Life-Changing Sets, Police Shakedowns, and Even More Tacos: BPM's Home Stretch was a Wild Ride
We look back as house music's home-away-from-home ends its 2015 edition.
A couple nights into The BPM Festival, you may find yourself daunted by the prospect of 10 days of all-day-all-night partying. You might even be feeling the first tugs of fatigue pulling at your bikini strings. At that moment, slap yourself in the face, take a nap, eat a taco, and then go out and party more. It's that simple.
There's a rhythm to things at BPM, a beat that'll take you from marathon groove sessions with the best DJs in the world at some of the most eye-catching beachside venues on Earth, to poignant, quiet sunsets that will make you gently consider your privilege in the world (often with a fruit smoothie in hand). Also, you might get arrested and chucked in a Cancún jail, but more on that later.
A midweek revelation for THUMP came on Tuesday, January 12th, in the form of Berlin-based Irishman Mano Le Tough performing all the way down at Fusion Beach Club in the fancy part of Playa Del Carmen. The crowd, packed onto the sand like beached sardines, was absolutely beguiled by Le Tough's high-brow selections. They tangentially forayed everywhere from techno to downtempo as he exhibited a deft grasp on vibe that exists far outside of any genre delineations. His palate is such that he's as comfortable playing at Berghain as he is playing a beach party as he is playing your mom's living room. The guy is a visionary and he made a lot of fast fans that night.
That evening was all about the Smoke & Mirrors party that crammed everyone from Justin Martin to Thugfucker to Maxxi Soundsystem and Click Click into La Santañera. Many parties on the schedule ended up so creatively cliquey that the tones on display lapsed into monotony if you stayed static for too long. This one was all over the place, bouncing around styles like the crowd bounced around the dancefloor of La Santañera, a room with the aesthetic of a cruise ship discotheque.
Elsewhere, I skidaddled through the cacophonous main drag of Playa Del Carmen's clublife, affectionately referred to as 'Trainwreck Alley,' to catch newfound LA staple Night Bass having a quiet night. The BPM faithful again showed themselves to be sluggish to embrace anything outside the comfort of traditional house tropes, but in a couple of years I'm convinced that outsider forces will have seeped further inside.
Pete Tong needs no introduction and his effortless ear for curation was on full display at the Blue Parrot Day Club on January 14th, as Disciples, Gorgon City, Oliver Dollar, and MK shared a stage for his All Gone Pete Tong showcase. It was a celebration of the UK house sound that so successfully took on the mainstream in 2014. At some point in the crowd I heard someone say "Pete's actually a really good DJ," which may have been the biggest duh moment of my entire existence.
That night brought the much awaited Diynamic showcase. Label head Solomun looks like a carpenter but makes the dainty hand movements of an orchestra conductor trying out salsa dancing for the first time. He had the Blue Parrot seething with good vibes in some transcendental timewarp of a set, roving through bossy basslines and captivating movements one after another. The man is on some whole 'nother level of house music, and when he dropped Tiga and Audion's iconic lyric "Let's go dancing, I wanna go dancing with you all night, dancing" at 8AM, it took on a totally new meaning.
That morning was my first sunrise of the week. The sense of fraternity amongst the revelers at the end of it was like that of a group of strangers who had just witnessed some sort of religious awakening, all hugs and smiles and good vibes in the quickly sharpening sunlight. For me, it was the highlight of the entire week.
THUMP caught up with BPM founder Craig Pettigrew and got his perspective on how 2015's edition was developing. "It was definitely a rough start. Day one is always really intense," he explained. "We had a couple issues with our box office, but now it's Wednesday and things are on cruise control. Our partnerships are fantastic and our staff have been absolutely incredible. They understand the dynamics of this festival. It's not like anything else. They have to make decisions on the fly and roll with things."
This year in particular marked the beginning of BPM stretching its wings in terms of programming. In Pettigrew's words: "As the festival grows, we see different trends come in. We always book our friends first and foremost, and then we add some new things just to add some flavor to the festival. This year, we wanted to add some other styles of music to broaden the festival's shape. We added some live elements, and we're gonna expand on that next year. We're always looking for new things to add to the festival that aren't in the mainstream. That's the most important thing for us. We want to support the underground. I don't understand EDM, I don't listen to EDM. This is the music we listen to and this is what we book."
What really comes to define the experience, though, are the attendees. "They're people who really know what type of music they like," says Pettigrew. "They really don't want the typical experience, they're looking for something different, something more musically driven. Here it's the opposite to most festivals – if you play the hits, they won't like it. If you play something they don't know, they'll love it."
