This little paradise is the hometown of NAAFI head honcho Tomás Davo, and it's where he chose to host the label's first-ever mini-weekender, the Club De Playa. It took place a few miles down the coast, away from the touristy chaos, on a private plot of beach reached by meandering dirt roads that thread through a forest of palm trees. Kingdom, L-Vis 1990 and Massacooramaan—friends from the labels Fade To Mind and Night Slugs—all flew in from the United States to play headlining sets. Davo had offered them payment in kind: they would purchase their own airfare, and in return he would treat them to a week-long tropical vacation at his parents' house, a short drive away from the beach.
"New Year's was ridiculous," Davo says, leaning forward over the coffee table in his Mexico City apartment, his eyes electrified. He still can't believe the number of friends, fans and strangers who crossed an entire country for a party they knew nothing about. "That was like, 'Why the fuck are we here? How did we get this lineup? These DJs tour the whole world and could charge shit tons of money for New Year's and they're coming here. I don't even know why the fuck they're coming here, because there's no money.'"
Davo is high-strung with an eye for details, and his hustle is what got people to take a risk on this first-time festival. Alberto Bustamante—who DJs as Mexican Jihad and co-founded NAAFI with Davo, Lauro Robles and Paul Marmota back in 2010—is the marketing genius behind the visual and conceptual sides of the project. In the months leading up to festival they screen-printed custom NAAFI beach umbrellas, monogrammed NAAFI towels and released a promotional video of the site filmed via a drone-mounted camera. They even paid to have huge, colorful murals painted around Puerto Escondido announcing details of the party.
As the Sunday morning sun crept over the dark expanse of the Pacific Ocean on the festival's third and final morning, I too wondered how it was possible that we had all ended up here at the edge of the earth, listening to Kingdom mix grime instrumentals.
Davo's drive to do it bigger and better every time is what pushes NAAFI towards increasingly inventive party concepts (this year they began a six-month DJ residency at Mexico City's most important contemporary art museum, the Museo Jumex). This almost anxious appetite for the new and foreign clearly comes across in the label's sound, which tends to shape-shift while maintaining an ineffable NAAFI energy. Grime, Jersey club, kuduro and ballroom house have all entered the mix at one time or another, taking root within a sonic framework built from deconstructed club rhythms and heavy, apocalyptic ambience.
"Everything that's new is exciting," Davo says, interrupting himself to lift an orange cat out of his lap. He's wearing a snapback and a pair of tortoise shell glasses, surrounded by glass jugs of clear mezcal from the business his girlfriend runs out of their apartment. The sliding balcony doors are open, and since it's summer in Mexico City that means rain—usually torrential—from about 6 PM to 10 PM, like clockwork, every day until October. The street outside is leafy and quiet, but you can still hear echoes of the cars honking and screeching on the main avenue a few blocks away.
The crew is always darting between brief but fiery obsessions with regional party sounds from across the world. In July they dropped Pirata 2, a mixtape-style compilation of bootleg remixes that splices this season's reggaeton and rap hits with esoteric club experiments from producers like Lotic, Nigga Fox and Rabit. "It doesn't mean we're gonna do reggaeton forever. In fact maybe that was the last part of it," Davo explains excitedly. "Maybe we're obsessive for a year, but then next year we'll find something else that makes us say, 'What the fuck?' Like tribal: we were obsessed with it, and now it's become a part of us—but NAAFI's not going to throw a tribal party any time soon."
When Davo says tribal (pronounced "tree-ball"), he doesn't mean the tribal house you might associate with vintage Steve Lawler or Danny Tenaglia. He's talking about the boisterous regional party genre—popular with Mexican teens—that is powered by low-budget software, sugar-sweet synths and lurching triplet rhythms. In the spring, NAAFI dropped TRIBAL, a three-disc genre retrospective that's divided into three regional sub-styles and curated by three different DJs. "Tribal came and went because nobody bothered to put it on a map, or bothered with any research," Davo said in an interview with RBMA earlier this year. The collection, which is the only semi-comprehensive document of the movement, was meant to rectifying those years of neglect. "People talked about tribal but it became a novelty and swoosh, disappeared," Davo said.
