Scene and Heard South of the Border
Mexican Electronic Music Out From the Margins
Robyn Fadden - May 31, 2016
The last couple of decades have seen tremendous growth in the distribution and global profile of Mexican contemporary art, culture and influence. A confluence of virtual (Internet) and real (air travel) connectivities have propelled Mexican artists and musicians into new orbits. The country, and it’s capital city of about 10 million, boasts more people under the age of 30 than over. It is a place of enormous energies — and potential.
Mexican electronic music artists have certainly been asserting their place in the global conversation — not because they’re a novelty or a niche, but because their provocative sound comes straight out of an underground electronic scene they’ve built from the ground up.
This year, MUTEK Montréal is making a point of underlining several tantalizing talents from Mexico: Siete Catorce a.k.a. Marco Polo Gutierrez makes tripped out tropical meets tech; Alfredo Ramírez and Alan Aguilar known as And the End of Everything create make melodic, cinematic, glitchy ambient; White Visitation (Nicolas Guerrero) turns out densely textured underground techno; and Prague-based Mexican producer, musician and multimedia artist Laura Luna de Castillo experiments in emotive minimalist compositions using field recordings and bespoke circuitry.
Having its Moment
“Mexico is having one of its best cultural moments right now,” says Damian Romero, Director of MUTEK Mexico since its founding in 2003. He’s seen Mexico’s electronic music underground shift and change in the past two decades, since he founded collective and label Noise Lab (followed by label IMECA) in the late 90s, joined Canadian producer Mike Shannon on a trip to Montréal for MUTEK 2002, and a year later, made MUTEK.MX a reality that has turned into an influential and integrated entity.
“Electronic music and art here is getting healthier and noisier – and getting more international attention,” he says. “Festivals are growing up, searching for a solid identity, and offering artists genuine platforms. In my work I’m receiving a lot of new proposals that aren’t along a specific line or trend – everyone’s doing their own original thing, expressing their personalities.”
The perceived divide between festivals and established clubs persists, though underneath it all an underground community continues to do its own thing. “In the clubs, there’s a sense of exclusivity,” says Romero. “There’s nowhere people can join outside of a festival format to create community. So everyone has to create their own communities – which actually creates something very interesting, the subcultures, the real scenes, rather than clubs managed by owners for specific purposes and profits.”
Nicolas Guerrero, playing MUTEK Montréal as White Visitation, has releases on UK-based Opal Tapes and L.I.E.S., Blank Slate and Styles Upon Styles in New York, but he’s firmly planted in Mexico City. “I think the scene here is small enough that if you’re playing regularly, you’ll end up part of the community,” he says. “There’s really no escaping it – it’s not like New York where there’s a different community for every micro genre. Here everybody listens to everything, which is good and bad, but we’re all friends.”
Throwing parties in DIY venues and makeshift spaces is a fact of life in Mexico, and one of the reasons why the boundaries of underground music can easily blur into club music and art spheres. “If you’re a DJ or promoter for a party holding 200 to 300 people you’re going to have to look around for a space and rent it for that event,” says Guerrero. “Most of the spaces don’t have permits, but that’s kind of a non-issue here – you only consider it in passing, there’s always a work around here for that. This is life. I hate the club versus art binary because the most incredible experiences for me have been in party settings – the party setting can be as transcendent as anything else.”
At home, Guerrero has been one of a number of DIY promoters starting regular parties – his is called No Sleep – at shifting locations, and bringing in artists from outside Mexico. “That’s really picked up in the past couple of years and it’s very good news,” he says. “At No Sleep we’ve had M.E.S.H. from Berlin and [UK producer and DJ] Shifted, great people. As with being a DJ, as a promoter you can see the response from people immediately, not only in person but in numbers of how many more people are coming to your party.” So far, those numbers have only gone up.
“All our lives we were so close to the music world because our parents showed us a lot of music, from progressive rock to synth pop, all that stuff,” says Alfredo Ramirez of And the End of Everything. “We create sounds and textures starting from a concept, sometimes a movie, a book, life itself and music too, obviously. We borrow a lot of our social environment, not in such a conscious way certainly, but we reflect what for us is important to transmit in sound.”
Ramirez recently co-founded Möeb, a platform to gather and promote collaboration in contemporary electronic music in Mexico, and both artists have released to great acclaim on Ensamble, a Mexican label with an ear for the local electronic music scene and A/V creators. “Mexico is a good place to get inspired, but we don’t use Mexican folklore or political situations,” Ramirez explains. “Our concept is more personal; we’re not looking to make something with an obvious political message.” On stage, And the End of Everything makes every show a unique one, crafting a different story and narrative in each performance.