The Blue Venado is thirty minutes outside of Playa Del Carmen and is considered the crown jewel of all the venues. Upon arrival in Punta Venado, a dirt road snakes away from the highway until it spews you a couple miles later right upon the venue, a massive cabana-style stage that empties onto a softly sloping beach with deep foliage on all other sides. Innervisions 2014 is the stuff of legend - BPM had been plagued by rain all week until Dixon's sunrise set stymied the deluge with his holy brand of melodic techno and, just like that, a double rainbow appeared on the morning horizon. Suffice to say, expectations were high this year.
The sets at Innervisions 2015 were almost predictably excellent. Dixon in particular seems to have a near mechanical understanding of the ebb and flow required to whip a crowd into tech-stasy. There was a moment just before the dawn where, shrouded in fog, the water and the early morning sky were the same tone of lightening blue, turning the horizon into an other-worldly wash of powdery color and texture. It felt like being on a different planet – And not some nearby one, either.
Interplanetary musings aside, Dixon's set and the event itself were cut short at 7AM as rumors of police interference began to spread. We thought nothing of it as we waited out the rush to exit on the beach, instead splashing around in the warm Caribbean waters and wandering around making friends in the rapidly warming early morning.
Around 9AM, we decided to make our way to the shuttles and began down that dirt path, only to find an intimidating cavalcade of armored police trucks, replete with steely-eyed officers toting M16s, rushing down towards the venue with a Geo Metro with 'Inspeccion' plastered on the back in the midst of them all. We decided not to stick around and took on the jungle path by foot while others rushed for taxis. The journey was arduous in the morning sun with eyes tired and legs creaking. Eventually we struck upon an epic traffic jam of taxis and even more police presence. The energy was stiff with apprehension. The Policía Municipal had erected a blockade at the exit and were extricating every raver from every single vehicle and subjecting them to a full body search, shoes off and all, presumably for drugs.
Kids were actually getting arrested. Some were taken as far as Cancún and held for hours and then released without charge. We just strolled right on by the ostentatious blockade, too nervous to be confused, and eventually found ourselves free and by the highway, where we taxi'ed the living fuck outta there. What makes this whole thing peculiar is that possession of limited amounts of narcotics is actually decriminalized in Mexico, so such an intrusive search process likely had nothing to do with drugs and more to do with politics. BPM staffers I asked said the trouble was an issue of permitting gone awry. The police wouldn't tell me anything. The more far-fetched explanations among ravers suggested some friction between BPM and governmental officials, positing the exercise as a display of strength on the part of the police.
We can't speculate further, but we can say that sometimes there is a darker side to techno tourism. The affordability, exoticism and laissez faire notions that come with trekking to developing nations to party also bring with them the trappings of more fragile and uncharted state relations. Sure, most of the week was like frolicking around eden, but one wrong turn and very quickly you realize you're not in Kansas anymore. Welcome to the jungle, huh?
Any normal person would have gone home and thanked their lucky stars, but nobody at BPM is a normal person, and I had to catch a second chance to see Solomun. His Solomun + Åme daytime party at Canibal Royal was a totally different affair to his initial outing at Diynamic, much more playful and stompy as he dropped one grin-warranting selection after another. Åme as his +1 was a choice so inspired that it seemed stupidly obvious, or perhaps so obvious that it seemed stupidly inspired. Either way, my rickety, mostly-sober ass, eight days in, was dutty wining harder than when I was a teenager at a festival rolling balls for the first time.
I was absolutely floored by Solomun for the second time in as many days. Scheduled to end at 8pm, he and Åme were in the midst of their second b2b set well past 10:30. I wanted nothing more than to witness the end and applaud Solomun, who is undoubtedly one of the world's leading DJs, but eventually my bones could take no more. It turns out you actually can dance yourself to death. As I trudged home for an empañada and a nap, I acknowledged that BPM had defeated me, but it was the most glorious defeat one can endure.
With a day of the festivities remaining, THUMP's time in Playa came to a close. The BPM Festival has become a yearbook of sorts for the annum preceding and it's an unmissable experience for lovers of club music. Even if BPM maintained their level of programming in a series of backalleys in Fresno, it would be an important event, but instead, it all takes place in one of the most beautiful places in the world and is a cornerstone of the electronic music world. We'll say it here first: BPM is officially a dominant node in the worldwide festival circuit and THUMP will be there, taco in one hand, michelada in the other, as soon as next year is announced.