A Tremor in the Azores: Musical Curiosities On A Distant Island

“I am baptized a poet,” wrote the Azorean poet Antero de Quental, “and remain seated amid imperfect forms, a mark, cheerless and pale, of the eternal law.”

Quental – born in 1842 in Ponta Delgada, the administrative capital of the autonomous Portuguese region of the Azores – spent most of his time on the mainland but took his own life in the public square of his birth town before reaching his mid-forties. I visit the very same square, Campo São Francisco, on my first night in Ponta Delgada. Driven by curiosity as much as the same morbid fascination that once led me to the Prins Hendrikkade in Amsterdam where Chet Baker fell to his death, I instantly take to the charming, expansive centrepoint to the town. A cobbled street separates cafes and artisan stalls from the whitewashed Igreja de São Sebastião and basalt stone is everywhere, a cheap and available building material hewn directly from the earth beneath us.

Quental’s self-imposed exile and eventual return resonates, albeit more positively, in another prodigal son of the island and the first Azorean I meet here. Antonio Pedro Lopes is also the reason I’m on the island of São Miguel. A year ago he launched Tremor, a one-day music festival with an ambitious ethos: rethinking how a city can be a meeting point for people.

“It’s not all about the music. It’s about the town,” Antonio tells me over coffee. “The music is a pretext for people to come and inhabit the centre, which becomes a ghost-town on weekdays. The summer is okay but the rest of the year cruises come, stay for five hours while the cruise is getting fuel and then they leave.”

“You have hundreds of people in town walking around, it’s a massive take-over – it’s so empty most of the time ….”

Tremor is an experimental proposition in more ways than one. The first year saw Portuguese artists from both the Azores and the mainland dominating the line-up but this time homegrown rock and psych rubs shoulders with the abstract and experimental from overseas. It’s a gutsy move and one that comes with substantial risk. Ponta Delgada is a sleepy postcard picturesque town and, like Tremor, seems underwritten by healthy curiousity as much as uncertainty.

For the first time ever this weekend the Azorean airspace deregulates, breaking a long-held monopoly. New flights will will bring visitors on an unprecedented level and locals sway between two extremes: a belief that this could really push the economy into a good place and a fear that the city just isn’t ready yet. Everywhere I go there are signs of the global recession. Abandoned hotels and half-finished casinos sit quietly, gathering moss and graffiti among the pretty streets. “The crisis really messed up a lot of businesses,” Antonio explains. “There are hostels being build, shops being constructed. In the hotels and restaurants there is a a lot of joy in times coming, that it will be good for them.”

“It is very exciting for the Azores,” a shop worker adds when I ask her what she’s expecting, “but, you see, I just don’t know what will happen if there are more people here. I don’t know how the city will make itself ready.” She shrugs: “We are a quiet place.”

The same skeptisim is shared by the festival’s creator. Antonio grew up in the Azores but now lives between Rio and Lisbon. He returned here with a dream to create a legacy and Tremor’s second edition adds confrontational swagger from Baltimore’s TT The Artist, DIY indie rock from Florida-born/Berlin-based Emperor X and Chicago sound experimentalists Bitchin Bajas. On paper, there’s very little that connects such bands but the concept behind Tremor is the lynchpin.

The local scene is subued to say the least. I’m told Nelly Furtado’s family are from here and guitar hero/hair model Nuno Bettencourt was born on the islands. Outside of the taxi radio on my way from the airport, my first hours on the island are beset by the distant hum of karaoke bars; a note perfect cover of Robbie William’s “Angels” serenades me unhappily to sleep around 2am.

There isn’t really a local scene at all, relates Antonio – but things have changed in the last couple of years: “There are two full hands of examples of people doing music, different music – and young people doing it. It’s maybe not a scene but the beginning of something here, you know? It’s good for them…these people, these artists are really out of the logistics of the music market of Portugal. It’s all centred around the main centres, Lisbon and Porto. This gives them…some attention. It has media, they see their names, critics writing about them in the country’s main newspaper or the TV channels.”

