NAAFI Gave Tribal the Compilation It Deserved
Midway through Felipe Calderón’s presidency in 2010, Mexico celebrated 200 years of independence from Spanish rule and 100 years since the beginning of the revolution. Estela de Luz, the Mexico City cultural center helmed with a lavish tower designed to commemorate the occasion, wasn’t finished in time. Arriving in 2011, a year late and at double the estimated production cost, the public embraced it as a symbol of the government’s corruption and proceeded to skewer it online.
That didn’t stop the city’s experimental club label NAAFI — which stands for “No Ambition And Fuck-all Interest” — from utilizing it as a platform to highlight local regional Mexican music, and, staying true to their central axiom “Ritmos Periféricos,” celebrating music made outside the mainstream. In 2012, the collective partnered with Estela de Luz to present “ESTADO,” which consisted of four nights dedicated to presenting sounds from Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Monterrey, and Mexico City, respectively.
It was publicized with the hashtags #PARTYPOLITICS, #CULTURACLUB, #NOCHE, #PÚBLICO, #GRATI$ and #PROTESTA, while throughout the event, artist Juan-Pablo Villegas rewired the tower’s light programming to broadcast provocations to the entirety of the neighborhood, namely, “JUSTICIA,” “MUERTE,” “EXTASIS,” “NARCOESTADO,” “PUTO” and “RAVE.” On the last night, Alberto Bustamante — NAAFI’s creative director, also known as ‘Mexican Jihad‘ — decided to push things just a little further and project his transgressive Tumblr at the event, inciting government officials in black suits and earpieces to prohibit any future usage of the Estela plaza for events.
Soon thereafter the institution shifted administration, and part of their rebranding was a name change — it was now simply El Centro de Cultura Digital, which before was just its subtitle. After the surprise overhaul, the institution was eager to save face and get the public on their side, and NAAFI saw this as an opportunity to pursue something of a dream project: a compilation of the Mexican dance music style called tribal, which in the simplest terms can be described as Mexicanized house. Fast-forward to December 2014, and after nearly a year of bureaucratic finessing NAAFI finally succeeded in securing funding and releasing TRIBAL, the three-part compilation featuring Prehispánico represented by Javier Estrada, guarachero by Alan Rosales, and costeño by DJ Tetris. Because the compilation was state-funded, though, the label was unable to promote it commercially, which could in part explain why it didn’t make as big a splash in the electronic music world as it should have.
For the uninitiated, NAAFI co-founder Tomás Davó offers the following description of tribal: “I don’t know if I would explain it as a sound itself, but I would explain tribal as a Mexican electronic genre of music, and possibly the only one that is 100% Mexican.” 1 According to NAAFI producer Lao, real name Lauro Robles, the sound’s originator was Ricardo Reyna — known most for “Danza Azteca” (2004) — who produced in a style that would later be termed tribal prehispánico. The sound came about because Reyna decided to produce something inspired by prehispanic music, choosing to sample a musician named Jorge Reyes who worked from the ‘80s until his death in 2009. Robles describes Reyes’ style as “the Mexican version of new age,” created using analog synthesizers and prehispanic instruments. Davó suggests that fantasy plays a notable role in the history of recorded prehispanic music, and that the sounds artists like Reyes employ can be attributed in part to their producers’ imagination of what would constitute a prehispanic aesthetic.
The tribal prehispánico sound is characterized by a confluence of rhythms that travelled with African slaves to not just Mexico but all over Latin America, here delivered with a terranean, geological force that might remind you of deep techno à la Porter Ricks’ 1996 record Biokinetics. The style sits on a distinctly singular aesthetic trajectory, though evoking a world with a complex framework simultaneously rooted in the rich prehispanic past and the deep future, with track titles like “Guerro Azteca,” “Somos Mayas,” “Prehispanic Future” and “Aztecs VS Aliens.” Javier Estrada, the compilation representative, offers an explanation for why he produces in this style: “Because I believe that people need to be familiar with their ancestors,” he explains. “It’s something that is really necessary as we tend to forget our roots.” This contemplative angle matches well with Robles’ characterization of the style as outsider music, very unlikely to be heard in clubs (at least outside of the NAAFI context).
