Things Learned At Mexico’s Corona Capital

The annual Corona Capital festival brought a range of international acts to Mexico City - New Order and Suede were given a hero's welcome - but existed within something of a bubble, writes April Welsh

Last week the Quietus eloped to Mexico City for the annual Corona Capital music festival, where we wept to Suede (pictured, above), danced to New Order, tried sea urchin, feasted on tacos, sucked on Mezcal ice pop chasers, got brain freeze from frozen margaritas, watched Florence Welch and James Murphy get some festival friendly ECT, sailed along a canal with a portable mariachi disco, bought and destroyed some sugar skulls and made it through US customs intact. We learned that Suede are big in Mexico and that the Madchester sound is even bigger.

Initial Observations: Traffic Is Bad And You Can Sleep When You’re Dead

Arriving in the country’s capital city at 6am on the Saturday morning and gazing out of the window in childish wonder at a sleeping city cloaked in darkness, traffic-less roads stretch out for miles. But they’re about to be gridlocked. You think the M25’s bad – Mexico City’s tailbacks are like nothing else.

The hotel Camino Real – a slick, smooth, star-lined operation – is located in the affluent Polanco neighbourhood, just north of the city’s largest park, Chapultepec, with streets named after philosophers, writers and scientists. Staying at this shiny palatial edifice, mixing with business heads and rock ‘n’ roll royalty, sets a precedent from the off and coupled with Corona Capital’s exclusively middle-class demographic, it becomes clear that any well-informed anthropological observations must be made away from the confines of the festival and the hotel locale.

The Noughties Live On?

60,000 revellers converge in Mexico City each year for the country’s leading, two-day music festival. Now in its third year, Corona Capital pulls in gargantuan headliners – 2010 had The Pixies and Interpol, 2011 The Strokes and Portishead – and is at the top of its game; a well-oiled machine, which puts a lot of UK festivals to shame. This time around New Order and Suede are pitted against hype acts like AraabMusik and Shabazz Palaces, for a heady concoction of nostalgia and beatmaking, with an almost quintessentially English bias. As this is an international showcase first and foremost, geographical location is not immediately apparent or distinguishable: you could have been watching New Order anywhere in the world. But that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

Skinny jeans, trilby hats, garage-rock scuzz; the spirit of the noughties lives on and it’s been revived, rehashed and re-imagined for the discerning Mexican attendee. Corona Capital is peppered by a cast of musical protagonists who occupy that twilight zone somewhere between past and present – Franz Ferdinand, The Hives, The Raveonettes, Snow Patrol (?!) – bands not quite dog-eared enough to be classed as ‘nostalgic’, but not really ‘current’ either. However, in dealing with all manner of skewed chronometric occurrences, their existence is welcomed with a sense of misty-eyed ownership as the crowd yodel through The Hives’ ‘Main Offender’ like it was… 2002.

Bizco Club Is Where It’s At

There are four festival stages; Corona, Corona Light, Capital and, the odd one out (both semantically and structurally speaking)- Bizco Club. Fraternising/body shaking under the tarpaulin roof of the latter, the distorted psych of Portland by-way-of New Zealand’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra provides a satisfying appetiser to the weekend’s happenings as the band sound their clarion call to arms with ominous, thundering feedback and a percussive battle cry which errs on the right side of ear-splitting. Part Jefferson Airplane, part Tame Impala (with enough vocal echo to feed a small, pallid goth army), the band use clutches of Spanish to communicate with a receptive audience who collectively groove to the warped funk of ‘How Can U Luv Me’, the breezy stomp of ‘FFunny FFriends’ and the topsy-turvy Technicolor of ‘Thought Ballune’. Flecked with some impressive wig-outs, it’s loud, effected, and noisy at times.

Mexicans Like To Lose Their Shit

Mexico City’s very own version of Duck Sauce –- if you like – Star Wars enthusiasts The Wookies, serve up some pretty freaky club cuts on the Saturday afternoon, taking the party, dousing it in petrol and leaving it burning for a heated set of schizophrenic bass heavy dance. They put Juan Atkins/Detroit techno, Saturday Night Fever and frenetic gabber through the wringer, bound together with chiptune visuals and fellow Mexican dance pals She’s A Tease join them on stage for a magnetic finale. It’s a lot to take it all at once.

If You Want To Feast On Mexico City’s Own Sonic Delights, Try Another Diner

The rays beat down heavily on Sunday lunchtime for Mexican duo I Can Chase Dragons, who reel out their sample heavy, loop driven, experimental pop in bursts of plinky percussion, vocal effects and infuriating handclaps. Strangely enough, they wind up sounding like a less frenetic, more polished version of LA’s Lucky Dragons, but their re-working of Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’ will make your blood boil.

Corona Capital’s primary concern is bringing international acts to Mexico, so to get a real handle on the city’s music scene, you must look elsewhere. Time constraints preclude any real kind of sonic exploration on this fleeting three-day excursion, but apparently Festival de Mexico en el Centro Historico in May is a great alternative, if you’re interested.

Giant Inflatable Bubbles Can Be Flattering

The Flaming Lips have been flogging the same dead horse/pulling the same schtick for eons. Watching Wayne Coyne – through gritted teeth – roll out like a giant teletubby/David Blaine in his man-sized plastic bubble gets a bit tired after a while, but when Diplo pulls a similar stunt on the Saturday night it’s by virtue of his undeniable swag that he comes off looking even slicker than usual. Major Lazer – a suited and booted Diplo and Jillionaire – pump out acid hued, ghettotech and floor shaking basslines like radioactive waste, ricocheting off juggernauts ‘Niggas in Paris/Heads Will Roll’, wobbling along to ‘Like A G6’, teasing out riddims and laying on the Moombahton. "Meh-ico! "Take out your lighter, take out your cellphone and put it in the air!" demands Diplo. "Un, dos, un dos," Bounce! It’s only 8pm. Shirts come off, girls come on, it’s a sweaty, sexualised, supercharged show. Not for the faint hearted. They’re a powerhouse indeed. And Diplo wears that bubble with pride.

