West Texas Dispatch: Marfa Myths

Photos and Words by Sarah Vasquez

Photos and Words by Sarah Vasquez

“Marfa is young, Latin and proud.”

Helado Negro snuck that lyric into his Saturday afternoon set during Marfa Myths music festival. The song “Young, Latin and Proud” spreads the message of carrying a sense of pride for being Latino. While the line didn’t invoke much reaction from the crowd, this Mexican-American appreciated it.

Marfa Myths is the annual music festival through a partnership with Brooklyn music label Mexican Summer and non-profit contemporary art foundation Ballroom Marfa. The festival started in 2014 as a day show with four bands performing at El Cosmico but has now grown into a weekend-long festival filled with music, film and art installations spread through the small West Texas town.

This was my first time attending Marfa Myths as I usually miss it for another festival. I was excited when Ballroom Marfa announced it was moved to April this year because it meant I could attend. From what I’ve seen on social media, this festival seems different.

Sarah Melendez, Ballroom Marfa public programs associate, said that so much thought and consideration goes into every detail for Marfa Myths. Mexican Summer and Ballroom Marfa used the opportunity this year to celebrate diversity within the lineup. Acts from all over the globe made the long trek to Marfa from as far as Brazil and Jamaica. Each performance location was just as diverse as the musicians and became part of the experience.

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Roberto Carlos Lange, who goes by the moniker Helado Negro, performed his bilingual set to a crowded Saint George Hall without his “tinsel mammal” dancers, but instead with a full band. With the hall brightly lit from the afternoon sun, Lange interacted with the crowd, at times singing directly to them as if his uplifting lyrics about being brown were a reassurance during these political times. Every now and then, he would get lost in his own music by closing his eyes and swaying along. There was always a smile on his face.

At one point, he shared his excitement that he was opening for Tom Zé, the veteran Brazilian musician who definitely had the most energy of the festival. At 81 years old, Zé danced around stage inspiring the crowd to dance along with him. Unfortunately, the room started to thin out as Drugdealer was scheduled to perform at the Lost Horse around the same time, but Zé didn’t let that phase him at all. He wanted to entertain and that’s exactly what he did. He cracked me up when he waved his vinyl in the air at one point while his band performed a jingle as an attempt to sell records. The ploy worked because a line formed at his merch table immediately after his set.

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The overall vibe of Marfa Myths was pretty chill, both in a literal and climate sense. While April tends to be a bit warmer than March, a dust storm blew through town on Friday with at least 35 mph wind, quickly covering all the festival-goers and everything in sight with a touch of a West Texas reality. It kinda put a damper on the day, but the shows went on.

Kelsey Lu provided a bit of reprieve from the weather as she performed inside the USO building Friday afternoon. On a stage in the center of the room, Lu enchanted the audience with her ethereal voice and cello. It was quite a different vibe given that folk band The Weather Station, Legendary Texas musician Terry Allen and a drag queen show, “Hello I’m Dolly: Best Little Drag Show in Texas,” graced the stage in the same building the night before.

As with most nights in this high desert, the temperature dropped once the sun did, but the wind didn’t stop. It was freezing at the afterparty at El Cosmico, but it was worth seeing Innov Gnawa with their Black Moroccan ritual trance music. Because this area is under a severe drought, there weren’t any outside fire pits to keep us warm. The land is so dry that one little spark and the high winds could lead to widespread wildfire like the 2011 Rock House fire. Others kept their bodies warm by dancing to Detroit dancer producer Omar-S until the wee hours of the morning.

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Luckily, Saturday and Sunday had warmer temperatures. After Helado Negro and Zé, the shows were moved to the Capri with Amen Dunes, Circuit Des Yeux, Wire and special performances by the musicians in residence, Cate Le Bon with Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Connan Mockasin with his father Ade Mockasin. The Mockasins’ warmed my heart with a cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Connan would occasionally glance at his father as they performed together with a big grin on his face. It was truly endearing.

One of my favorite parts about Marfa Myths was the multi-instrumentalist sets that encouraged sitting and lying down. My feet definitely appreciated it. Laraaji with Arji Oceananda made me feel like I was in a forest (in a desert, mind you). Their set was moved inside into the Wrong Store to protect from the wind, which I thought was best suited for their music. I felt the wind would have carried the sound away.

We were encouraged to sit towards the center of the Chinati Foundation’s arena to get the full effect of Suzanne Ciani’s quadrophonic sound set which she produced with her Buchla synthesizer. The four speakers set up at each corner of the room gave her music a bit of a 3D feel.

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I was expecting a dance party or some kind of big hurrah to wrap Marfa Myth on Sunday, but the last event of the festival were film screenings and live scores. The Allah-Las played the soundtrack they wrote for the surf documentary, “Self Discovery for Social Survival,” which happened to show scenes of the band playing the exact songs. How meta. There were moments when I had to take a step back though and remember what I was hearing was a live band on stage, which is a sign of perfectly executed live score.

It took me awhile to realize this but this subtle way to end the festival was kind of nice. I didn’t feel the need to celebrate the night away and then hate myself when I woke up for work the next morning. The thing about Marfa Myths music festival is that it’s about experiencing the music. It’s about combining Marfa’s laid-back mentality in this beautiful landscape so we are reminded to take a breath, sit back and just listen.

I would definitely attend again.