All photos courtesy of Laura Ajetunmobi/Groovefest
"This gives people a place where they can really be free," says the blonde, middle-aged woman next to me in our sun-dappled cabana as she bounces to the rollicking piano chords of Marshall Jefferson's Chicago house classic, "Move Your Body," one hand holding a suspiciously pink cocktail. She closes her eyes and sings along: Give me that house...music...set me free. Natalie, as she introduces herself to me, is a lifelong house head from New Jersey, and DJs like DJ Pierre—who is spinning from a booth facing the ocean—are what brought her to the Dominican Republic for Groovefest, a weeklong festival in one of Puerto Plata's sprawling beach resorts.
Now in its third year, Groovefest was founded by London promoters Jason Nelhams and Courtney Tuck, who also run a UK venue agency called Blank Canvas. The festival is couched in a rather enticing concept: a Caribbean getaway soundtracked by techno and house heavyweights, with your all-inclusive wristband also earning you the right to bottomless drinks and food at the Lifestyle Holidays resort's many bars and restaurants. It goes without saying that nothing goes better with seven days of partying in warm weather than unrepentant gluttony.
The festival's daytime and nighttime parties hop around different locations around the resort, which means you get to soak in headliners like Green Velvet,Skream, Lee Foss, MK, Anja Schneider, Kevin Saunderson and Patrick Topping in a variety of settings—including a sunken concrete amphitheater called The Colosseum (where I also caught a traditional Brazilian dance show while sandwiched between two Dominican brothers), a private beach stocked with pillows and an oyster bar, andeven the Ocean World Adventure Park next door, where both Doorly and Skream and Cera Alba and Ryan of No Artificial Coloursplayed four-hour b2b sets.
It would be remiss not to mention the unofficial afterparties too, hosted by guests in their Scarface-worthy villas, where DJs would set up their CDJs on the veranda and throw down till dawn. As Natalie's friend put it as he reached over to light her cigarette, one of the festival's highlights is that "you can hear the music and the ocean at the same damn time."
Groovefest cites their attendance numbers at 1000-1500 people this year, and that relative intimacy creates an unparalleled sense of community between the artists and unpretentious crowd, which skewed towards hard-partying Americans and Brits, but also included a good number of locals. Attracting more Dominican dance music lovers is a top priority this year, says Nelhams as we post up in a breezy cabana for a chat along with festival booker Alex Donald, who also books Egg nightclub in London.
Below, Nelhams and Donald elaborate on the history of the festival, their vision for Groovefest, and the untapped potential of the Dominican Republic as the next big dance destination. But not before a sunburned British woman—who has evidently consumed a few of those pink cocktails—walks by, shouting, "Jason! Cheers man, I had a great time!" She rambles away, then turns around and shouts, "We must do it again soon! Jason! Thanks again!"
THUMP: Jason, what inspired you to start Groovefest?
Jason Nelhams: I was a promoter in London for 10 years; we have a locations agency called Blank Canvas that represents unique buildings in London like old industrial power stations. We also ran this party called Ibiza Underground with 2-2,500 people every weekend in an old church. It was pretty amazing. But I felt like the scenes in the UK were infiltrated, everyone became a promoter overnight, and there weren't necessarily the right people at these parties. We sort of lost the buzz. So we decided to change direction. Basically, friends of mine own land within the resort, and they proposed we come over. I fell in love with the Dominican people, the vibe, the energy—it just made sense to try and do something different here.
Are there other festivals that you look to for inspiration?
JN: Not really. Can you name another festival where you pay upfront and have all your meals and drinks paid for? It's a party meets holiday experience, with an emphasis on getting dressed up and having fine dining while enjoying the music and partying hard.
[Suddenly, the woman comes back. "Jason! Did I tell you what a great time I had? I have to come back next year!"]
[laughs, waves] The artists come over here and stay for a couple nights so they can relax. They're on the beaches and the restaurants, they can be themselves and have that connection with people—understand them a bit more before they perform, so when they do, they give a special set.
Alex Donald: In the European market, you get the same 20 big names who are in Netherlands, then Belgium, then Germany, then Croatia—week in and week out, a festival in a different location. And America is EDM, although they're slowly getting into it with Hot Since 82, Solomun, and Patrick Topping.
This is Groovefest's third year—how has the festival changed with each edition?
JN: We started in 2012, took a break to iron things out logistically, and came back strong last year. I think we've started to attract more of an international crowd. It was very Brit heavy at first, and this isn't a British festival—it's not about attracting the UK market to the Dominican Republic, unlike the festivals in Croatia that are 90 percent Brits. This is about creating a vibe where people learn from all kinds of colors, nationalities, and creeds.
Alex, could you speak about how the lineups have changed over the years?
AD: It's not quite as much about soulful house, more about tech-house. We've got a new stage called the Marina this year, which allows us to get a more local crowd because they can get night passes [to the Marina]. They will probably want the more techier sound that they don't usually get over here, and we can attract those artists. But we'll still have that soulful beach house during the day.
How do you go about booking artists for this festival?
AD: Groovefest is completely different. I book Egg in London where it's pure house and techno. But you can't play DVS1 and Blawan on the beach—you've got to do groovy old-school stuff like Terry Hunter and Kenny Dope. You get slightly harder towards the evening, maybe a bit tech-housier. Tonight, I've got Green Velvet towards the end.
Jason, your event was called Ibiza Underground and a lot of the DJs playing at Groovefest this year are the ones you'd find playing on the island. Is there a connection between what you're doing here and what's going on over there?
JN: I used to go there quite a bit, but I grew out of it—I lost the love, it wasn't the same. For me, this is more mature Ibiza experience for those who want a holiday at the same time. The people who come here may not go to Ibiza anymore, but they still want to go abroad once a year to have a massive blowout, and this allows them to do that. There's a totally different atmosphere and energy.
What are the barriers to entry when you're throwing a dance festival in a relatively untested territory?
JN: I just had a meeting in the capital where we were talking to sponsors and thinking about how to attract a local market, which is of a huge importance to us this year. There's a growing dance music scene in the Dominican Republic, but I think [in previous years], local people didn't know how to get into the festival—this huge resort attracts mostly Americans. We've changed things this year by partnering with ShaveUrLegz, these [Dominican] guys doing things in the underground dance scene. Over the weekend, the energy builds up; the local market is gonna come, and they're such great people, so energetic and enthusiastic. It's going to be electric.