The colorful history of St. Martin includes a centuries-long battle between colonial powers over the Caribbean isle, a conflict that left it split down the middle between French and Dutch control to this day. But these days, the island, which is situated in the Lower Antilles region off the tip of Northeast South America, keeps pretty quiet. The loudest rumblings that shake its silky sands and crystalline seas are the daily arrivals of jumbo jets, which fly only a couple hundred feet above the freshly sunburned tourists lounging on Maho Beach.
St. Martin got a whole lot louder last week, as 2,000 techno tourists washed up on its shores for its first electronic music festival. SXMusic—not to be called SexMusic or confused with SXSW—is named after the island's airport code (SXM) and ran from March 9-13. Like Mexico's BPM Festival or the Dominican Republic's Groovefest, SXMusic sells itself as a destination festival in a tropical paradise, and attracted legions of seasoned clubbing veterans and industry sorts from cities like Montreal, Toronto, New York, and London looking for warmer climes and deeper vibes in the winter months.
Booking scene icons Jamie Jones, Maceo Plex, Guy Gerber, and DJ Tennis suggested SXMusic is aiming for an audience primed by yearly jaunts to BPM Festival, but worn out by the slow bro-ification and overcrowding of Playa Del Carmen, where BPM takes place.
Over a five day-and-night circuit of beach parties, club nights, and jungle soirees, SXMusic brought high quality, low-risk (I think we all know how a Jamie Jones set is going to go by now) underground dance music to an intimate, often beautiful setting. Yet the festival was fraught with the challenges of a first-year endeavor and unique quirks of the St. Martin, like the occasional monsoon and a local protest the likes of which I'd never seen before.
On Wednesday, word had trickled down that the streets leading to Palm Beach—the site of SXMusic's beachside day-to-night parties—was walled off by a blockade set up by aggrieved contractors and locals rallying against a commercial development in the nearby Orient Bay area. Festival organizers were visibly concerned that the first-time festival was about to fall apart on its first day, because to reach the daytime venue for M.A.N.D.Y's 12-hour Get Physical beach party, an encounter with the blockade was unavoidable.
After a stuttering, winding ride through St. Martin's contrasting neighborhoods—rural, beachside, run-down, and resort, at alternate turns—the venue shuttle arrived at the roadblock. What we found was a group of about twenty locals casually milling about, and the tenor was more smokey than fiery, with the smell of weed in the air and a barbecue grill cooking up meat for sandwiches. Their protest signs were tied up on nearby fences, and the atmosphere was distinctly laid-back. When asked what he thought about the festival and its attendees, a local said with a grin, "We like you because you is party people."
That SXMusic was so far away from the bustle of club culture meant DJs were treating the week like vacation themselves. Many of them spent the days jetskiing (Sup, Maher Daniel), or lounging with iguanas on nearby islet beaches. At the Mixmag party, Life and Death boss DJ Tennis followed up a bout of dusty psychedelia from burner legends Bedouin by having to be rescued off the decks during his headline set by the heroic Holmar of Thugfucker after a swift, and uh conspicuous, turn toward dazed and distracted behavior. Maybe it was island fever.
The early part of the festival was dominated by beachy, good-times house vibes, but Friday lent itself to Maceo Plex's formidable Ellum sound—dark, challenging techno that promised to add some moody tones and cerebral elements to proceedings. Unfortunately, St. Martin's unpredictable monsoon climate had other ideas, and the daytime party was cut short before Maceo Plex could go on as heavy rain battered the beach and threatened to waterlog the decks.
That night at the festival's biggest club, Tantra, an all-night b2b2b that flowed through Rebolledo, Danny Daze, and a finally unleashed Maceo Plex was a highlight of the whole week. The three share a penchant for experimentalism that played well off of each other. The cauldron-like dancefloor was walled in and decked out in blacklight and underwater decorations reminiscent of Guy Gerber's Rumors brand as the trio got weird and heavy until 6 AM. After the soggy challenge of the daytime, the club was heaving and the festival brought back to life. The rain, however, was not finished.
The next day, just as Jamie Jones was threatening to turn SXMusic into EssexMusic at Palm Beach, the rains came down again—hard, torrential downpours that seethed from every direction. Dancers huddled into the covered bar far from the stage, some hightailed it for the exits. Others even hid underneath the raised wooden platform of VIP cabanas. It looked like, for the second night in a row, the Palm Beach party was headed for a watery grave.
The crowd on the dancefloor had thinned out to the foolhardiest few when someone had the bright notion to pull out a black, plastic tarp from under the stage and hold it taught above the remaining dancers. As the rain continued to pelt down, a few joined in, then another few, then a rush of many. Within minutes, this act of rugged commitment to raving had drawn a crowd of hundreds, packed tight under the rubbery absolution of the tarp.
"It's like Plastic People in here," someone laughed, comparing the scene under the tarp to the now-defunct black box London club. Meanwhile, Jamie Jones' turned up the heat on his pounding Ibizan house, fueling such a fire that it seemed put out the rain completely. Maybe I was wrong about how Jamie Jones sets tend to go.
When we emerged from under the black into a crisp night sky, we knew we had written the early pages of the SXMusic story. It would have been climax enough, but at 5AM the next morning, Lee Burridge summoned up another of his religiously anticipated sunrise sets at Layla's, a verdant beachfront hangout where the vibes were somewhere between early Ibiza and modern Tulum—everyone was approachable and weird and totally comfortable in how they expressed themselves. As the muggy morning gave way to the shining sun, the mature crowd, loosened by a week of hard partying and downpour dodging, took to the shore to languish away the final day of the festival with coconut cocktails and chocolate croissants.
"The first time I came to St. Martin in 2004, I knew it was perfect," said festival runner Julian Prince when I ran into him on the dancefloor for the fourth or fifth time. "St. Martin is a small island. It will always be exclusive and intimate." Prince added that many people in his crowd are "a little too old to go to places that are huge like Miami, it doesn't speak to us. It's too hectic." Some worry that BPM Festival in Mexico's Playa Del Carmen—which has established itself over its nine year run as the tropical destination for house and techno lovers—is also becoming less of an isolated getaway, and more of a pastel and neon-covered Cancun-lite.
Tapping into the dreamy magic of beachside party culture, SXMusic recalls Tulum, Ibiza, and Bali when they were still unpredictable and wild. It has every potential to develop into an important node in the festival calendar. But Prince still has his feet firmly in the sand: "SXMusic would not exist without BPM. These guys paved the road to this dream," he said. "But the niche we tried to fill is all about quality and not quantity. We'd rather have 2000 amazing people, like we have right now, than try to be big and lose the vibe."
Jemayel Khawaja is Editor-at-Large of THUMP - @JemayelK
All photos by Ded Pixel and Alec Donnell Luna from Ded Agency