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Electric Animals Festival proves something special is brewing in Costa Rica

Costa Rica's dance music scene is swelling

  • Words: Nicolas Stecher | Photography: Victor Aguilar
  • 15 July 2019

Like one of the legendary waves building off its Pacific coast, the country of Costa Rica feels like it is swelling. Kinetic and potent, the nation seems as if on the cusp of something tectonic. It’s palpable in the streets of San José, a city once derided as a little more than a stopover; fly in and head immediately to the beach was the well-worn line of thinking. But all that is changing: cocktail bars mix concoctions spiked with cacao grown in the hills nearby, restaurants that honor Costa Rica’s indigenous population are sprouting and design-led rooftop lounges are becoming a thing. The country is cresting.

Nowhere is this sense of growth and optimism better embodied than in the capital’s dance scene, which has leapt from gritty underground venues to the mainstream. As an example, on this warm spring afternoon two of Costa Rica’s most promising young DJs, Oneiro (Ivan Céspedes) and Javee (Javier Borrasé), are rocking a Sunday day party that would have been inconceivable not too long ago.

Smiling infectiously, the slender Javee mixes from Rick Pier O’Neil’s remix of CJ Art’s ‘Ancient Artifact’ into Kintar’s ‘The Path’, and the packed floor before them at the Mercado La California shows its approval. The sprawling outdoor space – a fresh idea in this rapidly evolving capital city – houses a couple of bars, a food court and dedicated nightclubs, but today hosts the inaugural Electric Animals Festival: a maximalist, widescreen, multi-stage expression of the more intimate daytime parties the four DJs created.

“I wasn’t expecting so much understanding, education and love in the music,” Brian Cid, one of the evening’s headliners, admits. Founder of Endangered Records, the former sound engineer turned knobs for the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna before pivoting to house and techno, quickly gaining worldwide acclaim for his uniquely textured expression of the form. “I’m super-impressed,” he continues, watching the interaction between crowd and performer. Nearby, Oneiro brings in his own remix of Depeche Mode’s ‘Never Let Me Down Again’, and as the sinister techno slinker washes over the packed house and the sun sets over El Mercado’s corrugated roof, the mood shifts from brunchy daylight soirée to evening banger.

Cid takes the stage and immediately cues up a track from Nomads, a Moroccan duo recently signed to his Endangered imprint. For the next two-plus hours the Dominican-via-New-York producer improvises a narrative that takes the Tico crowd (as Costa Ricans call themselves) on an intricately layered musical journey. A trained engineer, Cid’s music feels more like a dark aural tapestry than a 4/4 assault, and the crowd swells in approval. Well into his third hour he has to be asked numerous times to relinquish the tables so the other artists can play, such as Brazil’s André Gazolla (303 Lovers, Audiophile Deep, Sprout Music) and Miami’s Pilato (Balkan Connection, Bonzai Progressive). It’s not so much that Cid’s being a dick, he’s just loving every minute of the Tico lovefest. The last track, ‘Melting Clock’ from his upcoming four-track ‘Light In The Lotus’ EP, seems apt.

“The outro was a song I made in a moment where I was feeling really fulfilled and a lot of love,” he says hours later when explaining the selection, still glowing from the experience. “The vibe here shows a lot of things – sometimes the DJ wants to go somewhere, but the people are not ready for it. And that’s fine, that’s the nature of a place. But here you can see that the DJ wants to give and the people are willing to receive.”

“Our vision is to turn our area of San José into a nightlife destination,” explains Fercho Salazar, who, along with Mason Dunn, round out the Electric Animals quartet. Salazar and Dunn will graciously surrender the second hour of their set later in the evening to indulge Cid’s request for another shot at the crowd.

Electric Animals started when the four DJs realized they shared a similar vision of bringing something different to San José’s musical landscape. Merging Javee’s Electric City party with Oneiro’s Spirit Animals, the quartet started throwing afterparties in a private garden; off-the-cuff affairs complete with pizza for hungry ravers. The response was instant; at their first event, after a Chus & Ceballos set at nearby club Vertigo, the Spanish duo showed up and demanded to play.

“I think we started to realise, ‘Well, we can do something bigger’,” recalls Oneiro. “Plus, the Costa Rican scene seemed to have a negative connotation in regards to the words ‘afterparty’ – negative to the point where people thought of them as a meeting of ghouls and living zombies,” he laughs.

That’s where Mason Dunn’s vision kicked in. The American of the bunch, Dunn, aka Burika, spent years in Vermont where on weekends he would go party in Montreal. There he discovered the city’s famed Piknic Électronik gatherings, and realised just how good a Sunday daytime soirée could be. Sure, the concept thrives in metropolises like Berlin, Barcelona, and Melbourne – cities brimming with well-travelled, highly cultured populations eager to get down – but could it work in a deeply Catholic country where Sundays are sacred?

Apparently, yes. Though the festival was supposed to end at 2:AM, it’s well past three and the dancefloor is still joyfully packed under the spell of Cid’s third unscheduled set of the evening. This on a school night, something utterly unseen in San José. Some festivals are defined by their exotic locales, others by their prodigious productions or seven-figure talent budget. Not here. The Electric Animals Festival is defined by the visceral sense of family, of compatriots, of hope and optimism not just in a fleeting musical genre but in a generation looking to make a ripple in the global sea that is the underground dance scene.

“Being from Costa Rica we feel really related to the ocean, and right now electronic music in Costa Rica is on a wave. And I feel we’re on top of the wave with our surfboard at just the right moment,” says Diego Aguirre, founder of Instagram media group @3am_Techno. He points excitedly to the small backstage space, and notes the complete lack of a VIP area. “The Electric Animals have the sense of the raver, you know? They’re not the typical promoters — they’re focused on the people, giving them a big experience so they can be comfortable on the dancefloor.” He smiles, looking over his home town crowd. “There’s a lot of potential here. We’re growing up.”

Nicholas Stecher is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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