Zip Lines, Chill Waves, and Presidente: This Is What a Dominican Indie Music Festival Is Like

Photo by Angelino C. Vino

I was 17 years young when I went to Lollapalooza 2009, my first-ever music festival. I was too concerned with fulfilling my pop punk fantasy of seeing Arctic Monkeys to be bothered with drunken EDM bros or read into the never-ending flow of glow-in-the-dark cups and neon Ray Ban knockoffs. For me, going to a festival was a world apart from the music industry machine – it was about finding a space of affirmation, where my teenage love for Animal Collective and shitty blog house could coexist.

That was a world away from my experience with music culture in the Dominican Republic, something that was limited to my dad’s friends performing impromptu jam sessions on the beach. In the Dominican Republic, large scale festivals are few and far between – one reason why last weekend’s Isle of Light Festival was so momentous. For many years, a lack of infrastructure limited massive music festivals to one-off visits from major label stalwarts like Enrique Iglesias or Ricky Martin.

In the 1970s, the Cuban nueva trova movement trickled across the Caribbean waters and created the space for the first major festivals the island had ever seen, like Siete Días con el Pueblo. They were gathering spaces for a generation ravaged by political instability and the fledgling promise of democracy, a place where many politically minded fans and aspiring musicians discovered new homegrown sounds for the first time.

Today, Dominican festivals are backed by the brawn of huge liquor companies like Presidente, and are far more likely to feature the talents of dembow and urbano’s biggest artists. While those events have a well-deserved place in the island’s music culture, most indie music fans are forced to file into cramped venues or bars in the city’s historic colonial district to get their fix for new music, and even those all-night affairs can’t compare to the allure of something like Isle of Light, which is now in its third year. Located on the grounds of Punta Torrecilla, a public park and lighthouse near the Zona Colonial, Isle of Light has pinpointed the DR’s indie music problem, acting as a salve for a longstanding wound.

Isle of Light has pinpointed the DR’s indie music problem, acting as a salve for a longstanding wound.

In addition to booking local acts, the festival organized a series of industry workshops known as IOL Pro. For veterans, the topics might seem to scratch the surface: Mauricio Alvarez of Cero 39 spoke about Latin America’s electronic music revolution, the team at Symphonic Distribution discussed how emerging artists could monetize their music through licensing and distribution deals, and our own Joel Moya explained how to make the perfect pitch.

But as I watched a room full of aspiring artists furiously write notes and shoot their hands up for the Q&As that followed each panel, I realized that these kids were hungry for support, for a way to get their music out there and capitalize on their far-off dreams. As Luis Tomás Oviedo Ducoudray, a longtime friend and singer-songwriter native to Santo Domingo told me, “IOL Pro was awesome. It’s great to know that there are companies and media outlets ready and willing to work with independent artists, something that is almost a myth in the Dominican Republic.” The majority of the island’s universities don’t offer degrees in music marketing, and Spanish-language online resources are slim. It’s all the more important that these kids have a space to learn and grow, one where they can tap into their artistic potential.

IOL Pro by Angelino C. Vino
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That being said, the festival is still a work in progress. Isle of Light’s strengths were not in the details so much as the mood: with dembow remixes of Bomba Estéreo, a zip line, free beer, and a dangerously fast ferris wheel, it almost doesn’t matter that the festival ran on Dominican time, that the lights went out, or that construction workers were still building the railing for the VIP stage hours after the fest had started.

The artists didn’t seem to mind either, and were happy to make sure the vibes were continually chill. Playa o Radio kicked things off, playing sunshiny indie pop that fit the mid-afternoon heat perfectly. Mula, a local electronic trio, were up next, serving warped dembow with a side of dubsteppy wub-wubs. One of the night’s standout performances was that of Los Wálters, whose prismatic pop evokes Chile’s Astro. Roots revivalists Gran Poder de Diosa held down the fort even as a tropical shower bathed the audience in rain.

Álvaro Díaz by Angelino C. Vino
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Puerto Rican rap rookie Álvaro Díaz offered a welcome repose from the synthpop of the festival’s earlier acts. Díaz’s set was all high energy; he leapt across the stage in overalls and rapped about girls and the come up, like an island Chavo del Ocho. While some of the previous acts’ visuals were a little too iTunes Equalizer, Díaz’s visuals (which were crafted by Venezuelan producer VFRO) blended stock images of U.S. forefathers, Puerto Rican flags, and $100 bills. The set was unapologetically Álvaro: nightmarish retrofuturist aethetics, auto-tune yelps, and plenty of Boricua tumbao.

Shamir by Angelino C. Vino
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Without a doubt, the night’s crowd-pleaser was electrofunk master Shamir, whose heroic disco grooves won over the entire audience. I’ll admit it – I was unsure the crowd would be down for Shamir’s countertenor vocal style, but Dominicans proved me wrong yet again, something I owe to the Romeo Santos Effect.

Isle of Light seems poised to build Caribbean festival culture from the ground up.

After an explosive set from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Neon Indian finally took the stage at 2 a.m. It felt like the most special performance of the night, even when Neon Indian bassist Jorge Palomo had to cross the stage and slap Alan Palomo’s lurching 7-year-old synth on its side to get it to work. The band ran through classics like “Polish Girl” and “Deadbeat Summer,” and Alan brought out his face-melting dance moves. Perhaps the most endearing part of the set was the fact that he spoke in Spanish in between every song – a move that made the performance feel all the more intimate. After a stellar performance of “61 Cygni Ave,” Palomo chuckled, “Esa es una de las pocas cumbias que tenemos,” and the crowd roared.

Neon Indian by Angelino C. Vino
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At a time when multinational corporations seem to dominate music festivals, Isle of Light seems poised to lead the pack in building Caribbean festival culture from the ground up. They were able to bring together the best of both worlds: music discovery and memorable performances, with a little bit of financial support to make it all happen. For local acts who want to share their music with the world, it’s a chance to be received in equal measure with their American counterparts, and one that’s long overdue.

Check out the whole festival with our Snapchat story, and relive the night with our Isle of Light playlist below: