As NRMAL Seeks Global Renown, the Festival Still Keeps Its Local Cool

Festival NRMAL 2016. Photo by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

Festival NRMAL celebrates Latin otherness in a way few organizations do – providing spaces and platforms to emerging, unconventional Latin talent to showcase their work. It’s a mission statement that speaks to many of its attendees, and has grown with the years to embrace acts from the U.S., Europe, and Asia, international press, big name sponsors, visual artists, installations, and local chefs.

Now in its seventh year, Festival NRMAL remains fresh and appealing, thanks to its inclusive communal energy. The fest fosters direct access to its artists, creating a unique space where everyone seems to know and be a fan of each other. Partnerships with NODO and Arca (the website, not the producer) allow NRMAL to host workshops and showcases throughout the week, prior to the two-day full-scale festival, which serve as networking opportunities and more intimate industry gatherings. This year featured workshops by Empress Of and Oliver Ackerman from A Place To Bury Strangers, and three installments of El Ejishow, a late-night talk show hosted by Ejival of Static Discos and NRMAL staple Tony Gallardo, which included guests such as San Pedro El Cortez, Cakes Da Killa, Los Wálters, and Festival NRMAL organizer Moni Zaldaña.

Photo by Alan Lopez
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With excitement brewing through the week, it was finally time for Festival NRMAL to start on Saturday, March 12. Held at Deportivo Lomas Altas in Mexico City for the third year since its official relocation from Monterrey, the scene was set with food trucks, beer stands, phone charging stations, and a massive airbag diving platform. Even indie royalty like AJ Davila, Juan Cirerol, Algodón Egipcio, and members of Los Macuanos walked around the festival grounds, ready to turn up.

NRMAL has managed to continue growing their brand while avoiding predictability and stagnation.

German experimental crew Camera and Mexican dance pop outfit Bluehost kicked off the day, both gathering unusually large and lively crowds for such early slots. Bluehost stood out early on with their beachy melodies, a fun surprise for a festival with many more in store. The weekend’s first stumble came from the girls of Mexican post-folk group Haciendo El Mal, who walked on stage to issue an apology as they had to cancel their set due to their guitarist having a serious family emergency. The crowd was clearly disappointed, but applauded the musicians for their candor. Coiffeur, from Argentina, was the first act to really set things off, treating the crowd to his melancholy, synth-driven songs and his beautiful falsetto. The swooning vibes continued with Los Wálters, one of the festival’s most anticipated acts. The Boricuas were all smiles as they breezed through hits like “Toca Madera” and “Dulce Picante,” building to a climactic dance frenzy that left many chanting for an encore.

Los Wálters. Photo by Alan Lopez
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As night fell, Los Pirañas hit the stage and made it clear Colombia was in the house, and not to be messed with. Their superb set of psychedelic tropical noise was one of the weekend’s biggest highlights, showcasing top-notch musicianship that left everyone in awe, similar to the effect Mitú would have the next day. The first big scheduling conflict came when Föllakzoid and Empress Of were slated to perform at the same time, leaving many running between stages. Empress Of’s voice was phenomenal, if disconcertingly pristine, and Föllakzoid entranced their audience with their harsh, droning rhythms.

The end of the day followed NRMAL’s usual lineup pattern of Anglo indie bands on the main stages and the crazy electronic acts over on the sectioned-off third stage. Saturday boasted a ton of big indie names, including Deerhunter and A Place To Bury Strangers, but the best received was Health’s mix of dance-friendly hard rock and experimental electronic flourishes.

Festival NRMAL celebrates Latin otherness in a way few organizations do.

If you are an experienced Festival NRMAL attendee, you know the craziest moments always come during the late night electronic acts. Mumdance got the crowd lit with a full throttle set that ran from trap to dancehall in the blink of an eye. Though the night was closed out by production super group Future Brown, the prize for best Saturday set has to go to Lao, who told an incredible story through his music. What started as moody grime quickly turned into full-on ball beats, where he was swiftly joined by the House of Apocalipstick, a voguing crew from Mexico City. As the dancers and ballroom MC took over the stage, Lao never lost focus, jumping and dancing to the flamboyant club beats, always in control of the show’s direction. After the dancers exited the stage, the NAAFI member kept the party turnt with remixes of hits by Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, and his own takes on cumbia and tribal.

Future Brown. Photo by Alan Lopez
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Though Saturday had the stronger lineup, Sunday had some major moments of brilliance, starting with sets by Ela Minus and Grenda. Both young producers, known for their meticulous and intricate production styles, delivered full-bodied, dynamic sets. Gnučči was another huge NRMAL surprise, with an insane 4:00 p.m. set that had everyone jumping, and the Swedish MC dancing on tables, photographers, and in the crowd. She was funny, exuberant, and grateful to be there, effectively delivering one of Sunday’s strongest showings. Where Gnučči was positively bursting with energy and charm, a nearly three-hour mid-day lull fell on the festival during performances by Blanck Mass, Baltazar, and Jenny Hval, with sets that felt too long and even bogged down Jaakko Eino Kalevi and Fatima Al Qadiri’s lush and atmospheric production work, causing them all to get a bit lost in the background, like respites no one actually needed.

Fatima Al Qadiri. Photo by Alan Lopez
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Props to Mitú for blasting the much-needed jolt of life back into the day’s proceedings with an utterly star-making performance. Julian Salazar and Franklin Tejedor gave everything they had, with insane synth distortion and face-melting percussion, as if in competition, yet always managing to keep up with each other. The onslaught of Colombian energy was then followed by an exciting instrumental set by Battles, from California, and then recently reunited shoegaze Brits Slowdive, who left much to be desired.

Mitú. Photo by Alan Lopez
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Over on the third stage, caught between the two Anglo headliners was Mareaboba, the criminally underrated Mexican producer who performed for over 200 people. The Hermosillo-based dark cumbia master turned the weird all the way up to 11 with a massive analog console from which he conjured rich, unsettling sounds. The night came to a close with two wildly different performers. First, NYC’s Cakes Da Killa took to the stage for a knockout set of wild beats, raunchy raps, and unhinged dancing. Then, all the way from Japan, Acid Mothers Temple left the NRMAL crowd exhausted and in a state of euphoria, filling the park with drawn out acid jams and hypnotic chants.

Photo by Alan Lopez
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This weekend should be seen as a victory lap for NRMAL, which has managed to continue growing their brand while largely avoiding predictability and stagnation. Their carefully curated lineups and surprisingly affordable prices continue to set a standard no other festival has been able to fully match. This is an event worth traveling for, if not only for the music, but for the faces and friends you see time and again, like a family reunion you can actually look forward to. And for all of you worried about things getting too big and mainstream, rest assured, Festival NRMAL is still weird, still cool, and most importantly, still fun.

Update, 3/22/2016 3:38 p.m.: A previous version of this post stated that voguing crew House of Apocalipstick hail from Monterrey. The crew is based in Mexico City.