We went there: 8 things we learned at Festival NRMAL Costa Rica 2015

Text by Pierre Lestruhaut 
Photos by Carolina Vargas

And so it happened… Unexpectedly, Festival NRMAL expanded all the way to the capital of the small Central American nation that’s been trying to place itself as the musical bridge between contemporary North American and South American musicians with the recent efforts of Epicentro. Hosted in a single day at Centro de Eventos de Pedregal, in a typical November afternoon of rain, umbrellas, fashionable ponchos, a lot of booze and some very good music, we experienced the first edition of Festival NRMAL outside of Mexican territories. Here’s what we learned from it.

1. NRMAL lineups are never disappointing 

At least if you’re musical sensibilities are similar to our own. But it’s not only the fact that the line-ups are usually stacked with bands that we’ve constantly praised over the last few years, it’s also the ballsy decisions to avoid cash-grabbing headliners, give way to very disparate styles in a single stage, and showcase acts with barely any material released. Thus, this edition was not devoid of very-well respected independent acts (Gepe, Helado Negro, Algodón Egipcio), pioneering legends (The Sonics, aUTOPerro), and up-and-coming electronic musicians (Raido, AAAA, The Wiesengrund Project).

2. Respect your elders…

Though NRMAL and Epicentro have let it clear that they are big supporters of young and emerging Latin American artists, this festival also outlined just how much NRMAL acknowledges artists who have been keeping it real for decades. Local noise duo aUTOPerro (who were making avant-garde sonic experimentation right around the time Throbbing Gristle were experiencing their creative apex), took the main stage early in the afternoon and despite stylistically contrasting with the rest of the acts performing there, managed to get a furious roar and applause from the crowd following the climactic ending of their set. Much in the same way that 60’s pioneering garage rock band The Sonics attracted the biggest crowd of the whole afternoon, which was predictable, given the Costa Rican indie scene's still overwhelming preference for good ol' rock music over anything else.

 3. …and give credit to those who were there before you 

As expected, Buscabulla put out a very pleasant show that induced the movement of loins and played her hits from her debut EP with a few unreleased tracks and covers. If you’re not aware that Raquel Berrios started making rounds in the NYC scene as a DJ, one listen to some of her mixtapes will let you know of the deep-knowledge she has of Latin American dance music. Of course, she wasn’t shy of handing out her respects to some of her beloved artists from the past, especially when performing her tribute to Frankie Ruiz, and it’s precisely this constant awareness of the greatness of past musicians that make her music so appealing in the first place.

4. Hijos might be deserving of some pre-debut album hype and high expectations

They’ve already been praised elsewhere, and it’s about time they got praised here as well. Hijos, the solo project of Costa Rican Pablo Rojas (Monte, Florian Droids) is a solid candidate to become the next great act to come out of the small nation. There are have been couple of pop-hued tracks circling around the internet these last few months, and “La Playa,” where vocal duties are taken by Kumari Sawyers, is deserving of superlatives such as “excellent,” “blissed-out,” and other adjectives like “tropical” and “heartwarming”. Hijos put out a solid early afternoon set where their already known pop melodies stood seamlessly and successfully side-by-side with the more proggish oriented soundscapes that Rojas’ other bands were more accustomed too.

 5. Gepe is getting closer to Latino pop stardom with every album 

A strange statement to make about an artist headlining what has been one of the most underground-promoting festivals in Latin America, NRMAL Costa Rica wasn't really the platform or the audience for him to feel like a pop star yet. But it’s Gepe’s conflation of Latino pop and folk motives, his undeniable charisma, irresistible dance moves, and catchy pop idioms that make him more suitable for grand arena Latin pop. And we wouldn’t be surprised if he got there rather soon.

 6. … and “En la naturaleza” is still the greatest latino song of the last few years

Even though Estilo Libre is Gepe’s biggest effort at exploring some of Latin folk’s most danceable patterns, “En la naturaleza” is still his most accomplished effort in fusing modern dance music and Latin folk. Despite dembow being a Latin club staple for more than 10 years, Gepe’s “experimental conquest” still feels fresh, unmatched, and absolutely drives the crowd insane. As DJ deMentira, who was wearing a Discos Pegaos shirt, took over PedroPiedra’s duties as Gepe’s sideshow rapper, the realization came forward that Gepe is all the things we’ve usually admired from a musician: crowd-pleasing enough to want to be a continental star, ballsy enough to explore territories no one else in his niche would dare to, and self-conscious enough to always be aware of his indie origins.

7. 10 pm is a very early time to end a one-day music festival 

The best music festivals we’ve been are obviously the ones that extend the partying well past midnight and allow dance music lovers to keep on dancing through the night. This first edition of NRMAL Costa Rica had a very well-crafted and conceived electronic music dome stage, much in the vein of Primavera Sound’s Boiler Room tent where sets could extend for those looking for non-stop dance action. In between main stage performances, we managed to catch a small portion of each of the acts playing the dome: The Wiesengrund Project’s drone-oriented and politically charged beats and visuals, Raido’s more introspective synth-driven hip-hop, and AAAA acid and Chicago oriented sounds. The only downside: 10 pm was a very early time to shut down an overheating dome that reeked of sweat and weed, hypnotized its crowd with warping beats, and should've kept the party going longer.

8. Enrique Coyotzi is an insensitive prick 

Promises were made. Expectations were raised. But our dear dear Enrique Coyotzi was nowhere to be seen at NRMAL Costa Rica, despite those very promises that were made, those expectations that were so highly raised. We will still hold on to those memories of NRMAL 2013, of seeing him arrive midset to Fakuta’s performance at Gómez, watching him leave after hearing 10 seconds of Dustin Wong at Panamérika Stage, and swinging like a lost child amidst the hip crowd of Monterrey. Your presence was missed.