The stage is only about eight inches high, so the psychic force field that normally separates artist from audience is really just a stair step. DJ Mafe and DJ Rat go up, down, up, down, up. Disappearing/reappearing DJs.
It’s an electric Thursday night at Tropicalia, the new U Street nightclub, and the duo is either working the turntables or working the floor. They dance to reggaeton with the woman in the snakeskin miniskirt, dance to cumbia with the guy in the MIGRANT T-shirt, dance to salsa with the cyclist whose helmet is clicked to her belt loop, dance to merengue with the business frump who appears to have wobbled out of Men’s Wearhouse and into his fifth consecutive happy hour.
“It’s everyone from IMF and World Bank people to activists to restaurant workers,” says Mafe, a.k.a. Maria Fernanda Escobar, describing the crowd that musters each month for Maracuyeah, a pan-Latin dance party that’s become one of Washington’s most reliably thrilling nights on the town.
It’s a party without borders in every sense. For nearly two years, Maracuyeah has bounced across the city, from club to club, with no fixed address. Behind the turntables, Escobar and musical partner DJ Rat, a.k.a. Kristy Chavez-Fernandez, showcase Latin anthems that span hemispheres and decades, introducing new fans to vanguard rhythms and reminding others of homelands left behind.
“The concept for the party is reflecting the immigrant experience,” Escobar says. “Kids are listening to their parents’ cumbias and salsas and, like, [hip-hop].”
Chavez-Fernandez jumps in, “So your identity is literally in two places, and you don’t belong to either one, completely. You’re always more than one thing.”
Maracuyeah also aims to book touring DJs and live acts that might otherwise skip Washington, and tonight it’s Explosion Negra, a Medellin quintet that blends traditional Colombian folk with futuristic digital reggae, and Uproot Andy, a New York DJ specializing in sumptuous tropical bass.
But as promoters, Escobar and Chavez-Fernandez are more attentive to the faces in the crowd. Both have backgrounds as community organizers and see the dance floor as a space for sweaty social communion.
“We take the time to get out of the DJ booth and talk to people,” Escobar says. “It helps make people feel like they’re part of something.”
Those conversations spark easily. But eavesdropping on one is impossible. The music they spin is often unpredictable, but it’s always really loud.
House party. Columbia Heights. 2009. Chavez-Fernandez cued up “Merequeteke,” a chattering dance track by Mexican group Capullo. Then she spotted Escobar.
“She started a techno rhumba line that ended in a mosh pit,” Chavez-Fernandez says. “People were dancing on tables. I feel bad for the people whose house that was!”
Like many stories between these two, this one quickly disintegrates into laughter. At a corner table inside Restaurant Judy, a Salvadoran haunt on 14th Street NW, the duo noshes on a late-night dinner of pupusas while sipping Regia beer.
Eighteen months ago, this sleepy dining room was thick with bodies grinding to Chancha Via Circuito, an Argentine cumbia DJ the twosome lured to Washington for an unforgettable gig. Since then, they’ve hosted Colombian electro-cumbia producer Pernett at Napoleon in Adams Morgan, Chilean indie-pop singer Kali Mutsa at the Marx Cafe in Mount Pleasant and a slew of local and touring DJs at the Velvet Lounge on U Street.
But Chavez-Fernandez says Restaurant Judy feels the most like home. She loves the idea of throwing a dance party in a family restaurant. “We get really excited about that kind of crossover,” she says.
She grew up in the area with a knack for audio collage, swapping recordings with her cousins in Peru and Argentina, plastic cassettes that they would fill with stories and songs. During her college years in Lima, she started DJing with friends. (Chavez-Fernandez declined to give her age.)
Escobar, 26, gravitated toward Latin alternative music during her years at Florida State University, after a punk rock adolescence in Florida, which followed a Bogota childhood immersed in traditional Colombian song. She moved to Washington after college, seeking nonprofit work, and frequently found herself taking bus trips up to New York to see her favorite acts.
Those dashes up and down the Jersey Turnpike were exhilarating, exhausting and motivating.
Maracu-YEAHHH! It’s a play on the word maracuya — Spanish for passion fruit — and whenever Escobar or Chavez-Fernandez has a microphone in hand, it becomes a siren call to the dance floor.
“It really attracts a bunch of awesome, inspiring people,” says Lucy Pacheco, 26, an aspiring Washington singer and a Maracuyeah regular. “People celebrating awesome musical hybridities and styles, almost like a textured, international sound.”
Chavez-Fernandez says that’s the point. Where other DJ nights zero in on one micro-subgenre, Maracuyeah “is never from one people. It’s all mutations of different migrations.”
It’s a mind-set informed by their years as community organizers, years that taught them how to be quick on their feet.
One night in July, when the duo discovered that neo-cumbia group Bomba Estereo and their Colombian heroes, Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, were performing in Washington, Escobar and Chavez-Fernandez scrambled to coordinate an impromptu, after-hours jam at the Velvet Lounge.
Bomba Estereo “were meeting their idols for the first time on U Street!” Chavez-Fernandez marvels.
“Somebody else would have been like, whatever,” Escobar says. “But that’s not us. We hustle it.”
Moments before kicking off their recent Tropicalia gig, they’re hustling it, scrambling to connect a laptop to the club’s mixer, securing loose wires with leopard-print duct tape.
They’ve just changed from cool outfits into cooler outfits. Escobar wears a shiny skirt; Chavez-Fernandez sports a red pageant sash. Computer up and running, they start dishing out ’80s cumbia ballads and remixed reggaeton anthems, playfully squishing them together like different colored globs of Play-Doh.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Explosion Negra takes the stage, and the floor is instantly jammed. The best spots are up front near the stage, in the arms of someone beautiful or toward back where the air-conditioning vents shoot Freon gusts of relief.
At the edge of the stage, the performer-audience demarcation line remains porous — 25-year-old Ingianni Acosta is pulled up for a dance with the band. She has both hands up, one in the air, the other holding her fedora in place.
“These guys blew the roof off the place,” she says afterward. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Acosta says she’s never seen anything like this during her years in Washington. “This is the first night I’ve ever been to that’s been this full of energy with this much dancing and diversity.”
After the band’s encore, the headlining DJ steps up to the turntables and Chavez-Fernandez snatches the microphone, hyping the crowd through the transition. “Give it up for Explosion Negra!” she shouts. “Give it up for Uproot Andy!”
Then, in a louder voice, “And give it up for yourselves!”
The next Maracuyeah party is at 10 p.m. Friday at Restaurant Judy, 2212 14th St. NW. Admission is free.