Five years is a milestone by any accounting — a time to look back over what’s been accomplished, and turn a purposeful eye toward the future. For the Buku Music + Art Project, this weekend’s fifth iteration at Mardi Gras World also marks a new beginning.
In August 2015, Winter Circle Productions’ hip-hop and electronic dance music-focused event was acquired in part by AEG Live, the massive entertainment company that co-produces the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; the deal also established a new Gulf Coast office for AEG. The 2016 Buku is the first one to be produced with the help of Goldenvoice, the AEG company behind major American destination festivals like Coachella, Stagecoach and Firefly.
It’s a big step for Dante DiPasquale and Reeves Price, who launched Winter Circle in 2009 when both were still Tulane students. Price and DiPasquale now hold VP titles at AEG, the former in operations and the latter in talent, which requires him to split his time between New Orleans and New York City.
“They’ve basically set us up for success,” DiPasquale said. “There hasn’t been much that’s changed other than increased efficiency, a great network of people and a lot more information that we have than we did before.”
The 2016 Buku lineup on Friday and Saturday appears to corroborate DiPasquale’s assertion that the new partners are helping with a light touch. This year’s Buku is actually one of its first with no clear-cut legacy headliner on the level of past bill-toppers like Public Enemy and the Flaming Lips.
“That wasn’t deliberate, to be honest,” DiPasquale said, “though also, I think that Mystikal and Juvenile (who play Friday) could be considered a legacy act. We always like to give a nod to old-school hip-hop, and that was the act for this year.”
Beyond that, “we listen to the fans, too. Every single request that’s made, there’s a note being taken.”
This year, those notes came to fruition with a solid lineup of hot hip-hop, including Kid Cudi, Fetty Wap, Future, Kehlani and Earl Sweatshirt; experimental electronic bands like Pretty Lights (who will headline on Saturday), Chvrches and Crystal Castles; and an eclectic mix of locals.
“For me personally, Buku has always been about representing the subculture of New Orleans,” DiPasquale said. “I think it complements other festivals and events in the city, because it shines the spotlight on this sort of useful bubbling underbelly of New Orleans that is real and is a real positive contribution to the city. I think it’s sort of bringing New Orleans into the spotlight for a lot of young kids that maybe felt like there was no outlet for the music they listen to, or the lifestyle that they live.”
The Buku grounds at Mardi Gras World are essential to the festival’s identity. The twin smokestacks behind the main Power Plant stage are part of Buku’s visual branding, pictured on official poster art.
The unique indoor-outdoor staging creates multiple discrete vibes for the festival, from the sparse, cavernous Ballroom to the Float Den, with its leering, colorful papier-mache Carnival scenery to the V.I.P. S.S. Buku riverboat, docked in the Mississippi.
That’s been both a benefit and a challenge for organizers.
“It’s a lot of work,” said DiPasquale. “It’s not the easiest site. You would think, oh, it’s a small site so it’s easy to navigate. But it’s the opposite. The smaller the site, the more jammed you are and the more creative you have to be with the space. Every single square foot is calculated.”
To reach the Back Alley, Buku’s smallest stage, attendees walk a narrow promenade past the Float Den, beside the water, to a tucked-away riverside enclave that feels like you’ve gotten backstage by mistake. Added in 2014, the Back Alley was conceived for DJs to create an intimate, underground vibe, not unlike those of the D.I.Y. raves of the ’90s and early 2000s.
In 2015, Buku added palm trees and wooden furniture, creating a tropical patio vibe under the urban-industrial glow of the Crescent City Connection.
The Back Alley footprint will be expanded again this year, DiPasquale said, with a new stage and an amped-up lineup that puts local talent like DJ Soul Sister and Fro-Yo Ma alongside national names like the Dutch house DJ Sam Feldt and Chicago’s Lee Foss.
Another corner of the Buku grounds coming up in the world is the Front Yard, the fest’s only patch of green space. For the past two years, the grassy hollow beside the Float Den has hosted an increasing number of food vendors and artists, plus a small stage for DJs.
“At a lot of festivals there’s maybe one vibe, like I’m on the beach, or I’m in the woods,” DiPasquale said. “But at Buku, you sort of recalibrate where you are when you bounce from stage to stage. Because it’s indoor and outdoor, and one second you’re on the river and the other second you’re in a big warehouse and can’t see outside.”