The unofficial NAAFI mantra—everything that's new is exciting—doesn't only apply to music. In August they brought a piece of New York's vogue and ballroom culture to Mexico City for the first time. In a seedy second-floor sports bar just outside of Downtown, the House Of Machos, the House Of Shiva and the House Of Apocalipstick met face-to-face for the first time to walk the runway in a vogue battle ("house" is the term for competing groups of dancers, such as the famous House Of LaBeija that features in the film Paris Is Burning). Mike Q, a world-renowned ballroom DJ whose fame transcends queer circles, spun alongside Venus X, the matriarch behind legendary NYC party Ghe20Goth1k, while dancers competed for prizes in specific categories. "Originally we didn't want to do a ball because it's something that I don't do," Davo says. "Not only because we're not from New York but because we're not involved in that here. But then these two guys, Franka Polari and Pepe Romero, came to us and they were like, 'We want to do a ball. We've been doing little ones, but nothing that's actually well organized." It was considered to be the first vogue ball in Mexican history.
NAAFI's mercurial taste is a source of criticism. Some see them as trend-hoppers, or at worst, consumers who devour and re-distribute foreign ideas without contributing anything of their own. But part of what has made the collective so exciting is its ability to mitigate this tension—to take new ideas and influences from underground pockets abroad and bring them into dialogue with the Mexican scene. "Apart from the food, everything else in Mexico that's modern is malinchista, because they're looking too much outside," Davo says, using a term that refers to Mexicans who are too lost in their love for the first world to appreciate their own culture.
The word "malinchismo" came up many times in RA's Real Scenes: Mexico City film. The term comes from the story of La Malinche, the Nahua indigenous who betrayed her own people by leading Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors to the Aztec capital in the early 16th century. It's wielded as one of the nastiest insults possible towards Mexicans who are ashamed of their own Mexican-ness—who have internalized colonial logic to the point that they reproduce its oppressive value systems. "Colonization never stopped, and as a non-Western but westernized country, Mexico lacks confidence and self-esteem," Davo explains.
"The official name of Mexico is the 'United States Of Mexico,'" Davo says. "The constitution of Mexico is influenced by the American constitution. La Roma,"—the city's gentrified historic neighborhood—"is built to look like France." The self-confidence problem (a topic you will hear discussed at length in any art or music scene in Mexico) means that imported Western culture is placed on a pedestal, and Mexican artists often seek the approval of foreigners over the support of their own countrymen. "Everyone says, 'I don't feel conquered,'" said DJ and producer Fig in Real Scenes: Mexico City. "But as soon as the English guy arrives, he's the good one. Or the one from Germany—he gets the biggest artist fee."
To say that Mexican artists should only work with what's directly at hand would not only be creatively stifling but unfair. Why are kids in Brooklyn allowed to worship '90s Detroit techno without being seen as self-hating sell-outs, while Mexicans who move to Berlin for the music are accused of betraying their country? NAAFI's producers seem to have collectively found a way to deal with this dilemma, adopting an attitude that asserts their right to participate in global networks of cultural exchange while affirming the strength of their own contributions. "The idea that in order to have a club night in Mexico City you have to bring someone from outside of the country is so stupid," Alberto Bustamante, AKA Mexican Jihad, told i-D. "We have to support what we have because it's what is responding to the context in which we live."
"NAAFI have an incredibly strong sense of self and identity in everything they do," says J'Kerian Morgan, AKA Lotic, over email. Morgan, who's involved with the experimental club music collective Janus, has been vocal in interviews and social media about his feelings of distrust for music that "seems to have come from nowhere." NAAFI's music, however, makes its own history and context audible. More than an arrangement of rhythmic experiments meant to make a dance floor move, it's guided by a clever and cohesive vision that makes its message feel all the more intentional.
"I think the club world—and music fans in general—are growing bored of music that doesn't have a face or an identity," Lotic says, attributing the proliferation of place-less music to the "increased closures and policing of clubs—and club music consequently becoming increasingly abstract, less tangible." NAAFI, with an aesthetic that he says is "undeniably Mexican [and] imbued with confidence," offers a welcome antidote to that trend.
Davo attributes the singularity of NAAFI's sound to co-founder Paul Marmota, a 28-year-old Chilean who moved to Mexico City in 2010 and helped organize NAAFI's modest early club nights. He's now in charge of label A&R. "I'm always drawn to music with honesty and originality—music that responds to its influences without falling into the obvious," he says via email from Mexico City. "In general, everyone in NAAFI has been friends for years and we're all on the same page. When we integrate new people into the family it's because they share a common bond."
