By Isabela Raygoza
“You know where you are?! You’re in the desert, baby!” shrieked Vega de la Rockha of L.A.-based mariachi glam rock band Metalachi, right before finishing the rest of the Guns N’ Roses allusion: “You’re gonna die!” It was a peak moment of the first-ever Rock Fiesta, which drew nearly 6,000 fans to the sleepy mining town of Quartzsite, Arizona, for the weekend of March 18 and 19 – all presumably hoping to make it through the two-day-long rock en español festival alive.
Rock Fiesta’s organizers touted the festival, which was held on a 118-acre campground normally occupied by retirees, as “the greatest Latino rock lineup in history.” The ecumenical lineup, which paired major stars (Caifanes, Café Tacvba, Nortec) with rising talents (Palenke Soultribe, Finde), was indeed impressive. And while the press took to calling Rock Fiesta the Latino answer to Coachella, in reality its totemic lineup and reigning spirit of chaos suggest a more apt Woodstock comparison.
Rock Fiesta organizer Hal Davidson entered the world of rock en español three years ago, when Monterrey, Mexico, rockers Kinky, with whom he's worked as a promoter, showed him a photo of them performing in front of 80,000 people at Mexico City’s Vive Latino festival. “I saw that there was a major hole in the market and a really great opportunity,” Davidson tells MTV. “There’s never been a camp-out Latino rock festival in America before, or anywhere else in the world. We’re the first ones.”
The first day's bill was exciting for any Latin rock lover, and many of the 17 acts that graced the stage gave riveting performances. Scorching heat aside, the Grammy-winning Chicanos in Ozomatli ignited the crowd with their explosive dance, funk, and tropical mélange during an afternoon slot. Feeling like a soundtrack to the culture of East L.A., they mashed up a colorful and very danceable set that included vibrant horns, heady flows, and samples of Parliament-Funkadelic, Selena, Ramón Ayala, and Zapp & Roger.
Taking the stage at 5 p.m. on the festival's first day with an intense mix of cowboy swagger and effete cool, electro rock party-starters Kinky shouted out the Mexicans, Californians, and Arizonans in the audience, saluting them as a “triangular union” of Latin power. Their exhilarating performance featured charismatic stage moves from bassist Cesar Pliego and accordion riffs from keyboardist Ulises Lozano. The audience lit up as “Hasta Quemarnos” thumped through the Sonoran desert.
At dusk that day, the black-clad rap-rock quartet Molotov burst onto the stage to deliver a gutsy immigration anthem, “Frijolero.” By the time they got into the rowdy “Puto” and politically charged “Gimme tha Power,” the most hardcore members of the audience had created a huge, riotous mosh pit. During the performance, a Donald Trump piñata with “Soy Puto” scrawled on its back was lofted from the audience and passed around, enduring a solid beating before it was torn to shreds.
But the main event on day one was Café Tacvba's headlining set. Appearing in fluorescent, indigenous-style poncho-and-hat outfits, the beloved Mexico City stars began with the boisterous “El Fin de la Infancia” off their 1994 masterpiece Re. Lead singer Rubén Albarrán commanded the audience like a shamanic frontiersman in the Sonoran desert, moving like a flame across the stage. When the keys played for “El baile y el salón,” the audience sang along to the song's refrain in unison. The charismatic Albarrán flirted with the crowd, asking, “Do you know French?” He was met with cries of “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” And replied with a grin: “Con todo gusto muchachos! A todos! [With pleasure!]"
Day two opened with Angeleno-Colombian producers Palenke Soultribe spinning a two-hour lunchtime set of electro-cumbia. That afternoon, Mexican indie rock crew Finde brought the fuzz-encrusted distortion. Later, the crowd lit up for a raunchy performance from Silverio. Clad in a silver suit, he removed one of his boots, poured beer into it, and chugged before spitting the rest on the crowd. Halfway through his set, the producer stripped down to red briefs, and ended the show yelling via his robotic talk box, “Su Majestad no vino a perder el pinche puto tiempo! Quiero pachanga como en mi tierra natal! [“His Majesty did not come here to fucking waste time! I want to party like in my native land!]" right before flipping off the crowd and storming out.
Though the afternoon heat was too much to withstand at times, driving many to seek shade near the light tech and sound engineers’ station, it didn’t stop some energetic fest-goers from throwing themselves into a dance-off to L.A.-via-Monterrey producer Mexican Dubwiser’s full-band set. Featuring Kinky’s Ulises Lozano on accordion, they paired dubstep with cumbia. The dancing crowd expanded when Los Amigos Invisibles brought the tropical vibes on their 2009 party jam “Mentiras.” At 6 p.m. that evening, the desert dusk illuminated the rocky, dusty campground with a pink sunset — a truly majestic view painting the nightfall, which created a stunning backdrop to Mexican ska trailblazers Panteón Rococó.
Caifanes, Mexico City’s goth-rock iconoclasts, were the second night's most anticipated act. Though revered guitarist Alejandro Marcovich is no longer in the lineup after penning a revealing autobiography that pissed off his bandmates, the rock en español pioneers gave a rare, powerful, if nostalgic show. Marcovich’s catchy yet intricate fretwork has been replaced by a sax player; it worked, especially when the band performed the extended version of the wildly popular, cumbia-laden “La Negra Tomasa,” closing the festival with an enormous Mexican flag waving sky-high. In between songs, Saúl Hernández affirmed to the audience that no human being is illegal and that immigration is a right. “Don’t vote for ignorance,” he declared in front of a cheering audience. “Don’t vote for a clown or a fascist who is Donald Trump, and don’t vote for the regression of humanity.”
Was Rock Fiesta a success? If you ask the fans who were there, the answer is likely a resounding yes, but the festival's organizers might disagree. Davidson says he's disappointed with Rock Fiesta's attendance numbers: They spent $2.1 million and earned less than $1 million. “It’s nice to say that you’re going to do the ultimate rock festival, and we did it once," he says. "But I don’t think this demographic is appealing enough to the broader Mexican and Latinos, so we need to be a little more commercial, unfortunately."
Davidson says it's "too early to tell" if he'll bring back Rock Fiesta in 2017. If he does, he says he's considering aiming for more mainstream acts like Maná, Mexico’s most popular pop-rock band. “Maná would be perfect because they're a little softer, and a lot more Latinos [in the U.S.] know about them," he says. "The music has to be generalized a little bit more to appeal to a larger audience."
For serious rock en español fans, though, Rock Fiesta's DIY feel and lineup felt more authentic than a festival headlined by a crossover act like Maná would. The weekend was real, gritty, and raw, even with a few disappointing no-shows – Pachuco-clad rockeros Maldita Vecindad couldn’t make it due to visa issues, Tijuana’s electronic duo Nortec’s Bostich + Fussible were left hanging with no stage electricity on the closing night, and Kinky's second scheduled set of the weekend was canceled for murky reasons. But seeing Mexican icons like Café Tacvba pouring their heart out in the middle of the desert, or seeing Caifanes reunite for a precious performance in a small mining town, made for two very memorable nights. Whether or not it comes back next year, 2016's Rock Fiesta was a diamond in the rough.