Welcome to the township of Groovefest. Population: 600. (All photos by Charles Bucket Turner)
With the tides of the festival landscape always in motion, destination events have gradually increased in popularity for dance lovers in search of a party with a different backdrop than your average summer weekender. There are aquatic get downs like Holy Ship!, the expansive BPM Festival on the Mexican Riviera, and the picturesque getaway of Dimensions in Croatia. For those in the Western Hemisphere looking for something unfamiliar but relatively close, there's a new player in town: a week-long soiree on the Caribbean island of Hispanola in the Dominican Republic. Groovefest, at the popular vacation getaway of Puerto Plata, September 9 to 15, featured a rundown of house and techno elite including Carl Craig, Dennis Ferrer, Soul Clap, Jozif and Lee Burridge.
More than just a festival, Groovefest is a true escape, tucked away on a pristine land first gazed upon by a really bad navigator dude named Chris Columbus. This is a place where the pitfalls of overdone mega-events are replaced by some of the finer things in life: Nonstop sun, an endless flow of umbrella drinks, and some of the best showcases of thumping house and techno one could ever dream of.
As festival locations go, you can hardly beat the all-inclusive Lifestyles Holidays Resort. Probably larger than some American residential subdivisions, the price of admission includes a limitless supply of booze, endless food (on par with what I imagine is served in prison), picturesque beaches and tucked-away villas that would give Tony Montana a run for his money. Started in 2012, the fest took last year off amid negotiations with the resort's management. It returned this year in fine style with an array of carefully programmed label showcases from the likes of Brooklyn's own Crew Love, Brazil's Warung and D-Edge, and another Brooklyn powerhouse, Verboten, who brought their slick vibes and expert curation courtesy of legends like Craig and Burridge.
Music on the resort was split between a number of locations, with a daily beach party running from 12-6pm followed immediately by a poolside session (pool swimming was forbidden at night so there was no Vegas-esque tomfoolery taking place in there). DJs performed from a stage on the far side of the pool and at midnight the crowd was moved to the "club," a small, carpeted room that actually was the hotel's former casino, and easily the most intimate place you'll get to see Carl Craig spin. At 4am, true afterparty vibes emerged as crowds made their way to villas around the resort, in which hosts generously agreed to open their doors, plop down some CDJs on the kitchen counter, and embrace the influx of strangers in their vacation homes. Even on the first night it was clear how unique this event was, and how far away on the spectrum it lied from the giant, bro-filled festivals we all usually go to.
You make friends quickly at Groovefest and while you're pampered by resort-style luxury, the air was never pretentious in the slightest, and the crowd, mostly from the UK and ranging from their late 20s to mid 30s, all shared a universal love for chilled-out party vibes and total friendliness.
Festival owner Jason Nelhams, a London-based promoter, started throwing garage and drum n bass events around the city before stepping into the world of house music. "I first came out to the Dominican Republic in 2011 after a few friends suggested I make the trip to check out the scene and consider putting on some events. I really loved the island and just saw so much potential—it's such an untapped territory," he told me.
This year's musical highlights came from Carl Craig, whose two unbelievable sets were filled with surprising segments of yummy dub and disco, Skream, Osunlade, Crew Love's raucous villa-afters, and NYC's Kenny Dope, who brought proper house vibes to an ecstatic beach crowd. There was no need to feverishly zig-zag between stages, schedule in hand, to cram into a tent or crowded plot of land to catch hour long sets of your favorite artist. At Groovefest, the music is nearly always running so you don't feel the anxiety that you're missing something or need to be firmly planted in front of the booth to catch every second of a 45 minute set. You can move at your own pace with time to get away from the beats, go on a snorkeling excursion, or just have chat with a complete stranger on the controversy surrounding Native American headdresses.
With capacity of 600 there's a feeling of community among the guests. Being landlocked on a resort for an entire week, you see the same people at every party and making pals was quite effortless, including with locals. An occasional hilarious sight was to witness small flocks of resort guests, not part of the festival, confusingly wander into one of the parties. While the resort's friendly staff would often alert them to the need for a yellow wristband, they were still greeted with open arms from shuffling dance fanatics. (I had a rather unforgettable chat with a wasted retired British man about the influence of disco.)
With an exclusive contract of five years signed and a plan to double in size for the next year, the potential at Groovefest feels nearly endless. With a resort so large, they could eventually take over the entire complex hosting 4,000 guests. Nelhams, who was a constant fixture in the crowd throughout the week, spoke of their vision to bring a unique vibe to guests from around the world, particularly hoping to attract more Americans.
For now, Groovefest thrives on its homegrown coziness, intelligent lineup curation and a breathtaking setting; it could very well be the next party of your dreams. As a wise man once said "I've got two tickets to paradise," any takers?