Last year, the São Paulo-based promoters behind Mareh achieved the near impossible, throwing a world-class festival on Boipeba Island, a location only reachable by boat. (Mareh's motto is: "It's all about the next summer of love"—"No one said it was going to be easy" would work just as well.) This year, the team relocated to Curumuxatiba, which, like Boipeba, is in Bahia, a state known for its fusion of Afro-Brazilian culture, unspoiled beaches and Tropicália. You can drive to Curumuxatiba, but only along a bumpy dirt road. Most DJs and attendees flew into an airport about four hours away; the expensive trip kept some of last year's revelers at home. The capacity for this year's edition, which ran from December 26th through January 3rd, was 1,000 at its peak (as opposed to 1,500 in 2015). Also, the number of returning attendees (both DJs and punters alike) meant it felt less like a festival and more like a gathering of friends who had ventured to the end of the earth to hang out with each other.
Make no mistake, the journey to Curumuxatiba was worth it. I arrived on little sleep and immediately boarded the Gop Tun boat, a maritime showcase for the São Paulo DJs who are helping organize Dekmantel's forthcoming satellite event. Numbers were a little thin owing to the previous night's marathon featuring Kenji Takimi and Ilija Rudman, but this only heightened the familial vibe—close friends, dragging themselves into the water after a couple hours of rest. From the clear, warm sea, you could see the venue that hosts Mareh's biggest parties, a geodesic dome perched on a dramatic cliff. The surreal and beautiful scene was scored by tunes like Ennio Morricone's "Dance On" and Young Marco's recent remix of Sultan Shakes' "Interstellar Love." For a few days a year, Mareh might just be the most Balearic place in the world.
Back on land, the Bar Da Praia beach bar was home to nightly parties, with the larger events on the 28th and New Year's Eve going down in the dome. Although a core crew of DJs return to Mareh regularly, this year's program had its fair share of newcomers, like Zurich digger Lexx. Stepping up to the decks right after sunset, he moved perfectly from downtempo to more banging fare (Dixon's retouch of Todd Terje's "Snooze 4 Love" and the Mood Hut edit, "Better"). The rest of his set was peppered with enviable obscurities, making fans out of a crowd that I'd guess was largely unfamiliar with him before he showed up. Canadian multi-instrumentalist Jex Opolis was another adventurous booking, though with his flowery shirt, '80s coiffure and shades, he fit right in. Despite the yacht rock aesthetics, he delivered one of the housier sets of the festival. (Disco and edits were most DJs' styles of choice.)
Mareh lasted seven rather than eight days this year, and there was one stage instead of two. But the downscale didn't diminish the quality. In fact, the festival has become just as much about the easy daytime living as the parties themselves. Still, a palpable excitement built up for the New Year's celebration. If London veteran Ray Mang was nervous before the marquee session, it didn't show in his set. Beginning with Konk's "Percussion Jam," he went all over the shop, casting a nostalgic look back to '90s Manchester with cuts like Neal Howard's "The Gathering" and Daphne's "When You Love Someone." Joakim is so well-versed in the Mareh vibe that he released a track called "Boipeba" on the festival's label last July. He started with African-inspired cuts like Henrik Schwarz's remix of Emmanuel Jal's "Kuar" before paying tribute to 2016's fallen icons—Prince, David Bowie and George Michael—as the sun rose over the glistening beach.
Bahia, and Brazil in general, casts an alluring spell over its visitors. Luke Howard of Horse Meat Disco knows a bit about this, having spent the last 14 summers in Brazil. He was spotted holding court throughout the festival, waiting until the final night to perform. Despite little fanfare, he was phenomenal, playing joyful tunes like Ten City's "That's The Way Love Is" and one of the best gospel house tracks I've ever heard. Scottish edit impresario Dicky Trisco doubles as Mareh's in-house comedian, coining nicknames and dishing out clever retorts. He's also a killer DJ, proving firsthand why the edits he puts out on labels like Secret Squirrel and Disco Deviance are such good value—an Eddy Grant mix off Secret Squirrel had the crowd surging on the closing night.
If Dicky Trisco is Mareh's comedian, then current Rio de Janeiro resident Eric "Dr. Dunks" Duncan is its chief hedonist and perennial MVP. This year, he played three sets, closing NYE as well as the final night. His set at the closing, in particular, was among the most memorable I've seen in the past year. The past few times I've caught him, he's alternated between sleazy disco and hypnotic, chugging house, but at the beach bar, he was in a sentimental mood. Nearly every tune was a beatific ode to love, jumping from Third World's "Now That We've Found Love," to Jamie Principle's jacking plea. After about two and a half hours, the set hit an unexpected peak. Letting the record before run out, Duncan dropped the BPM down to 80 with Smokey Robinson's lowrider funk classic "Cruising," a nod to his east LA roots. Then, over the top, came Exile's "I Wanna Kiss You All Over," causing the crowd to burst into loud song. I've not seen many DJs tease a hands-in-the-air moment out of a slow jam so masterfully. If a DJ set was ever to bring on the third summer of love, this was it.