Review: Supersonico Festival more like a dress rehearsal than a premiere

Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

Between songs during his band Calle 13’s hard, beat-heavy musical polemic as part of the inaugural Supersonico Festival in downtown Los Angeles, the Puerto Rican rapper-singer known as Residente posed a simple question. Looking to set linguistic ground rules for interacting with the band’s devoted, mostly Latino fan base, he asked, “Do I speak inglés or español?

An hour or so earlier Saturday, deft Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux had wondered the same. Addressing the crowd from the same outdoor stage near USC, she first straddled the divide by speaking both languages.

But her tone grew resolved as she delivered a verdict, spoken in English for maximum effect: “If you don’t know Spanish, now is the time to learn.” The crowd erupted. From then on, Tijoux, whose new album, “Vengo,” has garnered well-deserved kudos, spoke in the tongue of most Supersonico attendees. Many other acts didn’t feel the need to ask. Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra could barely speak either, but that didn’t stop the Japanese band from burning through a set of hard, tight new-breed ska music.

Spread over two stages and a DJ lounge near the Shrine Auditorium and inside a cavernous Expo Hall, Supersonico featured musicians from across Latin America, the Caribbean and California. That included Mexico City’s enduring rock gods Café Tacvba; Tijuana’s bass-heavy, joyous, norteño-rich beat duo that performs with the unwieldy moniker Nortec Collective Presents Bostich + Fussible; L.A. beat producer Deorro; Puerto Rican punker A.J. Davila; and Colombian polyglot band Bomba Estéreo.


Supersonico was developed by Goldenvoice as a way to address a Spanish-speaking youth market eager for programming akin to the L.A.-based music promoter’s events — Coachella, Stagecoach and the FYF Fest (which it co-produces with FYF Presents). Despite logistical issues, the festival’s first run mostly succeeded as a well-curated, if razor thin, sampling of artists who playfully, joyously mixed the synthetic and the electric and explored styles from throughout the Americas and beyond.

The highlight was Bostich + Fussible, a production and visual art team whose work for the last 15 years, first as part of the Nortec Collective and then under its current name, has explored the borderland, both cultural and physical, between Southern California and northwestern Mexico.

Performing a visually stunning, rhythmically dense set mixed with synthetic beats and many styles of traditional Mexican music, the pair highlighted tracks from “Motel Baja,” its new, and final, album. They donned black ranchero hats and stood amid a minimalist speaker system dotted with brass tuba bells; in front of them, players on trumpet, tuba, bajo sexto and accordion pumped the crowd and punctuated the beats with norteño accents.

Headliner Café Tacvba did tracks from throughout its two decades as a band. Performing before a crowd that sang every chorus and traveled through every one of Tacvba’s wondrous, labyrinthine song bridges and myriad structural curlicues — “Cero y Uno” was a wonder of kaleidoscopic simplicity — Tacvba would be king of los estados unidos were it not for the pesky fact of its native tongue. English-language critics once condescendingly dubbed the band a Mexican Radiohead, which totally diminished its trip.

Calle 13, formed by Residente (a.k.a. René Pérez Joglar) and his stepbrother Eduardo Cabra Martínez (who performs as Visitante), did a big, dense, urgent mishmash of reggaeton, rap and rock that offered sonic evidence of its many well-earned Latin Grammy nods and trophies. Its prideful, nuanced song “Latinoamérica” confirmed proof of Calle’s range.

As a festival, Supersonico was far from perfect. The lineup was notably dense with acts signed to Nacional Records, the successful L.A.-based imprint whose founder, Tomas Cookman, helped organize Supersonico. That prompted grumbling. The saving grace? To a performer, Nacional acts delivered onstage.

The inclusion of Minneapolis twerk-rapper Lizzo during a prime slot was curious at best, especially considering that a few hours earlier a more deserving Ceci Bastida charmed an admiring crowd with a professionally delivered set of contemporary sounds that captured and modernized the breadth of influences at play. For her part, Lizzo brought a fan onstage and slapped his butt while he twerked.

Production and people-traffic issues made this first Supersonico feel less like a premiere than a dress rehearsal. A lack of ample food vendors, facilities and bartenders resulted in long lines at every turn. I waited an hour in line for three fish tacos, then did a 180 to stand in the beer line for an additional half hour.

Worse, at their longest, these lines crossed the entire width of the site, which meant anyone moving from one stage to the another had to squeeze through queues of hungry, increasingly impatient fest-goers. It made a lot of people grumpy.

The consolation: Nearly two full sets soundtracked fans’ interminable waits. Bomba Estéreo sampled among cumbia, hip-hop, Brazilian baile funk, West African guitar music and electronic dance music.

Tokyo Ska Paradise could barely speak inglés o español. Rather, the ska orchestra’s leader, Hajime Omori, could deliver only memorized banter between the band’s brass-filled, 2 Tone Records-inspired set of stompers.

No matter. Working the crowd in stilted English, the singer urged us forward, preaching the give-and-take of music and fan with a few simple syllables: “More energy! Exchanging energy makes more [indecipherable]!” Luckily, we all knew exactly what he meant.