There might not be a more modern music festival for L.A. than Tropicália, which debuted Saturday in Long Beach.
That’s not to say that the sold-out show was exceptionally difficult — the headliners included popular acts like Chicano Batman, Kali Uchis and even the intergenerational norteño group Los Tigres del Norte.
It’s more that, so far this year, no event in the area has better reflected the young music fans who live here, what they listen to and how they see Latin-diaspora culture influencing (and being influenced) in 2017.
And, frankly, given everything going on in America right now, it was downright optimistic.
The festival is the latest spot-on bill from the Observatory, the Orange County venue and promotion firm behind Beach Goth, Soulquarius, When We Were Young and Day N Night. Some of these fests have been logistical nightmares, others more manageable. But all have shared a rare gift for drawing connections within scenes and between them. Even when rain has turned fields of oversold crowds into mud, afterward, you still have to say, “but the lineup was killer.”
Tropicália is the best example of this idea yet. The waterfront Queen Mary Events Park was an idyllic spot for the show (though getting in, out and around on shuttle buses to the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center parking lot was a pain).
Once inside, it was obvious that this festival understood something essential about SoCal right now. The vast lineup of stellar taco vendors certainly helped. (For those who don’t fear a future of “taco trucks on every corner,” as that distant 2016 election adage went, it was a smoky paradise.)
But the lineup of headliners and support acts had a weird brilliance that grew more evident with every lap between them.
Chicano Batman’s vast appeal in L.A. is self-evident today, but the group’s set, which drew heavily from its funk and Afro-pop influenced album “Freedom Is Free,” purposefully underlined the ways that black pop, Latin melodies and San Francisco acid freakouts interlock across cities and continents.
Kali Uchis, the most commanding performance of the festival, wove Al Green, cumbia, dub reggae and Rihanna vibes into a set that summed up the event’s whole mission in a single hour. Uchis, a Colombian American singer, often gets compared to Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Rey for pairing a midcentury femme-fatale aesthetic with of-the-moment sounds (and for moving easily in hip-hop — she’s collaborated with Tyler, the Creator and Vince Staples).
Her Colombian twist on that idea, coupled with her rangy musicality and gifted dancing, might make her a bit of a Selena for the new streaming era.
But the deeper you went, the odder choices at Tropicália helped seal the vision.
Who could have imagined King Krule, the snarling London art-punk project from singer Archy Marshall, sharing a stage with Los Tigres del Norte within a few hours of each other? Or the vintage doo-wop glow of the Delfonics with the Brazilian psych of Os Mutantes, ’90s R&B from Ginuwine and the moody electro-soul of Alina Baraz?
But it makes sense when you think about it — Tropicália’s audience has a reverence for oldies, an ear for the future and a sense of both being in and subverting mainstream American culture all at once.
There have long been scores of Latin-focused music festivals and cutting-edge club nights in L.A. Um, duh. But this was one of the first festivals to fully acknowledge all sides of that identity, and that includes booking acts that have little to do with Latin music but that still have had an effect on its culture.
One small example of that happened a bit before Los Tigres del Norte closed out the evening. A group of tattooed early twentysomething fans walked through the taco pavilion. It was a bit chilly, and they were trying to figure out where to get the pozole they’d seen going around in cups. They were debating what to see after Kali Uchis, but they all agreed they’d be front and center for Los Tigres.
“It’s my grandfather’s favorite band,” one of the guys said as he passed by hunting for soup. “I wish I could have brought him here, but he can’t stay up that late.”