San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Festival Imperial 2012 marks a new musical era

From the print edition. See our photos from the festival here

At a press conference shortly before his performance at Festival Imperial 2012, Wayne Coyne, the frizzy-haired lead singer of The Flaming Lips, received a question about his sense of humor. Does the weirdness of his act translate to other cultures? Did Coyne believe Costa Ricans would understand it?

This question came after someone else asked Coyne why he requested a monkey for his show. He hadn’t. Another group, Major Lazer, actually called for a gorilla (and parrots that spoke the band members’ names), not The Flaming Lips. But Coyne, confused at first, answered anyway.  He settled on a wry response, something humorous.

“I’ve never been here, and I thought people must have monkeys as pets like dogs and cats, but that’s not really true,” Coyne deadpanned. “People don’t have monkeys as pets.” 

Did the joking translate to the reporters in the room? Did the people who criticized the festival as too far from the mainstream like the joke?

Did it matter what they thought?

Tens of thousands of fans waited for The Flaming Lips to play that Saturday night. Members emerged out of a screen, from a flashing silhouette of a vagina. On stage, selected fans dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz danced to the flickering acid rock of The Flaming Lips. Coyne snaked into a huge plastic bubble, and allowed the crowd to pass him around as he wobbled inside his hamster ball.

Throughout the weekend event March 24-25, the bands proved the skeptics wrong. Some critics blanched when the groups were first announced in late January. Instead, Festival Imperial 2012 overhauled the festival experience in Costa Rica. It pulled off a lineup that went for contemporary picks over safer, traditional choices. The festival, put on by the state brewery Cervecería Costa Rica, attracted some 30,000 fans per day to the La Guácima outdoor venue in Alajuela, north of San José. 

Concerts alternated between two main stages. Smaller acts shared the spotlight on the Forrest Stage, a more intimate area, with perhaps the best acoustics of the three venues. Two days passed with few technical glitches or delays.

“I think the fact that you get a real good audience that comes out and supports this type of music is a beautiful thing,” said Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation, noting the “eclectic” lineup.

In a 48-hour span, attendees could hear the shrieks and thumping deep beats of Icelandic singer Björk or the frantic gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello. TV on the Radio’s lead singer, Tunde Adebimpe, conducted the band’s indie rock with his spastic left hand. Bomba Estéreo took traditional Colombian cumbia music and added a fuzzy electronic sound. 

There also was recent Grammy-winner Skrillex. The polemic character with his misfit look – piercings, oversized glasses and a haircut with the left side of his head shaved – is the most popular DJ in a dance movement called dubstep. His sound showcases screeches and thuds over bass-dropping rhythms.

Festival Imperial 2

Tens of thousands of fans watched international and local bands play a two-day outdoor festival at La Guácima Racetrack, in Alajuela, north of the capital.

David Boddiger | Tico Times

Perhaps the spectacles on stage deserved as much debate as the music. Spain’s La Mala Rodríguez wore a vibrant bodice, black underwear and garter belts.

Rapper B-Real, of the hip-hop group Cypress Hill, lit a blunt on stage to the approval of one of Saturday night’s largest crowds. Marijuana smoke floated into the air as he belted hits like “Insane in the Brain” and “Rock Superstar.”

A giant man called Redfoo, of LMFAO, stripped down to a speedo to sing a hit called “I’m Sexy and I Know It.”

DJ Diplo of Major Lazer pulled away festivalgoers from the event’s most well known band, Maroon 5. Major Lazer mixes Jamaican dancehall and other electronic noises. The performances often feature entertainment in a form of dancing referred to as daggering, imitating hardcore sex to the beat of the music. During Major Lazer’s Costa Rica show, the daggering began between one of the group’s dancers and a person – in a gorilla suit.

The feat likely was a first for the festival.

The previous two Festival Imperial incarnations, once in 2008 and another in 2006, were more conservative. Organizers brought  long-established musicians like Sting, the Smashing Pumpkins, Duran Duran and Seal. In the past, fewer Costa Rican bands played the festival. Everybody played the same stage, and stayed in the same spot.

Producers C3 took a risk with its lineup. Instead of going with better-known selections, C3 said “this is what you should be listening to,” and divided 22 foreign acts among three sites.

“If there’s going to be a music festival in 2013, it’ll be completely different from 2012 because it’s like a snapshot of the moment,”  said Roberto Montero, of Agencia Contenido, who worked with C3 to select 10 local bands to play. “This is what’s happening in music worldwide.” 

The Flaming Lips, Cypress Hill and Björk were the only musicians with decades of touring experience. Most of the foreign bands never had been to Costa Rica. Ximena Sarinana went rafting. The Flaming Lips and Major Lazer visited waterfalls and butterfly gardens, and Diplo posted photos of “nature n shit” on his Twitter account. One of the singers in Thievery Corporation showed he didn’t know exactly where he was as he kept praising “South America.”

Manchester Orchestra acknowledged part of their mission in Costa Rica was to “plant seeds” for the future.

Costa Rican Marcela Víquez, 21, said when the lineup was first unveiled she had many friends dismiss the groups, saying they weren’t interested in hearing bands they did not recognize -– only to be won over by hearing the musicians live.

Her friend Leonardo Bernard, 22, said the timing was just right.

“The electronic scene is growing a lot here,” Bernard said. “It had always been very underground, and now it’s exploding.” 

Sonambulo 2

Costa Rican band Sonámbulo’s performance impressed producers U.S.-based producers so much that the group was invited to play the massive Austin City Limits festival in Texas.

David Boddiger | Tico Times

Local promoter Montero agreed. He said a few years ago a festival like this could not have existed in Costa Rica. The Internet has helped these newer movements reach Costa Rica faster, and create a more diverse fan base. The country’s growing music scene reflects that branching out.  

“You wanted somebody to come and bring something to the table and to the festival experience,” Montero said. “It was very important that Costa Rican talent came to reinforce the festival and not distract from the concept.”

The stars ranged from the reggae-infused  drum-and-bass show of Huba & Silica to the post-punk tinge of The Great Wilderness, to Akasha’s power-pop metal or the Latin-electro mélange of Costa Rica’s Sonámbulo.

Sonámbulo’s performance impressed organizers enough that C3 invited the group to play Austin City Limits in Texas in October. 

The disparate styles showed up in the crowd too. Creative-types turned Imperial beer cans into bongs. Metalheads dressed in sweltering black. Nobody could miss the woman with the purple hair. Several concertgoers wore tank tops that read “Pura Vida is Dead.” 

Confetti fell over the crowd for The Flaming Lips’ closing song, “Do You Realize?” The Dorothys, Cowardly Lions, Tin Men and Scarecrows grooved on stage. The audience swayed quietly or shouted the lyrics or inhaled cigarettes or laughed or cried or some – bored with the display – streamed toward the other stage to find a spot for Maroon 5. Brilliant colors flashed over Coyne. 

“Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?” he asked. Somewhere near the Forest Stage, a person prepared to don a gorilla suit. And on Sunday, Björk and her choir of sparkling blue-and-gold clad choir girls moved into the spotlight. Skrillex made people dance to music they never realized existed, or convinced them that yes, this music is impossible to dance to. 

“In America … I’d say Maroon 5 and Skrillex belong in one arena and probably something like TV on the Radio and ourselves would be somewhere else,” Coyne said at the afternoon press conference. “But when we go around the world we always see this, that it’s just music. There’s no weirdo music or commercial music. It’s just music. I think if you’re a festivalgoer that’s a great thing.”

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