Festival Nrmal Cements Costa Rica As a Bourgeoning Hub for Emerging Artists

Photo by S3R / Naza Quirós / Coyote Kid

After six years of successful festival-ing in Mexico, the Nrmal held its first Costa Rican edition last Saturday. It was an ambitious idea that cemented Costa Rica’s place as a bourgeoning hub for the Latin American indie scene.  And though their inaugural edition was smaller (and very rainy) they pulled through with the valuable on-site support of Festival Epicentro, who co-organized the whole thing. I, Algodón Egipcio, was lucky enough to be included on the line-up, alongside some of my favorite Latin artists, and I came away feeling like I was part of an event that will have a lasting mark on the Costa Rican scene.

Festival Nrmal Costa Rica was held at a spot called Centro de Eventos Pedregal, a big property surrounded by cows, horses, big-ass spiders, trees, and a small lake, giving it a pastoral vibe that you don’t usually get at these kind of things. The set up consisted of a main stage and a smaller dome, where three of the most electronic-centric acts performed.

I had the hard task of opening the festival at 1:00 pm, but, surprisingly, there were already over a hundred people in the audience. At that time, the weather was still great, and I was probably the only artist who didn’t get any rain during their set. Still, this was a dedicated crowd, and no amount of rain could deter them. They weren’t there just having fun – they were really paying attention to every single set that day.

Whoooooo let the guapos out?! ??? Thanks @epicentrofest @nrmal !

A photo posted by Phoebe Smolin (@phoeballoon) on

Stand outs included aUTOPerro, two guys who have been making noise together for decades. They performed a flawless experimental set that included electric saws, sparks, and playing with the frequency spectrum. It’s pretty exciting to see a crowd wiling to an experimental noise show at 3:30 in the afternoon under intermittent rain, going just as hard as they were to the more established Buscabulla‘s set. 

By the time Helado Negro took the stage, night had already fallen, which let the lighting really enhance the tinsel dancers that have become staples in his set. Last time I saw him live, it was at another Nrmal event, Norte Sonoro, back in 2011. Since then, he’s really grown his soothing-yet-powerful voice, and it shows – his work this year has even garnered attention from revered music critic Sasha Frere-Jones. About his experience at the festival, Helado Negro shared: “The opportunity to perform with peers like Buscabulla, Algodon Egipcio and Gepe is an honor, and for NRMAL to still have the motivation to put on a ‘grassroots’ festival in a city where people are willing to build and excited for something new is even more special.”

The moment Helado Negro sang Young, Latin and Proud really made everything click for me. Here I was witnessing a Mexican festival reaching Costa Rica, with a line-up that was pretty much entirely made up of Latin acts. That’s when I felt I was experiencing something bigger. While I watched Gepe kill it on stage with a set mostly focused on his new album, Estilo Libre, the Hijos sound tech approached me and told me how ecstatic he was to be experiencing this moment. As the Andes-inflected sounds filled the air, he told me that people in Costa Rica had always considered Andean music kind of dull, but now as the internet and growing festival circuit is connecting Latin American musical spectrums in a new way, they finally get it. To me, that was a revelation.

Of the three sets that took place in the dome, I only caught Raido‘s, who previewed the beautiful music and visuals included on his upcoming album, Jera, which will drop very soon. The only non-Latin band of the festival was legendary The Sonics, whose members are probably in their 70s and still showed everyone how to rock big time. My hat is off to them.

The rain was definitely a bummer, but that was a gamble from the start, since it rains in Costa Rica for most of the year. What was truly amazing was the fact that people never left. That, plus the fact that the festival was held about a 40 minutes from San José, speaks to the crowd’s drive and excitement for this kind of event.

As Helado Negro said, “People stood in the rain listening to not just me but every act performing –that’s a testament to what NRMAL brought and possibly a good forecast for most countries and cities in Latin America that are maybe taken for granted in how deep the music and arts culture is there.” 

It’s not that often that Latin indie acts from outside Costa Rica perform in the country, and thanks to Epicentro and Nrmal, local audiences are getting exposed to what’s cooking in the rest of Latin America. We can only hope they keep doing it year after year, and that more and more people join them along the way.