The BPM Festival Leads the Mayan Riviera's Emergence as a Dance Destination
The world's biggest house and techno bender comes to an end, and there's lots to talk about this year.
All photos by Galen Oakes.
While the rest of the world wipes the crust from their eyes and the sins from their conscience as they step into a new year, the BPM Festival always causes the dance music community to show up a couple weeks late and a little worse for wear. With ten days, 11 venues, hundreds of artists, and tens of thousands of hardened clubbers pouring into Playa Del Carmen—a coastal town on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula—it feels like the entire world of underground house and techno is guzzling ceviche and tequila on the Mayan Riviera every January, this year from the 8th to the 17th.
Over the past decade, the BPM Festival has grown from a little-known getaway for the hospitality industry to such an important node in the international dance circuit that its gravity has pulled in a whole calendar of events in its wake. Desert Hearts' New Year's Eve party Maya Hearts, the inaugural XLR8R Festival, this year's astounding Day Zero, and the grassroots-facing Communité parties have all popped up in the nearby, idyllic enclave of Tulum recently, but all eyes are on Playa Del Carmen as soon as the first beat hits BPM dancefloors.
It could be easy to take the marathon length and the depth of the lineup as a challenge to rage all ten days and ten nights of the festival. But doing so will leave your internal organs in a puddle at your feet as your ringing ears become the soundtrack to techno psychoses. Instead, take advantage of the unique locale for a day and go for a swim in a cenote, one of innumerable freshwater lakelets that dot the jungle in the Mayan Riviera. Some are cavernous underground domes, while others are waterways that lazily float you through the lush, green landscapes. A day off the circuit may well push you over the finish line.
But with that in mind, you're at the festival for the music, and the Daytime BPM parties at the Cabana-like Canibal Royal are a major draw. That's where Catz 'n Dogz, Dusky, Mano Le Tough, and tINI all got a chance to go in deep with their labels in an intimate beach party setting. Crew Love's chilled-out, daytime dance-off on the first Monday of the festival boasted the brightest and most vibrant demographic of the whole week—with less board shorts or black shirts, and more bright patterns and bold cuts, as Soul Clap and Wolf + Lamb kept things easy and breezy in the sun. Crew Love pulled a classy maneuver in hosting Danish synth-pop duo Laid Back, a live act with a forty-year history that could crown them progenitors of chill dance vibes. Their 1984 tune "White Horse" sounds even better today than it did 33 years ago, and there's a direct line of influence to the current sound of Crew Love.
As has become tradition over the past couple of years, Richie Hawtin threw a free pop-up event with Dubfire in tow at venerated taco joint El Fogón (try the al pastor). Thousands took to the streets as the surprisingly functional pairing of techno and tacos encouraged locals to mingle with tourists in a way that rarely happens. In most tourist hubs, those who live and work don't partake in the vacationing, so these kinds of events are a notable gesture of inclusion.
Hopefully, the event assuaged the exploitative air with which our scene of international ne'er-do-wells rambled into town and made a drunken, sweaty mess of things without once stopping to heed the instructions to place used toilet paper in baskets adjacent to the toilets themselves. It's a "cultural difference" that takes some adjusting to.
Much of BPM's festivities within the city take place on a single road that is lined all the way up and down with clubs. Many have affectionately dubbed it "Trainwreck Alley," as the more basic, off-BPM clubs on the strip blare out trashy EDM at a volume that leave the street in a state of dizzying cacophony. The street teems with life—drunk people stumbling through the crowd en masse, pedicabs swerving—and when the tropical rain falls, it falls hard, sending the pathways into chaos and turning the road into a temporary Lake Del Carmen.
Previous editions of BPM centered the off-strip festivities at the massive, palapa-topped, beachside Blue Venado venue outside of Playa city limits, but after a police raid during last year's fest, the venue didn't return in 2016. Replacing its magic was an unenviable task, one BPM took on this year by introducing The Jungle, a festival-style campus in a clearing outside of town. With a sizable, white-tarped main stage accompanied by acres of drink-ticket bars and local eats amidst a strong branding presence, the new environment polarized opinions. BPM has made a name for itself as a club-centric event, more Ibiza-on-rumspringa than Coachella, so to host the headline showcases––Diynamic, Paradise, Life and Death, and the two Ya'ah Muul extravaganzas––in a setting that offers a totally foreign vibe to the expectations of showgoers did cause some dissonance. As festival culture has proliferated over the past decade, people have come to BPM looking for an alternative to the routine, tented affair. That the replacement for the most celebrated and storied venue of the whole event was a standard white-top tent with moderate production values felt underwhelming.
Although many of the hip kids may not have been enamored with The Jungle, most of those who actually showed up seemed to be having a total ball. The packed Paradise party at The Jungle showcased Jamie Jones' superhero power: whenever he touches a set of decks, 5,000 wasted British kids materialize from the ether like they were zapped in from an Ibiza dance floor at 3AM on a Friday during peak season. It is, as they say, mental.