Of the nine islands that make up the Azores, São Miguel is the biggest and its capital holds around’s third of of the entire population. There are no truly indigenous people here, with Portuguese explorers first coming to the volcanic archipelago back in the 15th century. As a stopping off point for trade ships the area’s gentic and cultural make-up has sucked in the best from all cultures and peoples. It’s a landscape is a full contrasts: the rusty. white washed Ponta Delgada surround by some of the most lush, green nature and bluest water I’ve ever seen. Sitting on top of the convergance between three tectonic plates, it’s a fertile area, fed by nutrients from the volcanic rock.

The eco system has helped give a degree of self-sustainability to the region – in both tourism and produce. They export milk. They grown their own tea and make their own jams and honeys. There’s a regional beer (Especial) and soft drinks made from pineapple and passion fruit. Cattle has existed here since the first settlements too and the local beef is the equal of the endless varieties of seafood I eat over the week.

And food is everywhere in the Azores. Almost within minutes of landing in Ponta Delgada, we’re presented with a bowl of soup – a tasty vegetable broth wolfed down in minutes by a table of jetlagged travellers. We tuck into bacalao (salt cod) arranged like a gratin and topped with cheese. It’s beautifully doughy and fragrant. “It’s the way we show love here,” a local tells me. “Food is so important and it’s how we show we like you.”

“Everywhere I’ve ever been in Portugal, I just seem to walk into a place and they put food in front of me,” my dinner companion Chad Matheny- aka Emperor X – adds. “I don’t ever remember money chaning hands either.” The Florida-born musician has flown over from his Berlin home to play two sets at the festival – one in the foyer of compact clothes store Londrina and the other late at night on a hotel balcony as part of Tremor’s off-venue “parallel” programme. We’re whisked away on a coach trip for each of the three nights leading up to the main event, a hundred or so people headed for a mystery show in an unkown location. It’s beautifully playful and in keeping with Tremor’s challenging ideals. These shows continue to reclaim spaces not normally used for music; one even takes place in a pineapple greenhouse.

“The parallel programme means we’re already running over three days,” explains Antonio, “so it’s a lie to say that we’re a one day festival, really. Because the biggest venue takes 2000 people and the smallest 30, we had to make some synchronicity with the capacity of each place and give choices to people even if it creates a certain frustration. 28 concerts in 24 hours, with each concert being 50 minutes….you can’t see every concert.”

Food also finds its way into the parallel programme, with special menus created showcasing the best of the island’s cuisine, often without any prompting. “People want to eat at some point!” says Antonio. “It makes no sense that we should start our own food business but to connect with the people who are already there, to see how they react and if they would be open to this idea…and we see the place exploding, with restaurants creating their own menus.”

The conversation moves on to the festival’s logistics. Antonio talks with real pride about the strides made since Tremor’s launch year despite his admission that they were very innocent, very naive.” This time they’ve built more bridges with government and adminstrative departments. “We also got involved with embassies, we learnt they’re more than happy to participate in these kind of events. We want to open up and create a bridge between continents, taking advantage of where we are, between Europe and America.”

Tremor’s main event kicks off around midday on Saturday. The big shows run in the early hours of the morning, when the likes of Black Bombain dominate the cavernous church interior at the Academia dos Artes (also the festival’s base of operations) followed by Za! at the Solar da Graça. Before that, it’s a long and rewarding day of rich, very different music that is met by a healthy curiousity for the unusual from local audiences.

More than once it feels like we’re on really excellent bar crawl with good friends rather than in the middle of a festival. The trappings of similar events are thankfully thin on the ground: there’s no aggression, queues are manageable and security is as laid back as they come. Even the few walkouts for more out-there artists (such as Colombia-born Lucretia Dalt) are toothless and immature affairs: no hecklers, just some childish fart noises from the crowd who find it all a little too much at times. It’s charming rather than than offensive and any small signs of dissent I see throught the day come across as an expected side effect. I see the same puzzled islanders a few hours later drunk and pogoing to local boys Broad Beans in the basement of While this is a festival all too well aware of the battle for acceptance, validity and a place in the island’s calendar, it doesn’t compromise the talent for it.

