Festival Imperial 2012

by Pierre Lestruhaut

Being one of the two CF writers who lives somewhere south of Mexico, and the only one living in Central America, I can imagine that most of our readers who know what it’s like to yearly attend a festival of the SXSW or Nrmal caliber, will have a huge WTF reaction when they read the line-up of this festival held last week in Costa Rica, and that I’ve just decided to write about. What most mipsters probably don’t realize, though, is just how much being an indie kid in this part of the world, where buzzbands become buzzworthy with a usual delay of about five to ten years (just try to figure out why they’re bringing The Flaming Lips and TV on the Radio all of the sudden) means you’re just not gonna see the bands you like playing live. Point being: it’s hard out here for a hipster.

Most (loud) discussions that took place after this year’s line-up was announced weren’t precisely centered around the matter at hand (i.e. the artists that were playing the festival and their musical and cultural impact), but rather the audience that the organizers were trying to bring for the weekend to pay for over-priced food and beer. Going back precisely to what appeared to be like the festival’s mission statement, which was something about “reaching out to a new audience.” I’m actually still trying to figure out what audience that really is. I’ll try to explain that in the following Venn diagram.

Though maybe, and just maybe, we’d like to think that this might be a statement of negation, perhaps the refusal of perpetuating the idea that a festival has to consist strictly of crowd-pleasing acts and white...dudes...holding...guitars. Which is kind of another way to say let’s forget about Enrique Iglesias and Zoé, and instead bring Ximena Sariñana and Bomba Estéreo. Which for me, you know, pretty much does it. We weren’t expecting Dënver and Rita Indiana, anyway.

So onto the actual performances, Ximena Sariñana’s was the first one I saw, beginning early on Saturday afternoon, and I’ll admit that even though I pretty much slept on everything she had done before 2011, I would still have the spirit to shallowly classify her music as something only the Blanca Méndezes of the world would truly and genuinely like. But after getting into her earlier work in Spanish, I started abandoning that original idea I had and began to appreciate some of her older songs, precisely those from Mediocre (“Mediocre,” “Normal,” “La tina”), which were by far the absolute highlights of her performance. Most of the songs from the self-titled album are way too flat and shallow to light up a festival crowd, and I think even Blanca was sort of lukewarm about that album anyway.

Sariñana's guitarist has a "drone" moment

Bomba Estéreo were scheduled to play the next day and were the only early afternoon band that actually used the irresistible heat in their favor, and (annoying wordplay coming) set the whole shit on fire for the entire hour of their set, even more so when they closed out with “Fuego.” While something like The Flaming Lips on Saturday night (which I’ll get to later on) used all kinds of props and projections to intensify, or even produce, the feeling of energy and liberation in their performance, Bomba Estéreo were actually their own ineffable flow of energy, emanating from singer/rapper Li Saumet bouncing around the stage and a rhythm section that went on a ruthless pursuit for beatific repetition. This was not just electrocumbia, it was the onward congregation of rhythm, noise, flow and rhyming, pumped at a volume that caused your every muscle to forget the heat and not stand right there. Plus the kids look irresistibly cool on stage and Li Saumet should totally be a fashion icon.

A couple of hours later, La Mala Rodríguez also hit the festival and, even though I consider her to have pretty much developed (or at least brought to the big stage) an absolutely unique flow style that has endured the test of time and several records with different producers and types of beats, her more rock-oriented sound supported by a guitar player and an actual drummer had her sounding decidedly not like her. Seeing La Mala getting closer to the stretches of rock music, and stepping even further away from the boom bap of Lujo Ibérico, is the kind of move I wouldn’t exactly want to see her doing.

In regards to the other hip hop act in the fest, I’m not sure if the discussion of whether Cypress Hill should be covered by us has ever taken place (what’s there to cover about them in this day and age anyway) but I assume that a band that released an album called Los grandes éxitos en español, interacts with their audience in Spanish, and has a Cuban member that coincidentally asks his DJ to “bring that Latino shit,” should be enough to be considered “ours.” I was never really much of a fan of either of their two MCs, but I reckon that Julio G was doing a fine job of channelling DJ Muggs, who was really capable of laying a pretty decent beat any day (DJ Muggs vs. GZA, anyone?). Besides, fifty year old dudes rapping while smoking pot on an outdoor stage really look like absolute pirates next to the kind of show dudes like Curren$y or Main Attrakionz could pull out at a club.

Blurry Bomba Estéreo is blurry

I wasn’t particularly lit up on the selection of local acts for this festival (even if there was a pretty decent crop of emerging independent rock musicians), mainly because our two favorite ones, Las Robertas and Monte, were not part of it. Although their bass player and drummer were featured with their other bands, The Great Wilderness and Zopilot, I failed to see them on account of checking out something more interesting happening on the main stages. There's also the fact that I can catch these bands every month in San José for the price of one beer inside the festival. I wandered around through most of the local acts that I had the opportunity to see, and Sonámbulo were pretty much the only ones that did it for me. Like always, they managed to pull out a very enthralling trance-inducing show, and eventually got a deserving Tunde Adebimpe seal of approval, plus an Austin City Limits call-up on the same day. Still, I do kinda feel like I need to consume some sort of drug to really appreciate this band’s music after 15 minutes of it.

A quick note on a few outsider acts, which were the ones that people were naturally most eager to see in this fest: I really fucking hate Gogol Bordello; TV on the Radio put out a great set and was the best noisy guitar show of the weekend not featuring Steven Drozd; and Björk can be summed up by what the drunk-yet-very-wise dude in the audience yelled at the end of the show: “that crazy bitch came to kick some serious ass.” The only full set I got to see at the predominantly electronic stage was DJ Shadow’s, who, after the crowd went on a small display of Costa Rican idiosyncrasy as they got impatient at how long installing the whole gear was taking, walks in looking like your high school soccer coach, has a small diplomatic word about how he “likes all types of music,” and then proceeds to immerse the crowd in the biggest collective head nod I’d ever seen (at some point even the guys from security were into it). And throughout the whole duration of the set, dude’s just too fuckin' busy to notice anything going on around him because of how he’s single-handedly kicking the shit out of his turntables, samplers, pad, and laptop, surfing through 30 years of electronic music in one single table.

And finally getting onto The Flaming Lips, as a longtime enthusiast and follower of indie music and culture in general, there’s always a part of you that starts rejecting the more conspicuous elements of it. Which is why most indie kids have seen the term indie, fall under negative connotations about glasses and hats and movies with songs by The Shins. The thing with the Flaming Lips’ show is that it’s precisely conceived around forcibly stilted weird and quirky elements of indie (or “weird music” as the term is starting to be coined around the internet), like their coming out of a giant vagina, the inedibly obsolete bubble walk, or the ridiculous costumes of the on-stage dancers. But in spite of the show’s own blatant weirdness, when I heard the first few notes of “Worm Mountain,” and even more so when they played “What Is the Light?” (my favorite song from The Soft Bulletin), I simply couldn’t help myself from crying. I, owner of an original copy of Zaireeka, devoted fan of The Soft Bulletin, hater of “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” and only dude in my section of the crowd who did the Yoshimi karate chop, wept like a goddamn baby. Because after years of living in this isolated and indie-forgotten part of the continent, after having to travel hundreds of miles away from home just to get a small taste of weird music somewhere in the world, it was at that point that I realized weird music had finally come to our home.