3rd January, 2015: From his home in Puerto Escondido - a beach-bum site on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico - Tomás Davó is waking up to a bad mood. He is tired of being misidentified as the leader of a creative collective when he, in fact, runs a record label. He is tired of being asked the meaning behind that label’s name, NAAFI (it’s Afrikaner acronym for ‘No Ambition and Fuck-all Interest’). And on top of that, Davó may not be happy this morning “cuz I’m super fucking tired.”
Alongside Mexican Jihad, Paul Marmota and RBMA 2014 alumni Lao, Davó - aka Fausto Bahía - is behind NAAFI. Needing a Mexican outlet for their favourite dance sub-genres, the four friends bandied together in celebration of Ritmos Perificos, a term and short-hand manifesto that translates literally to ‘outsider rhythms’. In July 2010, the unit threw their first party at Mexico City nightspot Social Rhodesia: London’s Zombie Death Squad headlined, Marmota supported, and the label were all of a sudden in business. While a success, that first event was to be an anomaly in the label’s story. For subsequent parties, “random people” outside of the label team’s circle would not be considered and booking agencies would not be contacted.
With each party, the NAAFI team garnered a considerable reputation among international guests stuck in their ways - “I've seen people changing direction in the middle of their sets,” Davó admits with a hint of pride - and had soon established a community to celebrate outsider music, a deliniation that grew to contain the label’s output following the late 2012 release of Jamez Manuel’s Agua EP. NAAFI’s most recent release is the triple-disc compilation TRIBAL; an ambitious collection of music from three of the label’s artists, each exploring a different facet of Mexico’s inescapable tribal sound - Prehispanic, Guarachero, and Costeño - in collaboration with Mexico City’s Centro de Cultural Digital.
Four years on from their first party, the label has built up enough of a worldwide reputation to throw a three-day beach party in Puerto Escondido, bringing in the new year alongside peers from similarly-independent club collectives Night Slugs and Fade to Mind. Three days of year-end festivities, international bass music, and a few thousand Instagram posts of NAAFI beach towels later, Davó is understandably exhausted. While in recovery mode from the celebrations and incessant workload involved (“Don’t mind me, I’m super intense at the moment,” he warns), Davó was more than willing to set the tone for NAAFI in 2015, taking to task Western coverage of Mexican music, the critical negligence of tribal culture, and how to maintain outsider status in the face of success.
As a gathering of Latin American and Mexican artists, NAAFI appears to be painted as a local and national representative whenever Western press gets in touch. Is that tiring?
It’s a lack of information - Mexico City is like any other city. I have definitely been asked what Mexico City’s music scene was like, I have answered that so many times. There’s a lot of music scenes that don’t like each other, and I don’t like representing for everybody, because I don’t like everybody… It’s kind of a weird question, in the way that… it’s a city! Where a lot of shit happens!
Do people paint it as a place where only one sole thing happens at any given time?
Exactly. There’s a lot of different scenes, like any other place - or even more than other places.
NAAFI doesn’t have a direct connection to digital cumbia, but it is a proponent of Latin American dance culture. How important is it to the NAAFI story?
It’s a bad word in our minds. I feel like it hasn’t been relevant for a while. I like it, just not digital cumbia. That’s a whole different thing. The Tribal project isn’t cumbia to me, it’s more a mix of cumbia, some tribal, el guarachero… but not all of it. [Javier Estrada’s] Prehispanico has not a lot to do with it; aside from regional dances, [DJ Tetris’s] Costeño doesn’t really have a lot to do with it either. You know, the thing about cumbia in Mexico is that it’s been going since the early 2000s, so while the world around us tries to market it as a Latin American sound - like it’s the only thing happening in our music - we’ve grown tired of it.
It's not an appropriate idea of what the “Latin American sound” is, plus that's trying to take fifty fucking countries and say they all sound the same. I don't hate cumbia, I know people that make it - I'm just sick of it as a world festival export, trying to sell the first world an idea of Latin America through cumbia. It would be way too kitsch for us, way too “I'm going to put on a poncho and sombrero and sell my Mexicanness to the industry.” We don't want to be super Latin American, and “Latin America” is this big fantasy that doesn't exist. I don't want to be negative here, but it's not about the music.
I'd like to read a quote from Mexican Jihad: “I believe something that characterises these projects is that they aren't necessarily trying to sell themselves as something Latin or as something Mexican - the people that are a part of N.A.A.F.I are not interested in this, the Latin aspect of a culture, or this segmentation.”
That’s exactly what I've been talking about. This personal trip that Alberto [aka Mexican Jihad] and I have been living with for a while, having ourselves reflected in everything we do. Latin American culture may exist in Miami but not anywhere else, so the idea that we're all the same is not real. I don't feel it's right to sell something that doesn't really exist. and I appreciate those who do the world music festival thing but it's kind of a novelty, you know? The Tijuana donkey thing. It's something that could never be taken seriously, because it's only selling an image, not an act that can properly mature.
So does the Tribal project go towards recovering that by redressing the history of Mexcian dance music through NAAFI's perspective?
Tribal came and went, because nobody bothered to put it in a map. To bother with any research. To figure out how many tribals there was. No-one gave it the proper place for a more in-depth conversation.
What do you mean exactly?