Drag City-signed Bitchin Bajas draw an audience who remain immersed and hypnotised by the US trio. Their sound finds a warm, nurturing space in the Auditorio Louis Camoes, a compact version of London’s Barbican, clad with matrixes of Scandinavian-styled wood pannelling.

As the evening kicks in, I end up in the first floor pub-like room of Travessa dos Artistas to watch Bandido e o Coração Pirata play virtuoso grinding doom versions of “You Are My Sunshine” and “House of the Rising Sun”, sounding like Beefhart founded Goth on acid. At the other end of the spectrum is the transcendant collaboration between Carlos Medeiros and Pedro Lucas at the Igreja do Colégio. Their Mar Aberto record – released by Portuguese label Lovers & Lollypops, co-organizers of the event, along with Yuzin – is one of the highlights of an afternoon hanging out in Lisbon’s best record stores (the other is a belated introduction to the great Carlos Paredes). The Medeiros/Lucas show is only matched by Black Bombain’s powerful and assured set a few hours after midnight.

Throughout my time here I’m told more than once that the Azores is a place that has always suffered from a lack of cultural projects and artistic vision. Yet Tremor’s central concept challenges that. It’s also is in evidence throughout the festival – simply study the sway from incredulity to bemusement and genuine rapture in the crowd during any of these shows and you see a revolution in nascent form. It’s a cultural dilution for sure but one that couldn’t be more welcome.

It is a rare thing then: the right place, the right time and a visionary idea that takes risks. The result is both magical, unexpected and with the potential to transform and grow. One hopes the event doesn’t stray from its original intent; right now it has the makings of the best small festival I’ve ever been to.

Published on The Line of Best Fit

Björk: Archives Gives Us A Brilliant Insight Into A Pioneering Artist

Björk’s story is that of the unique, of the visionary, of the artistic pursuit that manifests in so many unexpected and defining ways.

She has propelled forward with a narrative that builds upon itself unlike any other figure in modern music. That it’s taken this long for a book (of sorts) to pay a tribute to her in a manner appropriate to this isn’t that surprising. Were it not for the catalyst – a mid-career retrospective that opens this month at New York’s MOMA – then it’s doubtful that Björk: Archives would have reached us as it is: an eccentric but effective package of texts.

The wider world has struggled to get a handle on her: the swan dress, the airport freakouts, vocal shrieks and the odd appearance among high class metropolitan nightlife still feed tabloids while Kristen Wiig’s SNL impressions saw her reduced to a giggling ball of surreal twee. Only David Bowie has really managed to inspire something near in terms of misplaced parody (not to mention artistic sleight-of-hand) and it’s fitting that Archives has shades of the V&A’s Bowie Is… exhibition.

It’s not a biography. If anything, Archives feels as much a part of Björk’s output as the Hacienda was to Factory records. Her career – solo, it should be noted – provides the scope and Archives is placed firmly as a companion piece to her musical productivity; a surrealist and sometimes demanding Cliff’s Notes to her output over the last twenty-three years. The “complex, multifaceted” characters she has created on her first seven albums, exhibition curator Klaus Biesenbach tells us, form the heart of this “exploration”.

“Björk is a groundbreaking pioneer in connecting many different creative practices in and around her work,” clarifies Biesenbach. “[She] is driven by instinct and intuition, but at the same time methodical and scientific in her ways of exploring new form and character.” His introduction to Archives provides an illuminating backstory that picks up many of the ideas Nichola Dibben centralised in her 2009 Icons of Pop Music book. Dibben returns to contribute an essay to Archives but Biesenbach’s focus isn’t really the cultural significance of Björk but the creation of a collaborative event that reinforces her creative processes. Indeed, while Vulnicura lies out of scope, a commissioned work for the exhibition – “Black River” – connects it thematically.