Suede Are Rock Gods In Mexico

That familiar Coming Up covermount drops down as ‘She’ chimes in; a snake-hipped Brett Anderson writhing around in hubristic splendour, louche, lithe and… irresistible. Black, blue and shiny all over, ‘Trash’ hits like a smack in the face and it’s hands-in-the air for; "We’re the litter on the breeze/we’re the lovers on the streets." Dripping with sleaze, ‘Filmstar’s’ pursued by ‘Animal Nitrate’ – feet sticking to the guitar line like they did to the floor of The Astoria all those years ago – and ‘By The Sea’ brings some contemplative respite before the hit machine starts up again for ‘Can’t Get Enough’. Bam. ‘So Young’. Bam. ‘Metal Mickey’. Bam. ‘Beautiful Ones’. Bam. A group of quivering Suede superfans declare their adoration for the band in Spanish: "It’s just so English!" Rounding things off in an emotional finale with ‘Saturday Night’, and a bit of nostalgia goes a long way.

Speaking to Mexico City’s Marvin magazine the next day, apparently it "never occurred" to Suede to play in Mexico (which seems to be the general consensus among other UK acts here too) so they’ve definitely been missing a trick.

You Still Have To Make Some Difficult (And Easy) Choices

On Sunday afternoon there’s a mass exodus to the Capital stage for Alabama Shakes, but Bizco Club plays host to Shabazz Palaces, who serve up a sound that brash but breezy, soulful but bassy, flow and vocals flitting in and out of African percussion and hard-edged electronics, always perfectly in sync. AraabMusik cuts, skews and shoots out supersonic drum torrents like lasers from behind his perch – barely looking up throughout – but later that evening it’s the greatest clash of them all: New Order vs. Modeselektor. Momentarily losing it to ‘Kill Bill Vol. 4’, the distant call of ‘Ceremony’ proves far too enticing.

New Order

The Madchester Sound Reigns

So it’s Sunday night, but really Monday morning, although it feels like Saturday night. New Order are headlining and no one can see the wood for the trees. The fey melodic touch of ‘Age of Consent’, the maudlin cry of ‘Isolation’ – standing poignantly still from start to finish – the euphoric rush of ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and then ‘True Faith’; they’re all present and correct. A giant inflatable hammer (!) floats through the crowd who gaze up at awe as the ‘Forever Joy Division’ backdrop materialises. Finishing up with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and you what more could you want?

If You Go Into The Woods Today Be Sure Of A Big Surprise

Taking a boat trip along the Xochimilco canal (meaning ‘place of flowers’) is the perfect antidote to the previous two days’ excesses and provides a brief glimpse into rural life, where traditions and legends are more pronounced. Sailing along on on a trajinera – a florid, decorated wooden vessel – La Isla De Las Munecas (The Island of the dolls) is a longer boat trip out along the canal, but a replica exists on a small section of the Xochimilco, where decapitated, dolls and decomposing teddy bears are stapled to trees. It’s in homage to a weird and wonderful island inhabited (until his death in 2001) by a hermit called Don Julián Santana, who constructed a surreal shrine to a dead girl after she drowned in the canal and was said to haunt him.

Corona Capital Provides Just One Small Sociological Snapshot

It becomes quite obvious, quite early on, that Corona Capital is reserved for an exclusively middle-class demographic. Right-hand man to the British press, Economics graduate and Mexico city resident Berto Ceballos confirms that by nature of the £66 ticket price alone, this is most certainly a well-to do. "Wages are a lot lower here than they are in Europe so it is difficult for the majority of Mexicans to buy a ticket," he explains. "But getting into US and European indie bands has become a cool thing for young Mexican adults in the middle and top classes and Corona Capital facilitates this."

The festival is palpably out of step with the rest of the city, where the minimum wage stands at 62 pesos (about £3.00) a day, according to the National Minimum Wage Commission. "Income distribution is all over the place and there are a lot of social and political problems which this generation of ‘middle-class’ twenty-somethings are currently fighting to change; the ‘Yo Soy 132’ protest movement is a result of this, for example," continues Berto.

Over 50,000 people have died since Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón, sent the military to battle drug gangs in December 2006, but although narco-crime and gang violence are prevalent in the north of the country, they are not everyday occurrences in Mexico City. There were 120 killings as a result of organised crime between January and September last year, according to Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office and there are constant reminders: a gruesome magazine cover on a corner newsstand hammers this home, with is graphic depiction of policeman holding up two severed arms.

Like any major city, affluence and extreme poverty exist side by side: having a drink in the Coyoacan neighbourhood (one of the city’s sixteen boroughs or delegaciones) contrasts with some of the deprivation seen on the fringes of the city. Although Monday’s trip to the Xochimilco Canal helps towards gaining some sort of wider sociological perspective, inside the festival site is not a total representation of the city or indeed the country as a whole, where villagers make up the majority. It’s a very long way to go and see bands that you could probably see in the UK, so if you’re looking for a wholly immersive and brand new cultural experience at Corona Capital, be sure to step outside of the festival bubble.

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