geographical confinement, many music festivals can leave their guests feeling like human ATMs penned inside of plastic mesh fencing. So convincing artists and fans alike that there is, indeed, a different approach can be a difficult task. But there is, fortunately, rest for the weary. Mexico's Festival Nrmal—along with a similar crop of small-batch festivals like Dekmantel, Montreal's Mutek, Arizona's nascent FORM:Arcosanti, and New York's Sustain-Release—are providing an option outside of the big tents and samey lineups offered by most mega-fests.
The festival, which was launched out of Monterrey in 2008 by local organizer Pablo Martinez and a few likeminded pals before relocating to Mexico City in 2013, has spent the last seven years experimenting with the art of vibe-making, booking some of the most eclectic and challenging festival lineups anywhere in North America. But its success stems from a holistic approach to community-building through music. Nrmal changes the whole face of the festival experience through subtle shifts in disposition, from not letting performers barricade themselves in "exclusive" backstage zones (they're forced to mingle with the audience, getting their booze from the main bars like every other attendee), to purposefully operating out of the urban heart of Mexico City, all the way to lofty concepts like cross-cultural international exchanges for guest curation.
"Penetrating the festival mindset," says Alfonso Muriedas, the creative director of Nrmal, "is what we're interested in." As he tells it, when Nrmal 2016 gets underway on March 12 and 13, the audience should expect to be challenged—not just by the event's genre-melding program, but also by spaces developed for collaborations and creative collisions, on-stage and off. Instead of Instagrammable moments, attendees have the chance to form actual relationships.
The concept at its core is about bringing together conceptual musicians, promoters, and scene-makers from across the Americas; stirring them all together for a couple days; and bestowing upon them fresh inspiration and connections before they disperse back to their own towns.
It dawns on me during our conversation that Nrmal is an abstracted take on the business conference (but with Acid Mothers Temple providing the muzak and hearty amounts of 2C-I). In fact, per Muriedas, the event cribs its ethos straight from the stolid pages of an academic journal. The Journal of Management Studies, that is. The most radical and wild-eyed festival in Mexico likes to think of itself as a Field-Configuring Event, or as the kind of guys who'd never attend a festival like this would say, an FCE.
Muriedas blows by this as if it's a given, but because I initially thought he said "Feel-Configuring Events" (sounds vibey, sure), I had to circle around. Clarifying his point, he reassures me, "This is something I've researched, a lot. The festival is totally based on this concept."
Muriedas is aware of Nrmal's growing reputation in American and European circles. And he's taking full advantage of it on behalf of an audience that is often neglected by most touring acts. "Eighty percent of the line-up wouldn't come to Mexico if it weren't for Nrmal," Muriedas points out, "and now these artists go back to their communities and spread the word about what we're doing here."
Nrmal's rise, one could say, tracks with Mexico City's burgeoning global reputation. Asked about American artists' long history of snubbing the place, Muriedas shrugs. "I don't see Mexico as any different from other [western] countries," he says. The festival, which has partnered with the cultural wings of the Swedish, Spanish, and Austrian embassies, among others, is an ambassador of Mexico's artistic vibrancy. "We see this as a cultural tool," Muriedas says. "It's for everyone in the ecosystem of music."
To this end, Nrmal 2016 is debuting the networking conference NODO (Spanish for node). "It's a program on how to build cities," Muriedas says cryptically. Taking place in the three days prior to the festival, the program will feature practical workshops that apply some of the festival's abstract ideas; attendees will learn how to book shows and start crowdfunding projects, and Empress Of's Lorelei Rodriguez will deliver a presentation on the creative process (Rodriguez spent five weeks in Mexico City writing and recording her most recent album, Me). For the gear-centric, Sweden's avant electro-acoustic lab Elektronmusikstudion will showcase its sound adventures, and Brooklyn DIY effects pedal company Death By Audio (formerly affiliated with the DIY venue of the same name) will show attendees how to make "machines that destroy sound."
But it's Nrmal's eclectic programming that garners the lion's share of attention. It's a proudly global program—a lineup that blurs boundaries, both geographic and generic, in a way that you won't come across outside of fests like UNSOUND or Miami's III points. This is the beating heart of the festival, but Muriedas is just as focused on the brain. "We want to get audiences out of their comfort zone, so we can start conversations," he says.
It's bound to be a good conversation this year. Highlights include Hyperdub's Fatima Al Qadiri, who's performing solo as well as with her Nguzunguzu and J Cush collaboration Future Brown. Sacred Bones is sending three norm-defying groups to the festival in the form of Norway's Jenny Hval, brooding producer Blanck Mass and noise-sculptors The Men. Latin America's newest sounds, meanwhile, stack the side stages and afternoon slots; highlights include Bogata's MITÚ and the future-feminist dancehall of Mexico's Gnucci.
The staff devotes roughly five months each year to research, traveling, and tinkering with lineups, all in the hopes of building a thematic narrative across the weekend. Just don't ask what the plot is. "It's a story we are telling," Muriedas says. "We invent it. We cannot explain it. We just follow a flow and try to connect with the audience." He follows this with a knowing chuckle, adding, "Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't."
The potential to reorient the way his attendees interact with the world sparks a passion in Muriedas—one largely absent during his mentions of ticket sales or du jour terms like the "brand" of the festival. He's even excited about the collaborative cuisine that will be available to attendees, prepared by chefs working in tandem for the first time, a sharp contrast even to artisanal food truck fare permeating wisened American festivals. Cocina Central will offer-festival goers a five-course meal, ranging from Baozi to braised beef in citric emulsions prepared by local chefs.
The expansion plan for Nrmal, rest assured, is horizontal, not vertical. Showcases in Chile and Columbia are in the works. Just last year, Costa Rica played host to a Nrmal showcase featuring The Sonics and Helado Negro. Scalability in neat portions and in diverse zones is the ten-year-plan for Muriedas and co. They want Nrmal to be "big" in the way that a network is big, not in the way that a destination festival is big. They want to have nodes across the whole world.
The Nrmal blueprint, "configured" for maximal impact on forward-thinking scenes, means keeping it small while wanting the world. This duality is the secret ingredient in the festival's dynamic approach. "Keeping the roots in place," he says, "is what we're most interested in." That means keeping it tight-knit and community-oriented, no matter what city they're organizing in. As long that stays constant, Nrmal can continue to be its restless, ground-breaking self, Muriedas says. "We don't like to stay still and follow the rules."
Nathan Pemberton is on Twitter.