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“The cult of the solitary genius is alien to her,” writes New Yorker music critic Alex Ross – the most illuminating line in his essay Beyond Delta: The Many Stream of Björk. “Something in her work rejects a cultish fiction,” he adds, “…as a performer, she does not strive to dominate.” His point about Björk, the collaborator is pushed hard but it’s well made and related with warmth, intelligence and clarity. Dibben picks up on collaboration for her feminist reading Björk Creating: Myths of Creativity and Creation, expounding on the the threads that place nature, technology and gender central to her creative process and output.

Some previews of Archives have called it impenetrable and obscure – it’s neither. While the final two texts provide a foray into less traditional territory, Björk aficionados won’t struggle to enjoy them.

Taking metaphysics professor Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) as a reference point, This Huge Sunlit Abyss From The Future Right There Next To You… records an email exchange between Björk and academic Timothy Morton. “I have been doing a little reading and trying to find folks who could help me define what “ism” I am,” she explains to Morton. What follows is both a fascinating insight into the thought processes of Björk as much as her personality. A generous, childlike warmth permeates her enthusiasm and undercuts pretension throughout, with the effervescent Icelander bouncing off Morton’s take on the animist philosophy. “Earth needs more magicians”, suggests Morton early on in their exchange and by the time his correspondent is rhapsodising over Russian minimalist Vladimir Martynov we have a very clear picture of the shared passions that unite these two bright sparks.

Occasional collaborator Sjón provides the text for Archives‘ main event. The Icelandic poet’s relationship with Björk dates back to the eighties and as the lyricist on some of her best known songs (including Post’s “Isobel” and Biophilia’s “Cosmogony”) it’s poetically fitting he’s involved here too. A long form poem acts as a “Psychographic Journey” through her work from Post to Biophilia and read like a parallel reality to Biesenbach’s introduction. Sjón’s description of Björk as “nature’s participating audience” sets the scene for his own interpretation of the artistic and life events that have shaped her output. A photo scrapbook of video stills and defining (and now iconic) images place the narrative.

Archives is bold and ambitious and it’s easy to forget we’re reading something that has its roots in an exhibition catalogue. The presentation is immaculate and crucial to the impact. Weaved around the involving writing is are timelines, sheet music and a kitsch poster pull-out of perforated stamps that record her physical output, release by release. There’s no doubt the work here supports the real world experience of the MOMA event but the greater impact is another artefact of Björk work. One can’t imagine a similar undertaking as transformative and impressive as this.

Bjork: Archives is out now via Thames & Hudson. MOMA’s retrospective of Bjork runs from 8 March – 7 June 2015.

Natali Felicia has dropped the best debut track we’ve heard so far this year

“I want to paint a somewhat melancholic and mysterious sound picture,” says Swedish newcomer Natali Felicia about her stunning debut track “Used To Be”.

“Still a world easy for someone to adapt to. A world providing the listener to start reflecting and finding its way into.”

The 20-year old first cut the demo for “Used To Be” three years ago when she met producer Andreas Grube. Taking time out to concentrate on her studies, she explains in typically Scandinavian fashion: “We had to let this project rest and grow in its silence.”

Felicia found her way to music via a move to Stockholm in her mid teens, swopping a figure skating passion for a guitar. “Music was never my main subject in school, but quite fast I started to find myself entering different musical forums in Stockholm. I joined the school choir, then a gospel choir.”

When she began writing her own songs and playing them live at Stockholm open mic nights, things started to click. “Singing and music became a natural source of expression for me,” she says. “Depth, meaning with strong words yet with a sensitive touch is [a] tool in my writing. Things that get you to start thinking and reflecting. ”

“Used To Be” sees Johannes Berglund (The Knife, Shout Out Louds, I Break Horses) on-board with mixing duties and drummer Mikael Häggström (Ane Brun, Jennie Abrahamsson and Jenny Wilson) on percussion. The song’s powerful swell “Do you remember how it used to be,” cuts both dramatically and poignantly as Felicia’s stunning vocal draws the melody together in a way thats commanding, heartbreaking and somewhat epic.

“A key word in our dialogue through the process of creating is filmic,” she explains. “I have always listened to music through a filmic world; visioning the music in scenes and pictures before me.”

Published on The Line of Best Fit

Hookworms and the End of the Road Festival

Hookworms emerged last year as a singular beacon of integrity and intelligence. They shone in interviews, taking the conversation to places that created a defining agenda for their gloriously invigorating take on the DIY guitar sound.

Debut long-player Pearl Mystic fizzed with an energy and vigour that didn’t compromise their live reputation and was among the year’s best records.

“The way we saw it is that no one really gave too much of a shit about our band before the album came out,” explains bassist MB, “and then all of a sudden we actually had an ‘audience’, so to speak.” “That really piled the pressure on in terms of making the new record [the follow up to Pearl Mystic is, we’re promised, out before the end of the year] and I’d say that was the defining theme of 2014: we spent the first half of the year procrastinating over the second album and finally finished it in June.”

The Leeds five-piece still operates with the same egalitarianism, honesty and aptitude they set out with despite their obvious achievements and the doors opened by Pearl Mystic‘s success – not least signing to Domino imprint Weird World. “Over the last couple of years the band has really grown arms and legs,” agrees MB, “and I think that if we really wanted to we could probably go full-time with it in terms of the workload… it’s a really delicate balance between the band and our day jobs at the moment, but it seems to be working out ok.” “Any money made by the band gets reinvested, either on gear, the studio or getting merch made.”

MB – who has played End of the Road before with an earlier band recalls, “the forest full of fairy lights was particularly beautiful”. Do you think there’s something very special about playing here? “I completely agree that it’s very far removed from the majority of UK festivals, the atmosphere is very relaxed, and you can tell that a lot of love goes into the preparation.

“We’re hopefully going for the whole weetend, so I’m looking forward to seeing Yo La Tengo, Woods, British Sea Power, The Gene dark Band, the Radiophonic Workshop and our buddies Mazes.”

He’s justifiably upbeat about how the band’s live show will go down with the End of the Road crowd despite a sprinkle of self-deprecation. “I’m sure that everyone says this, but we genuinely just started this band for ourselves, for our own amusement, so the fact that anyone pays to hear our music is still a mindboggling concept to me,” he says. “I think it’s a very cathartic release for us all when we play, and hopefully for anyone watching too.” “I guess the intention of our live show is to try and induce euphoria through volume and repetition… we’re extremely thankful that anyone comes to watch us at all, it means the world.”

Published in the End of the Road Festival 2014 programme

Hinds: “We are friends and we have smiles and we try to share a good time with each other”

There is a moment at the beginning of every Hinds show where the four Madrileñas find each others’ eye line and share a communal, assertive, smiling nod. A split-second later, we’re blasted by some of the most energised, fun and inventive rock n roll this side of White Light / White Heat or Raw Power.

Yes, Hinds are that good – but you have to push beyond the few brilliantly raucous snatches of sound they’ve dropped to date. The immediacy and fun times of songs like “Bamboo”, “Trippy Gum” or “Castigadas En El Granero” is only a blueprint for the finer qualities of these four friends and their intoxicating, limitless potential for musical salvation. Even conversations with them are like a smooth, elegant serious of synchronicities and upbeat, no-nonsense sentimentality.

“We know we aren’t big musicians. We know that,” explains Carlotta Cosials – all smiles – and without apology, “so we do this music with what we have – and that’s love. We are friends and we have smiles and we try to share a good time with each other.”

“We’re transparent on the stage…” adds Ana Perrote.

“If we makes any mistakes out there, we just laugh. That’s it,” concludes bassist Ade Martin.

The four piece began as a duo, with founding members Cosials and the half-French Perrote (vocals and guitars) meeting through each other’s boyfriends. A trip to the coast with a pair of six-strings in tow a few years back led to a cover of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” and the embryonic Hinds dynamic began to take shape, still under the band’s original name of Deers. Bassist Ade Martin came on next and Holland-born drummer Amber Grimbergen – the youngest Deer – completed the line-up.

“I was in my house with a friend when they called me about the band,” says Martin. “I heard ‘Trippy Gum’ [“the first person who heard it,” interrupts Cosials] and I was so impressed.”

Hinds’ first show – as Deers – followed two months of non-stop rehearsal – “no sleep, nine hours a day of playing,” says Perrote. Some of the band’s early tracks were cut by Diego Garcia, frontman of The Parrots, a band that are inextricably part of the HInds story. “They are a big, big influence on us,” explains Perrote.

“Alex, the bass player, he bought me my guitar,” says Cosials.

“…And he chose my bass too,” adds Martin. “He just called me up one day and says ‘okay, I found your bass, come here and buy it!’. We’re so connected to them.”

“We still see them play live and we realise we have so much work to do,” gushes Cosials. “We supported them in Cadiz this year and, you know, it was not a good show, not a bad show [but] then they came on stage and we looked at the audience’s reaction and realised we were shit!”

The foursome grew up on the same music; behind the beautifully scuzzy reverb lie tastes that jut from Kendrick Lamar to Matt DeMarco to Dinah Washington. As teenagers they went to shows with the same friends who would later become part of the Madrid garage rock scene.

So why has taken so long for someone to break out of the Spanish capital’s vibrant musical bubble?

“I think it’s how people see Spain,” offers Martin. “I think English people can’t imagine something is happening there. Our influences come mostly from North America too so it’s very different from classic Spanish music.”

“Maybe our sound would be the same even if we were living in Vietnam,” laughs Cosials. “Maybe it’s not the Spanish music sound that influences us but the country itself. We played Spanish nylon guitar early on in our songs, you know.”

“I think the little scene in Madrid doesn’t exist elsewhere. In Catalonia it’s more noisy. The little garage scene in Madrid…it’s become the garage city of Spain and Barcelona has become the electronic one. I don’t know why.”

Perrote is quick to stress the band’s connection to their home: “We do listen to music that’s coming out of Spain though,” she nods.

How has Madrid and the rest of Spain taken to the attention you’ve gotten from the UK and American press?

“They don’t care so much,” shrugs Martin, “they’re not looking at what we’re doing as much as England. It’s a pecera (a fishbowl)… like a bubble, you know what I mean. Everyone talks about the same thing, it’s all the same bands. No-one takes risks.”

“We don’t trust the press in Spain, we don’t trust the writers,” says Cosials, matter-of-factly. “Bands don’t play outside of Spain very much, they’re in that bubble. One of the questions we get in Spain is why we sing in English. It wasn’t really a decision. English words just came out when we started writing songs. It’s the langauge of the music we listen to.”

Martin laughs: “We get people asking ‘how is your little group coming along?’, ‘Are you playing concerts?’, ‘Do you have your own songs?'”

The band’s landmark show – at London’s Corsica Studios – was an industry-heavy affair that saw competing labels, pluggers and promoters eyeball-to-eyeball. So far, they’ve stuck with quality indies Lucky Number (UK) and Mom + Pop (US) for their sole two single releases. When I speak to Lucky Number’s Nathan Roberts, he’s quick to pin down what it was that led the label to work with the girls: “I was struck by the easy-going immediacy…of both ‘Bamboo’ and ‘Trippy Gum’. Michael and Steve (label bosses) felt the energy too, and once we’d all spoken on Skype the girls’ energy came out of the screen even more; you just want to meet them!”

“We flew out to Madrid shortly after to see the debut four-piece show, and these strong feelings were both confirmed and embellished. The show had so much positive attitude.”

Cosials and Martin laugh at the praise heaped on the band after the Corsica show. “Nice people smiling,” says Cosials. “That’s what playing to people in London is like.”

