What Happens When The Music Stops?
The global dance community has the monumental, unrivalled, near-Olympian ability to regularly seek out some of the most beautiful, pristine corners of the planet in order to orchestrate some truly memorable events in the name of love, music and hedonism, with varying degrees of each depending on your particular brand of festival.
I had the immense pleasure of counting myself as one of almost 70,000 starry-eyed music heads and sun lovers who attended the 10th Anniversary of the iconic BPM Festival – the legendary rum-soaked, palm-silhouetted, ten-day marathon of beach and jungle parties. Now, to say that the organisers chose a jaw-droppingly stunning series of locations to get fucked up in would be an understatement. And to say that they invited nothing short of the titans of dance music to soundtrack their little get togethers would also be an understatement. And to say that JUST for good measure the venues happened to be the epitome of intricate, visually engaging, turn-to-your-mate-and-ask-if-the-lights-are-as-mad-as-they-seem-or-is-it-just-these-pills, would be yet another understatement.
A highlight of the week saw me standing in a jungle full of people as Jackmaster dropped Armand Van Helden’s “You Don’t Know Me” for the eight hundredth time in his career and catching his grin of satisfaction when people promptly proceeded to lose their shit like it was the first time they’d heard it. Or hugging strangers as Seth Troxler and Stevie and Chris Martinez patted each other on the back laughing with self-assured joy as they delivered what can only be described as a monster of a set, against the backdrop of a Mexican sunrise.
BPM and, I’m sure, other electronic festivals that take place in developing countries with immense natural beauty really do offer people something special. They facilitate lifelong relationships with new people; the opportunity to travel and, it goes without saying – experience some of the most forward-thinking and exciting dance music on the planet. So why did I leave with so many questions?
I was taken aback when I heard recently that Argentina had banned all forms of electronic music events in Mar Del Plata – the largest beachside city in the country. This comes a mere few months after they were outlawed in Buenos Aires, the capital, and until now – a hotbed of electronic music. The bans came around as a hardline response to drug related deaths at a number of nightclubs in Mar Del Plata and deaths under similar circumstances at Time Warp Festival in Buenos Aires.
It baffled me to think that a nation’s governing body would choose to take such a prohibitory approach to an issue that would be more effectively resolved through dialogue rather than an immediate ban. But then I went to BPM and gained some clarity on the wider problem. Us.
Picture the scene. Day one. My first beach party of the week, in a portaloo, nose to nose with a local dealer sporting a BPM cap who’s counting out a number of frankly overpriced pills to sell me. I’m sweating – not from the tropical heat, but because security has been casually watching our every move up until that point.
“You sure this is ok to do in front of security?”
“Amigo, pagamos a las guardias y la policia, no te preocupes.”
We pay security and the police, we’re good.
Now, to say bribery and corruption aren’t part of Mexico’s long and tumultuous history would be yet another, monumental understatement, but to give some context – the cartels control huge swathes of the state of Quintana Roo, which is where Playa Del Carmen is and where BPM has taken place for the last ten years. Historically the peace has been kept thanks to an understanding between the Cartel Del Golfo and Los Pelones which dictates that these carteles and these alone control the influx and sale of drugs in the area, particularly during festival season. This bubble of a relatively peaceful coexistence was burst at the end of an otherwise perfect week when a gunman from a rival cartel opened fire on BPM staff on the final night of the festival at Blue Parrot, an iconic venue and the location of the closing party. Five people died and a further fifteen were injured. A message spray-painted on blankets appearing around the city in the days that followed attributed the attack to the notorious Zeta cartel, one of the most organized and powerful criminal organizations in Mexico according to US intelligence. The violence was a result of the Zeta’s insistence on a fee being paid to them by the BPM organizers – that was refused.
The final act of the week saw the Mayor Torres Gómez, announcing the next day that he would no longer allow electronic music festivals to take place in Playa Del Carmen.
Under yet further tragic circumstances, another slice of paradise has been scarred by violence and death, resulting, not from criminal gangs, but from us, the festival goers who unknowingly, or worse – uncaringly generate unregulated demand for worry-free drug purchases. I couldn’t help leaving Playa with a bad taste in my mouth. Don’t get me wrong, the hugs and the smiles and the conversations shared under the shade of the palm trees, with white sand underfoot and transcendent music in the air will stay with me forever. And so they should. These festivals are a testament to our ability to create beautiful experiences for ourselves and others. But Latin America may sadly have arrived at a crossroads at which loss of life seems to inevitably go hand in hand with reduced regulation. Are we doomed to drive these kinds of festivals into the ground because of our insatiable appetite for the remarkable? Only time will tell.
Photography and words from the author.