Although “Danza Azteca” was only intended as an experiment, it had the force to spark a real trend: soon a wave of teenagers began producing tribal across the country. As the style spread, subgenres developed by inflecting the sound with regional forms. Tribal guarachero emerged in Monterrey as the most mainstream-friendly style of tribal, incorporating stylistic elements and instrumentation from Columbian cumbia, including its guacharacas, guiros, congas, and shakers. Guarachero’s genesis is intertwined with the area’s rich history of soundsystem culture born in the ‘70s and ‘80s and associated with the styles of disco, Hi-NRG, and specifically the sabanero style of cumbia. Alan Rosales tells me via email that it’s of significant importance to his work that his father is the man behind Sonido Marshall, a locally famous soundsystem used for dance events all over Mexico.
Tribal costeño is local to the Oaxacan coast, and on top of it being deeply rooted in African rhythms like prehispánico, it also developed from the area’s regional Afromestizo music, incorporating instrumentation where for example a guiro or a shaker is replaced with a shark’s jaw. An important aspect of the style is its interrelation with live-performed music: DJ Tetris, the most prominent figure of the genre and the representative in the compilation, often works with local bands that make music in a style known as tropical, recording or remixing them for his tracks. Costeño isn’t very popular in Mexico beyond the coast, which Robles attributes to the regional specificity of the sounds used.
After a couple of years, a group formed by teenagers Erick Rincon, DJ Sheeqo Beat, and DJ Otto called 3BallMTY (which stands for Monterrey) arose as the superstars of the genre. They had significant success stateside, got a Diplo co-sign, and were signed to Universal Music, eventually winning the Latin Grammy in 2012 and Billboard Latin Music award in 2013 for ‘Best New Artist’. Interestingly, in order to be publicized internationally they had to delete the last word from their original name, 3Ball MTY Putos, which translates to “assholes.” The reference was more than a joke, though, as Bustamante explains to me — it’s a reference to the platform where the group developed their sound and reputation, a gay club called ArcoIris, which translates to “rainbow.” On Sundays, the club would shift its usual programming to accommodate the group and their teenage fans, establishing itself as yet another vital queer space in the history of forward-thinking experimental art.
With tribal’s rise to popularity came a distinctly classed backlash that is still in effect today. Because of how tribal is dismissed in Mexico as “poor people’s music,” there is a distinctly political connotation to NAAFI’s compilation. “Tribal in Mexico is more marginal,” says Lao. “People that are usually listening to tribal are not the people that work in institutions like El Centro de Cultura Digital. It’s the people that work cleaning those places.” Thus it was all the more radical that the label was able to pay the tribaleros — who have significant economic problems, according to Robles — directly with state funding. The fact that they succeeded in producing a state-sponsored compilation of dance music made by anyone other than elites is indeed impressive in itself. Explaining NAAFI’s attitude toward the exchange, Lao offers, “it’s not that we were like ‘Okay, we will help the government.’ We just found a way to pay the artists well. This is something they’ve been doing for many years, and nobody has given them any official legitimacy or highlighted them, because tribal is not something that the government sees as important or appropriate for the culture in Mexico.”
Especially because the style has normalized after its initial surge of popularity, NAAFI felt an urgency to document it properly according to a musicological approach — in part to guard against the possibility of its erasure from Mexican cultural history. “For us, the compilation was, and I hope still is, the first edition of several CDs or releases collecting and compiling different sounds, scenes, and movements of Mexico,” says Davó. “The project wasn’t just a regular release. We’re trying to tell people tribal is here, has been here, is from here… don’t look away from it, don’t be scared of it. People are scared of themselves.” In his opinion, some Mexicans are scared to love tribal precisely because of the ways in which tribal is a popular, properly Mexican form of dance music, one that gets suppressed in the mainstream narrative because of its association with an audience of mostly low-wage workers. According to the attitudes of the state and the upper classes, tribal is in bad taste because of who listens to it. But Davó counters: if most Mexicans listen to it, then apparently most Mexicans have bad taste. This conclusion is precisely what NAAFI takes issue with.