No-one dances from Monday to Friday, I joke.

“We’re getting our minds ready for the album now,” laughs Cosials. “We’re gonna have to do a lot of things at the same time. We want to have eleven songs. We like that number [laughs] but we’re gonna have to tour and write at the same time. You can’t imagine how much work we do for this band!”

When we meet again to talk more, it’s late one Saturday night. The band serenade the East London streets with a medley of Disney numbers and a perfect rendition of the Jurassic Park theme before staying up until sunrise to pore through the far-flung corners of Spotify and YouTube, devouring tune after tune – everything from Deptford Goth to Kurt Elling.

They are, definitively, a group of friends united by a love for music – all music – and herein lies the secret to why they’re better placed than most to be the saviours of guitar music in 2015.

Without a shred of fakery or inauthenticity, Hinds are the real deal.

Mexican Waves: Music and Chaos in the District Federale

“There isn’t any test for driving licenses,” I’m told by my Mexican host as a blue ford rear-ends a police car en-route from the airport.

“There was a lot of corruption when we had tests so you just pay a fee and they let you drive…although more people are dying every year in traffic accidents than drugs wars so maybe it’a not working so well…”

Nothing can prepare you for the traffic in Mexico City. It’s different to every other South American capital I’ve visited and lived in. La Paz has its traffic zebras and colectivos; Buenos Aires is all grids, pollution and a jaywalker’s nightmare. Mexico DF, as the locals call it, is something else entirely.

And it’s not the baffling one-way systems that snake and intersect like overlapping moebius loops nor the constant succession of near-scrapes at every turn or lane merge. It’s the ordered chaos: the pulsing open veins of this beautiful, mad city aren’t a barrier but a reflection of functionality and necessity over circumstance. People get where they need to be (eventually). In a city of ten million people – a number that more than doubles when you figure in the outer parts of DF – the streets become an endless, brilliant blur of colour, graffiti, and typography; framing pocket after pocket of aphrodisiacal, sensory beauty.

I’m in Mexico here hoping to discover a little more about how the ninth biggest city in the world is taking to one of its biggest imports. The largest festival in the country is sponsored by the country’s most famous cerveza and this year’s Corona Capital is the centrepiece of my visit. The line-up reads like a festival junky’s wet dream: Beck, Jack White, Damon Albarn, Weezer and St Vincent at one end of the spectrum; Chvrches, Haim, Tune Yards, Gus Gus, Metronomy and MØ at the other.

Over two days at the city’s Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez – an expanse of sports grounds and racetrack better known for grand prixes – sixty thousand people will attend this curious hybrid of Reading-meets-Coachella. On this particular weekend they will brave earthquake, hurricane and a mud and water combo that reduces the festival site to a mini archipelago. Mexicans are, I find, the most unfazed crowds in the world. Watery disruptions push set times and force power cuts. They create vast lakes between front rows and stage barriers but the people resolutely shake it off with a positive belligerence that Brits would do well to adapt.

I had hoped for some homegrown sounds at Corona Capital but even before getting a passport stamp, I’m told “There are no Mexican bands playing I don’t think,” by my savvy border guard. I find that surprising, I say. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to try and mix them up on the bill? “Most of the people who play music here will be going to the festival I guess,” she says curtly. “Why would they want to play?”

It’s a disappointment of sorts and something of a strange dichotomy that becomes more pronounced as I dig away at the reasons why there isn’t at least a tokenistic Mexican artist amongst the line-up. The journalists I talk to are positive about the festival itself – citing a thriving music industry, with magazines like Indie Rocks catering for audience turned on by British and American sounds – but one offers an explanation: “Mexico is still learning a lot of things.We get asked by a lot of extrañeros about why there’s no latin, no Mexican bands on the festivals…but you know how to bill your own artists and where they fit. We don’t know yet how to fit them within a festival like this alongside our own bands.”

