Once upon a time, if you wanted to see a music fest in the Caribbean, you had to board a ship full of drunken Diplo fans to do it. Nowadays, though, there are better, chiller, more Dramamine-free options. Take Isle of Light, the day-long festival in the Dominican Republic's picturesque port city of Santo Domingo. For its 2016 installment, which takes place Saturday, March 5, organizers Mishu Music have devised a plan that is as much about enjoying live music as it is embracing the DR culture. The lineup features a mix of solidly great international acts (Neon Indian, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Shamir) and local innovators (Playa O Radio, Gran Poder De Diosa, Selektor 7, Mula). The festival grounds include a stunning view of the ocean. And the vibe is totally intimate, with around 5,000 people expected to attend. (The average Coachella viewership is 30,000 daily, by the way.)
While Isle of Light's vision and visionaries expect their still-young festival to grow, as the festival's head of production Luis Betances puts it, "We don't really want to compete with the Lollapaloozas of the world."
Below, we chat with Betances about Isle of Light's big third year, the benefits of attending a festival in the middle of the Caribbean, and the restorative power of Ziplining during a Neon Indian set.
What is the music scene like in Santo Domingo?
Well, as of a few years ago it's really been catered to an electronic music crowd, from underground techno to the huge EDM festivals. We are kind of pioneering the band thing, specifically on the western side of the Dominican Republic. We typically get Latin acts down here, and the older '80s bands. Indie rock, especially from the States, is a very new thing for the Dominican crowd.
This is Isle of Light's third year. How has the community responded so far?
We get a lot of real palpable excitement down here. We're bringing music to people who would not normally have access to it. In the age of the internet, they have the means to learn about it and hear it, but to actually see these bands live is a completely different experience. People seem to be really grateful about the opportunity. The Dominican Republic gets about 4 million tourists every year, and that number keeps growing, so the people here are very open to visitors and to embracing things from other countries. The vibe is very welcoming to everyone from everywhere else.
Can you tell me a bit about the local acts on the bill?
We try to get bands that are somewhat similar to the headliners, but also bring something to the table. Mula is kinda like a dark, electronic, Reggaeton-influenced group that's really interesting. It's like nothing you've ever heard. I would maybe compare them to M.I.A. in a way, but it's definitely got it's own flavor. Then there's Gran Poder de Diosa, which translates to "Great Power of the Goddess." It's very tropical—they're all older, they're all professional musicians—and they're fusing all these new sounds with Latin tropical rhythms. It's really fun and very special, even for people down here. We're trying to find the absolute best of what the island is offering right now and put it alongside the internationally known headlining acts.
For people treating this as a destination festival, what other stuff do you recommend?
Definitely the colonial zone in Santo Domingo. It's the first working settlement in the New World, so it has a lot of charm. It has the first cathedral, the first street in the Americas, the first university. It's beautiful. The beaches are spectacular—it's what we're known for internationally—and Cabarete is a very impressive beach on the north coast; it's regarded as a mecca for kitesurfing and windsurfing. Carnival is around this time as well, so there's always something Carnival-esque happening. Onsite there's also a local market of artisans. We're trying to make it as much as a cultural exchange as possible.
Do you have something you're especially looking forward to this year?
We have this Zipline that flies across the festival and goes right in front of the stage during performances. It's a really fun, weird way to experience live music, and I've never seen it before at a music fest. It's a funny thing. I've obviously loved putting this festival on, but it's a stressful weekend, and in the past, every time I'd feel stressed I'd look up and see that person flying over our heads. It put everything in perspective. Amid all the chaos, to see someone having that much fun makes it all worth it.
Isle of Light takes place Saturday, March 5 at Punta Torrecilla in Santo Domingo. For tickets and info, visit the festival's website.