The unreleased track "Danza De Los Diablos" ("Dance Of The Devils") is a forthcoming collaboration between Marmota and fellow NAAFI producer Espectral. It's composed with field recordings from the ritual dance of the same name, which is performed within African-descended communities in the Mexican coastal states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. The traditional dance, which involves a parade of men in long, black, bearded masks being shepherded by an overseer wielding a whip, is performed on October 31st in a ceremony that leads up to the national Day Of The Dead.
"'Danza de Los Diablos' grew from the idea of reinterpreting the music of the Afro-Mexican villages for the context of club music," Marmota says, explaining that the country's national narrative tends to occlude any mention of its Afro-diasporic culture, which grew from a robust slave trade anchored on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. "It's important for us to acknowledge the voice of what is called the 'third root,' [because] the country completely ignores and disavows that musical and cultural heritage. It's something that we feel really passionate about."
In May, Marmota joined Lao—AKA Lauro Robles, the label's fourth co-founder—to represent NAAFI on their first European tour. It helped them understand where they fit within a loosely affiliated international community of experimental club music producers. "It expanded my mental map," Marmota says. "They treated us really well and we made a lot of new friends, met a lot of crazy collectives. We saw a really talented, active scene." He points to a handful of regional crews that stand out as nodes in the global network: Rudeboyz, who are part of the gqom movement based in Durban, South Africa, as well as Poor Gang in Spain and Gang Fatale in London, which was founded by Night Slugs newcomer Neana. Then there's Lit City Trax and The Astral Plane in the US and Janus, the Berlin-based collective that includes acts like M.E.S.H., Kablam and Lotic.
NAAFI's moment on the global stage has arrived, and they've done it on their own terms. "Historically in electronic music in Latin America a lot of the acts before us that were coming out, they had to be too latin to be real," Davo says. "Collectives like Nortec or ZZK—they had to express the maximum exoticism of their identity. I think nowadays, we don't." Rather than pandering to the exoticizing whims of the world music market, their aesthetic reflects the complexities of today's networked age. Many of their releases reference Mexican traditional music and local culture, while others, such as Smurphy's album Geminiss, move so far into the future they don't bother with terrestrial references.
"Hearing Spanish in the realm of club music was really exciting to me, because before that there was always a focus on English-speaking samples from R&B, grime and rap," says Sara Skolnick, former editor of the New York latino culture blog Remezcla. She also DJs as Riobamba and runs the Pico Picante residency out of clubs in Boston and Brooklyn. Skolnick recalls her first encounter with NAAFI, an EP from star producer Siete Catorce. "It was around the same time that the tribal sound was having its crossover moment. He was playing with those same rhythms but with this totally apocalyptic, deconstructed take on it. While other artists were going the almost pop route, those early EPs were subverting by going in the opposite direction with an unapologetically dark sound.
"It's so important to create space for complicating the narrative of the music coming from Latin America," she continues, "to talk about party vibes just as much as the suffering, violence, the dark shit that happens, and for having club music as a context for this broader range of emotions." NAAFI has been patient and persistent in sticking to its own narrative, in all of its manifold meanings, rather than reading from someone else's script. "I think we broke through that kind of stigma," Davo reassures me. "It is latin. That's obvious. But we don't have to dress up."
NAAFI's A&R man, Paul Marmota, makes a succinct statement with this 35-minute mix, which features some of the label's core producers—Espectral, Imaabs, Omaar and ZutZut—alongside hybrid club tracks from across four continents.
Filesize: 82.4 MB
Malibu - Te Deceo
Air Max '97 - Engaged
Lechuga Zafiro - Fauxless Passinho
Lao - Psicoqinesis
Audioboyz - Maximum Energy
Miss Modular - 2 Five Rivers
Jam City - The Raven (Air Dj Dale Dub)
Paul Marmota - Registro
Zutzut - Doce Horas
Kid Antoine - Dungeon
Imaabs - Clinamen
Alfonso Luna - Grito Ansestral
Espectral - 2
Omaar - Blackoutfit
Paul Marmota X Espectral - Danza De Los Diablos
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