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NRMAL music festival shows different side of Mexico

Sonically diverse Mexican and American acts descend on a wealthy Monterrey suburb that belies the country's violent image.

March 14, 2012|By Daniel Hernandez, Los Angeles Times
  • DJ aka aka performs at NRMAL in San Pedtro Garza Garcia, Mexico, on Saturday.
DJ aka aka performs at NRMAL in San Pedtro Garza Garcia, Mexico, on Saturday. (Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico

Oakland-bred Raka Rich brought the flow of California hip-hop, in Spanish.

Puerto Rico's Davila 666 ignited a wild mosh-pit with its Latin-tinged punk.

And all kinds of new Mexican acts — as varied as Juan Cirerol of Mexicali and cumbia-rockers Sonido San Francisco — showed that Mexico's independent music scene just might be at its most dynamic in years. Over 12 hours on Saturday, some 4,500 fans gathered to hear more than 50 international acts at a sonically diverse annual music festival called NRMAL.

The name belies the fact that nothing here can be taken for granted. Not only was it the biggest NRMAL fest held in the past three years, but the fact that it took place in this industrial city of more than 4 million without any serious trouble makes it even more of a triumph.

Metropolitan Monterrey is currently a battleground in Mexico's ongoing drug war, where a string of deadly tragedies such as the last August's Casino Royale massacre, in which 52 people died after drug traffickers torched a casino, have traumatized a once-proud hub of industry and innovation.

The storied Monterrey night life that was once centered around the Barrio Antiguo neighborhood is all but dead after a series of shootings with multiple fatalities at popular night spots. Many musicians who in previous years helped make Monterrey an incubator for new Latino sounds — groups such as Kinky or newer rockers She's a Tease — have migrated to safer centers such as Mexico City or to the United States.

"There was sadness, deception, uncertainty, a lack of will to get things done," said NRMAL organizer Pablo Martinez, speaking about the effects of violence on the Monterrey scene. "I think the fruits of staying standing through this year is this festival."

The outdoor fete, with bands spread over three stages all day long, was a stylish yet friendly event where security was casual and the boundary between the performing musicians and the fans was almost nonexistent.

"This is definitely a cutting-edge festival," said Travis Egedy of Denver punk-rave act Pictureplane as the afternoon got going. "The idea to have a cross-cultural music festival is really important and really cool, getting Americans to play down here for Mexicans."

That welcoming vibe was partly the product of a new spirit of collaboration brought by this year's NRMAL co-curator, Brooklyn DIY promoter Todd P.

In 2010, Todd P. organized a separate festival in Monterrey dubbed MTY MX, competing with the budding NRMAL crew and its first festival. That same year, an outbreak of drug-war violence in Monterrey resulted in many U.S. performers canceling their visits at the last minute. Both festivals struggled.

This year, Todd P. joined forces with NRMAL, setting aside the previous atmosphere of competition. He pumped a New York indie ethos into the lineup with acts he invited such as Prince Rama, Liturgy and Gatekeeper.

"The story line is: It's so bad, things are falling apart and it's chaos," Todd P. said. "I'm here, I'm looking around. It's not falling apart. This is a functioning country. It has problems but it's not the country portrayed in the news."

Nonetheless, festival organizers took security steps they probably wouldn't even imagine in another setting.

Visiting U.S. acts were guaranteed travel via air, not on potentially dangerous roads. Most performers and press were corralled into a hotel that also happened to be temporarily housing members of the heavily armed federal police. And the festival venue was across the street.

In fact, NRMAL technically didn't even take place within Monterrey city limits, but in San Pedro Garza Garcia, the suburb that is called the wealthiest municipality in Latin America and where in 2009 the mayor admitted to forming "intelligence squads" to "cleanse" the town of undesirable criminals.

Since then, San Pedro is considered an unofficial off-limits zone by the warring cartels.

None of that conflict was apparent by the time festival-goers poured into two festival after-parties — one punk-leaning, one-electronic — just blocks away from each other in San Pedro's historic downtown. Pictureplane, Prince Rama and Mexico City's Ñaka Ñaka were sparking up the decks into the wee hours of the morning at one spot. The party showed no signs of slowing down.

"It surpassed my expectations, this festival has grown so much," said Tijuana goth-pop star Dani Shivers, who is now based in Mexico City. "[Monterrey] reminds me a lot of Tijuana. It feels like a border city. It feels good to be back in the North."

daniel.hernandez2@latimes.com

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