People talked about tribal but it became a novelty and swoosh, disappeared. In Mexico, listening to tribal can be a sign of bad taste though all kinds of tribal are everywhere. So we found this opportunity with this museum [Centro de Cultural Digital] to do a little research and put out a free product that was more than a CD. That CD is a catalogue of what has happened in Mexican history regarding this specific sound, but it was important to pin that on the map, to say don’t forget about this. These guys have been performing tribal for ten years, so it was us trying to stop it from fading away so easily. Even for us!
Not in all of Mexico, of course, but the country’s trying to cleanse their background to move into a fully Western world. That shouldn’t happen.
There’s a term that is overused here - naco. It’s used nowadays for everything that doesn’t fit into a Western way of life, are considered naco, as shorthand for bad taste. Not in all of Mexico, of course, but the country’s trying to cleanse their background to move into a fully Western world. That shouldn’t happen. In this case, tribal is something autonomous, and when it’s trying to be that, a lot of people say “eugch, it’s for nacos” because it doesn’t fit the correct Western way. So tribal became a novelty, when the reality is that it’s everywhere, so we have to go ahead and give it the proper respect that it definitely has in our hearts. This is the first project that we’ve done with the Centro de Cultural Digital and I think we’re going to do more stuff like that.
It’s been a success in every way - the artists were happy with it, the museum were really happy with it, we were really happy with it. We had a chance to go outside the box and the budget to explore whatever we wanted. It was a good opportunity to do something new not only for the club, but for the catalogue, like a musicology project.
At the point when you realised NAAFI would undertake such a project, were you one of the first to do so?
The only project that I can think of, that might be closer to our ambitions, is to eventually make a catalogue of Mexican music. It is my priority. Where I was born and where I live has the national history and anthropology department called INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), and there was an American guy called Thomas Stanford, who was a musicologist. He recorded in Mexico for more than forty years, starting in the Forties I believe, and with INAH, released a lot of recordings.
Do you have a history in academia?
I didn’t finish college. This is just me being obsessed when we do stuff. I feel lately that a lot of people are uncomfortable, so they are looking for the new ways of having a better acknowledgement of who we are. Music is so important in my life, I listen to all kinds of music from Mexico. It is personal.
In regards to you and the inner circle within NAAFI, is this need for the catalogue a shared passion?
We all have different interests but when we take it to the dancefloor, we share the same idea as to what a party should be. People ask me what genre it is, and we don’t even like to give it a name: electronic music doesn’t have to sound like what you think it is because it’s not EDM - it could be reggaeton next to a grime track… All things colliding into one. I don’t like putting names on things, because that’s pretentious and it’s important to not be pretentious or pretend it’s what the “Latin American sound’ is… It is what it is.
It’s like a symbiotic relationship.
With us, it’s like that no one knows what the party could be. This is about us wanting to not be one with everyone else.
Nowadays DJs come here and try to import their local scene, but it’s not that strong compared to when the locals play here. The hits are born inside of the party, you know?
Doesn’t the label’s whole Ritmos Prefericos concept stick to the idea of being outsiders?
Definitely, and that’s when I realised that NAAFI is so personal. The music at the parties is different, we want to do what we want to do. We are outsiders, we are weird, not all of us live in Mexico City, so we’re not like most people in our society. What happens in the parties - which is NAAFI’s main purpose - people listen to our Soundcloud, talk to us, come to our houses, friends and family. We have our own hits, and that’s cool, because every scene or city has their hits. Nowadays DJs come here and try to import their local scene, but it’s not that strong compared to when the locals play here. The hits are born inside of the party, you know? Last year it happened a lot, with people playing songs that would really kill a dancefloor in their environments and not getting a lot in return. It's kinda funny and kinda cool. Having Mexico City people pushing the limits of their own city feels good.
Do you ever wonder about maintaining this outsider status?
Yeah… But that’s not going to happen right now. We’ll find out our own way. It’s worked so far, we can continue to push ourselves, I get bored if I don't push more. The thing with this label is we're finding new ways of figuring it out. We'll come up with something unconventional and will find a way to keep doing what we do. I think it's worked, pushing people musically! At the first parties there was no-one - now there's people waiting outside, and Mexico City is like “oh shit! this is actually good!” We'll find a way to keep on pushing and fuck with the heads; it's for us but at the same time we need that extra joy. I'm not talking about pushing the music, but the people involved. The projects need to be bigger and push the limits of the world around us.
These are my personal opinions, this has nothing to do with NAAFI: I know a lot of people are not comfortable with society's standards. The world is so fucked - someone who could be considered a good citizen could be a huge douchebag because it's so standardised. I don't feel great about te standard of humanity right now so I need to push it to the point that we feel comfortable as good humans. I might as well do it while I'm here, you know? I live a happy, normal life with my girlfriend, but at the same time I can't be all happy. The world is not the nicest place. Going to the office and just coming home? I'm not comfortable with that.
Concerning Tribal, the Centro de Cultura Digital site have noted about how dance music can be an area for subversive messages.
Yeah, and that’s why we have these parties, so the people can act the way they wanna act and not be judged at the entrance because you’re not dressed well or you’re too brown or you don’t have the right shoes. We’re taking those politics into the night. NAAFI events have become a space of tolerance for a lot of people, where they can do whatever they want to do and not worry about everybody else. I don’t know how successful the message will be and if it will carry on, but it has happened. The community has grown so much in and outside of Mexico City, and it’s a situational context for people that need those spaces, from a different generation that need weird spaces to really be. We don’t have a manifesto and I don’t know if people will go home and start a revolution, but they can not be afraid of who they want to be. Never be afraid - that’s the most important thing.