“In an aspirational society, people are not really comfortable with the ‘non-progressive’ part of society, because obviously white is better, brown is bad, etcetera, etcetera,” he elaborates. “It’s a Western world, that’s obvious, and that information has been filtered into Mexico and people are afraid of who they are,” he says. “Also, white people in Mexico have more money, so it makes a lot of sense. It kind of sucks, but it’s real; that’s the society that we live in here. I think that’s why for some the tribal is icky, because people are kind of scared of it. That’s why it’s important that we did this compilation, especially after the whole 3BallMTY thing represented the icky pop music that only poor people listen to, that is not cool, and is not the good music, per se.”
Speaking to the status quo’s elision of tribal from Mexican history, Davó goes on to describe the style as “this thing that happened, but never really happened, but it definitely happened.” When the hegemonic writing of history delegitimizes or attempts to erase utterly real, important events, this kind of epistemological doubling or phasing can emerge. Alberto Bustamante cites Mariana Botey’s figure of espectros or ghosts as a valuable critical tool in considering this phenomenon: “She talks specifically about what Tomás was saying, about these indigenous cultural products — how do they surface, or how do they manifest in contemporary reality? She uses ghosts or espectros to bring it to life, like how this stuff doesn’t really manifest entirely, but only as a shadow or ghost of what it is. Most of the autonomous and original forms of expression are sort of relegated or looked down upon in terms of cultural distribution.”
As has already been said, part of tribal’s significance lies in the fact that it is one of the first, if not the first, properly Mexican form of electronic music, set against the mainstream anglocentric projection of that style of production. “When we were growing up, what was put out as electronic music was always a European version of electronic music,” Bustamante explains. “The vocabulary was always European, like house – it wasn’t even American. It didn’t start being American through the Mexican market until very few years ago. Before, electronic music came from Europe. When we talk about this with producers from Chile or Uruguay or other parts of Latin America, they will tell you the same thing, that the vocabulary was whitewashed. Even though these forms of expression like tribal are not new and have been there for a long time, they often get erased from the general discourse, and if no one’s putting it out or talking about it or generating products to make it visible, there’s no way you can assimilate it in the wider language. But at the same time, it’s music that you do hear everywhere, so if you are paying attention or you’re moving in that context, you won’t just miss it, you know?”
Lao explains an additional motivation for the release: “We made it to pay respects to the ones that have been pushing and developing the sound that we are so influenced by when we play outside the country. Mainly that was the reason for this compilation: to tell those guys that they are part of it, because I know that it’s not fair to them that people are playing it all over the world and nobody gives them credit, because they haven’t got economic capabilities to travel, to develop themselves as artists. In a way, we found the compilation as a fair way to have a link with them.”
NAAFI’s historical-musicological approach hasn’t stopped with TRIBAL. In fact, it plays an important role in their current residency at Museo Jumex, which has so far included a night dedicated to Mexican club and Jersey club; another highlighting classic reggaeton and contemporary perreo; and a forthcoming third event, just announced, which will feature NAAFI’s own Paul Marmota, tribal prehispánico presented by DJ Antna, and Portugal’s shapeshifting batida club sounds presented by Príncipe Discos artist DJ Nigga Fox, drawing a connection between those styles’ employment of Afro-diasporic rhythms. They also hope to continue doing compilations of the most important Mexican musical forms, including Tijuana’s ruidosón style and Mexico City’s aforementioned perreo style. No matter what NAAFI is up to, the absolutely crucial power of historicization is central to their process.
Alexander Iadarola is a writer based in Queens. His work has appeared in The Quietus, The FADER, Rhizome, DIS Magazine, and THUMP.