Under the moniker Laura Luna, Mexican multimedia artist and producer Laura Luna de Castillo makes an introspective, memory-inspired music through acoustic and electronic instruments mixed with synthesizers, drone textures, the instruments’ own feedback or even sculptures or installations that she’s built herself from various materials and motors: “I start my compositions by going through every sound I have and fragmenting it into hundreds of loops – they become a sort of skeleton, in which I begin to compose and overlay them, and slowly a composition starts to emerge.”
A photographer and visual artist in Mexico, de Castillo found herself drawn further into music once in Prague – she says the local experimental music and performance community openly involved her in projects, collaborations and live performances in different venues. And while she’s been inspired and influenced by traditional Mexican instruments, sampling and using them in some compositions, she says she’s not directly influenced by traditional Mexican music. “It happens the same with European and American electronic music – I think I would fall in the middle,” she says. “I choose the instruments and samples that I feel fit in my compositions, according to what sounds I need to convey the atmospheres I have in mind.”
While some Mexican electronic artists do incorporate traditional cultural elements into their music, it often sounds contrived, says Guerrero. “I really try to avoid that in my music,” he says, “though I’ve done it before with a sample that was completely mangled beyond recognition – there are ways to go about it that isn’t about cashing in on a gimmick. A lot of these local musical cultures I’m not well versed in, it’s not mine, it’s not close to me – I like some of that music a lot but I don’t have a relationship to it yet, so I won’t incorporate it.”
Politics do come naturally into play in the edgy, tripped-out post-cumbia IDM of Mexico City-based producer Marco Polo Gutierrez – at MUTEK this year as Siete Catorce, though also known as den5hion and Sin Amigos. Born in Mexicali, brought up in Oakland and back in Mexico at 15, Gutierrez makes hybridized productions, interlacing his dark, decidedly urban electronics with ruidosón, a politically imbued Mex-Latin-electronic music that succeeds the Northern Mexican electronic movement nortec. Where that sound was ebullient in places, the new variation is decidedly a reflection of bad times in the country.
With releases on Mexican labels Cocobass and Enchufada, Gutierrez is also a collaborator with Mexico City-based NAAFI collective and label, co-run by producer and DJ Lao (who’s also responsible for Extasis, a more experimental, art-oriented label), Fausto Bahia, Mexican Jihad and Paul Marmota. The artists involved with these labels intentionally navigate away from the Latin American stereotypes of of DJ culture that surged in Mexico in the mid-2000s – their sphere is darker though not anti-dance floor, with ”peripheral rhythms” that defy genre and push boundaries.
Out from the Margins
While Mexican artists may be getting more international attention, Guerrero still feels lucky to have long-standing connections in the U.S. “The so-called global reach aspect will get you only so far – people are still very biased or predisposed or lazy about discovering new artists, this includes media outlets too,” he says. “They’ll more easily pick up an artist in one of the hotbeds, like Berlin or New York or LA, where it’s still much easier to be noticed. Marginal is what we are in Mexico City, or anywhere that isn’t one of these hotbeds. There’s this aspect of novelty in it that I’m really wary of – anybody would want to avoid being known as a novelty and I think it’s a real risk to be marketed that way.”
Romero observes that Mexican artists are reaching a level of unprecedented exposure in part due to online access and the international relationships artists – and labels, festivals and fans – are creating. “In the electronic music and contemporary art field, [minimalist electronic composer and producer] Murcof is now the most important Mexican artist on an international scale – he’s not a PR guy, he’s not surrounded by managers, he’s just making incredible music and connecting with incredible projects.” While it took Murcof years to establish his global presence, even as a co-founder of Nortec Collective, today’s underground collectives pool their resources and establish themselves online first to make connections with like-minded artists in far less time.
“When we started MUTEK.MX in 2003, it was a completely different environment in Mexico City,” says Romero. “The artists who produced edgy art that was related to music were frustrated in the pre-internet era because it was tough to get into a label, to get international attention, to create contacts. Now it’s very different; people don’t need anything but email and a Soundcloud or Bandcamp – that’s changed the game drastically and artists are signing to labels outside Mexico. They’re still part of a very small community here and they’re making noise in other very small communities around the world – that’s how underground music works.”