It’s not so much of a letdown though. Beneath the somewhat violently branded festival site there’s limitless excitement this weekend – and debuts are a big deal here. It’s Beck’s first ever show in Mexico. More than one person recounts to me how huge it was for The Pixies to come here a few years back for theirs. As it turns out, Haim scoop up a lot of the love this time, including a Selena cover (“Como La Flor”) in their inaugral Mexican outing. The highlights are all about context – as they should be.

Biffy Clyro pitch up with something to prove as relative unknowns. With an awesome power and belief in every single riff and line that the Scttish trio spit out, a dedicated mass grows throughtout the set and leave conerted. The Julie Ruin are another highlight and one redoubled by a chance backstage encounter with Kathleen Hanna that will forever make the jet lag worth it. Chvrches show why they’re slowly conquering the world and Belle & Sebastian continue to be one of the greatest live bands we’ve seen in the last three decades.

And then there’s Sam Smith.

Over the course of my five days in Mexico City, I barely walk down a street without hearing some incarnation of the loveable cheurb-faced crooner. On the metro from Velodromo to Tacubya, he’s there seeping out of an ipod on the Naughty Boy track. When I eat at a taqueria for the first time, Disclosure’s “Latch” is on loop in the background while tour footage of The Clash in America plays silently on a television; a weird juxtaposition made bearable by some frankly incredible food. In total. I hear “Money on My Mind” at least twenty times during my stay. The man is ever-present and his festival set is predictably a Very Happy Moment for many people.

When the dulcet tones of Smith finally leave me, it’s something of a culture shock: my final day in the country and I head on foot from the classy, expensive barrio of Polanco to the less salubrious La Merced. After stumbling blindly up a caged staircase and through a discount shopping arcade that sits suspended above a motorway, I emerge into the one of the oldest parts of the city. It’s a surreal inverted-Narnia moment, pushing through stalls of fabric and following glimmers of daylight, finally setting foot on street again to the strains of a winding electro-cumbia melody from a nearby shop. Sam Smith is not to be found anywhere here.

This is the South America I know- the part of every big city below of the US border where bright colours, commerce and great food sit hand-in-hand with poverty, decay and crime. The kind of barrio where the cross-country coaches end their journey and an urban dustiness is ever-present. This could be La Paz or Santiago de Chile or Cusco or Medellin: a sense of purpose is everywhere.

“Go find the witches market,” a friend said and so I enter the vast Mercado Sonora at the center of Merced, which houses hundreds of tiny concessions around a tight indoor grid. I pass through the livestock and pet section (everything from cows to kittens) and find an endless path of two etre cubes housing potions and herbs. There are all manner of dried animals, icons and Día de Muertos paraphenalia. It’s unthreatening, somewhat kitschy but at the same time utilitarian.

Among the more questionable bottle and boxes there are thing you’d see in any Holland & Barratt but I have my eye on a particular prize: sangre de grado, an amazonian tree sap akin to a liquid bandage that once healed a half-inch deep animal bite on my hand in twenty four hours. I buy a vial but the stall holder seems perplexed I haven’t come here for something more novelty. She pushes an altar box my way – three garish skeleton figures in mariachi garb inside – and some candles, which I buy to keep the peace. She beams at me as I leave, offering a blessing.

For my final meal in the country, I head out for a torta, Mexico’s own spin on a sandwich. Supposedly invented by an Italian immigrant adapting a panini to whatever was available, I’m told the best is to be found at Tortas Been, a stall housed in a covered shopping passage five minutes from the Zócalo (República del Salvador 152 if you’re tempted to find it).

I’m uncompromising in my choice: I want to eat a Cuban sandwich, or at least the version of the torta cubana they serve up here. The calorific treat sees the filling assembled on the plancha; a heady mixture of meats (different cuts of pork and beef) along with cheese, peppers and a sour cream-doused soft baguette, fried with a little butter. Less than ten minutes after ordering, I’m tearing into the beautiful, fat-soaked chunk of beauty and hearing the first bars of “Latch” rising out from a passing car. It’s a perfect ending.