If you really wanna have an all-night dance party at BPM with room to boogie, underground vibes, and tightly curated line-ups, La Santanera and Salsanera are always good bets. Both are unpretentious, intimate venues with both ground and rooftop floors where up-and-coming labels get to flex their aesthetics. During the Warung vs. Superfriends clash at Salsanera on the opening Sunday, beefy-bassed German house innovators Andhim followed a masterful selection from Butch. The latter DJs like a painter, adding brushstrokes to an image that emerges as he goes, and every set depicts a different—as Björk might say—emotional landscape. That night, Butch's bossy and upbeat selections acknowledged the Mayan Riviera with just a touch of the tropics. I'm generally loathe to hear any tribal drumming during a house set, but that mustachioed man in a hawaiian shirt had me grooving to them like I had founded the Venice Beach drum circle myself.
I left Salsanera, briefly, for an obligatory jaunt to ENTER. at The Blue Parrot, where a heavy torrential rain had left the covered portion of the dancefloor a dangerously crowded crush of black-shirted, bald-headed types too crammed together to even move, let alone dance. The over-selling of the Blue Parrot Venue was a running theme all week long and is indicative of a notable trend in the BPM demographic: as the festival has gotten bigger, the newer attendees have exhibited a main stage myopia of sorts, sticking to the big brands and missing much of the discovery aspect of the festival. There they stood, packed like sardines into a tin can––which is decidedly not the ideal way to listen to music.
The clusterfuck at The Blue Parrot was a blessing in disguise as I retreated back to Salsanera. On the rooftop, Brazilian duo Dashdot, largely unknown outside of South America, dropped a marathon selection of compelling, moving techno and house that had me deep in their groove for hours straight. I didn't leave the dancefloor until the lights came on and the staff kicked everyone out after 6AM. One of the joys of BPM is that the programming calendar holds so many surprises in its depths, and every year you can come away with new favorite acts that you didn't even know existed. Discovery of new music has been a central part of the BPM ethos in the past, and going off the beaten path is almost always still a rewarding experience.
Solomun has earned deity status amongst BPM fans. At his set at last year's Diynamic showcase at The Blue Parrot, the crowd wouldn't vacate the dance floor at the alleged closing time of 6AM, and he played through the sunrise and well into the brunching hours before releasing the audience from his spell. I wouldn't even call the Bosnian selector a DJ; he's more like a burly, hirsute magician who channels good vibes through music and onto the people around him. The excellent Mano Le Tough was his partner at the Solomun +1 party at the sprawling but crammed Martina Beach Club on the closing Friday.
Solomun and Mano share an affinity for tracks with soul and a subtle melancholia that sits atop grooves with some hefty gravity to them. There's a level of headier concept in their selections that moves you both intellectually and physically. Every time I've seen Mano Le Tough play, I've felt a moment of déjà vu for Radiohead's Kid A at some moments. Sure, it might go over the head of your usual bottle service-type, but these guys are not your usual boom-boom-untz-untz dance music.
On the last Saturday, under the neon, glowing absolution of La Santanera's now-iconic DJ Jesus sign, Camea dropped a late challenger for best techno set of the week at Alphahouse's party downstairs. Inside what was perhaps the smallest room of the festival, the Seattle-via-Berlin veteran delivered a flawless exercise in dance futurism that was driving, challenging, and another joy to have stumbled upon. The dark, shrouded dancefloor was sparse at one point, but became more crowded as the wee hours of the morning wore on. By the time Camea handed duties off to the also-tremendous Butane, the place was more packed than it had been all night.
The BPM Festival has, most definitely, changed the game in dance music over the past year. It's lead the market in the proliferation of the destination festival, taken Ibiza-like vibes to distant corners of the world, and led the Mayan Riviera's emergence as an essential location in the future of dance music culture. 2016 found the festival at a tipping point, both in terms of identity and function. Many of the big parties were too crowded to even be considered parties, and the imposition of a festival-like aesthetic at The Jungle suggests they may be thinking outside of the club in the future––a controversial move.
What hasn't changed, though, is that BPM transcends its status as a music festival. it's a reflection of the state of club culture around the world. These ten days in Mexico are the closest thing North America has to Ibiza, and every year, it both offers closure on the year prior while setting the frame for the year to come.
It's a safe bet to assume that if a party is a winner in Ibiza over the summer, the buzz will be amplified two-fold for its BPM iteration. It's great to have some of the most reputable dance ragers in the world shack up and do their version in the jungle, but as evidenced by Day Zero and Maya Hearts, there's enough homespun energy in the region now for BPM to build champions of its own instead of borrowing from the Balearic Islands. BPM's success has led the charge for the viability of both destination festivals and decentralized festivals, and in the process has awoken a whole cultural scene in the Mayan Riviera, one that could step out of Ibiza's shadow and into its own as this dance mecca in the jungle continues to grow into a new power in worldwide dance music.