Down on a bend in the Mississippi River sits a massive, post-industrial warehouse on open land: it’s Mardi Gras World and it's where New Orleans carries out its most famous French tradition with a globally-recognized celebration every year. This past weekend, the flamboyant carnival creatures and décor speckling the grounds were tucked away in favor of a festival where music and art coalesce amongst a creative, funky subculture.
The Louisiana humidity hung thick in the 70-degree air as the gates of the Buku Music + Art Project opened on Friday. In the sunlight, it’s prevalent to see the old industry relics that had been repurposed to create stages with an abandoned, underground vibe. In the distance behind the Power is the Plant stage; an old, foreclosed power plant the color of dark aging rust. Across the lot from a decaying water tower, an old New Orleans-style riverboat dubbed the S.S. Buku is docked on the river, serving as a VIP stage and lounge area. The 20th-century set-up is worn from years of use but takes on new life under the blanket of the night as both the water tower and the boat turn into a dazzling array of flashing rainbow lights.
As a boutique-size festival, Buku offers its attendees a complete sense of autonomy and is a true project at its core. In a constant state of flux and development, performers, artists and attendees alike contribute to the creation of art, music and “Bukulture.” A huge wall of blank canvas loomed over the festival entrance early Friday afternoon in anticipation of the artists who would splash vibrant colors and designs on it throughout the course of two days. By Saturday night, the once blank slate now held stunning street art, including a close-up, two-tone portrait of Lil Yachty. Resourceful artists took any opportunity for a canvas: the concrete was dotted with chalk designs in amazing detail, the inside of an old metal storage unit was slowly covered in graffiti and tags, and dozens of faces lined up to be dotted with tribal and trippy paint designs.
On Friday afternoon, it was almost impossible to tear away from the Float Den – the stage housed under the high ceilings of the warehouse. The Float Den had an underground house feel unmatched by other festivals, even though at capacity the room held several thousand. K?D dropped heavy beats that pulsed slowly and created a hypnotizing phenomenon during his mix of Daft Punk’s “Doin’ It Right.” San Holo followed, mesmerizing with some future bass that didn’t disappoint – although he threw off some of his fans after he ended the set without playing one of his most popular tracks, “Light.” The Float Den’s audience only grew as TroyBoi dropped in next. He mixed a seriously impressive set and explored much more upbeat dance that melded perfectly into the festival energy.
On the other side of the grounds, the Power Plant screen illuminated a message: Young Thug wouldn’t be arriving due to a personal emergency. Without skipping a beat, Juvenile showed up to fill his time slot on the spot. He announced to the crowd that the moment the festival called him, he knew he had to show up for his people. And if the crowd missed Young Thug, they did a great job of hiding it.
After Juvenile’s surprise visit, Grizmatik took the stage to share the spotlight on their new music. Between a few unreleased tracks and the added mix of both GRiZ and Gramatik’s most recent new releases, the set was almost entirely never-before-seen. The crowd raged for over an hour to a mix of grimy funk and dub, and the whole of the park was grooving when the original classic “Funky Town” was mixed into a Grizmatik masterpiece.
The crowd meandered back into the Float Den to see Zeds Dead close out the warehouse. While the duo dropped some deep house and dubstep to a crowd of dedicated headbangers, Lil Dicky was getting all the laughs at the Ballroom – the festival’s smaller indoor stage. He skipped around the stage in a lacy, pink thong that a fan had sling-shotted onto the stage. Lastly, tucked away in the corner of the festival on the river under a magnificent view of the Crescent City Connection bridge, Shiba San went B2B with Justin Jay for a set of deep house amongst palm trees and a cabana-style lounge deck. Together, the two of them brought the festival into another realm of house under the glow of their circular neon stage, floating like an orb above the crowd.
Friday was not without its share of surprises. Chet Porter sent out a tweet announcing that Josh Pan had punched him in the face for reasons still unknown to the public. An attendee (who suffered no injuries) jumped from the grounds into the Mississippi River and had to be rescued by the New Orleans Fire Department. The All Good Records after party showcase raged until just before 5 a.m. Saturday morning as GRiZ went B2B with JAUZ and Hooks of Zeds Dead, who stopped by after finishing his own Zeds Dead after party. And after a few hours of rest, the Bukrew was ready to return to the fest.
The grounds had new life on Saturday as all the new art additions and costumes shone in the daylight. The sky threatened rain, but the festival goers were pleased with the breeze after a hot and sticky night the day before. The rain never came, but REZZ drew the crowd inside of the Float Den anyway as her driving bass threw the crowd into a frenzy before her LED-goggle eyes and spiraling visuals. REZZ’s bass was heavy and dark and mirrored the music that she chose to sample: classic metal throwbacks, including ones by Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park.
A billowy canopy dotted with colorful spotlights set the stage for street performers outside of the Float Den, illuminating at the collapse of daylight. Circled by an entourage of dancers, a traveling drum set on wheels snaked its way along the river wrapped in gleaming neon lights. A crew of break dancers took turns defying gravity as they whipped their legs over their heads in one spinning blur, while another dancer latched on to the inside of a giant, twirling 5-foot hoop that spun gracefully as he held on, suspended in the center.
To continue the madness back inside the Float Den, Ghastly took the stage for a B2B set with Herobust. The two took a moment to entice the crowd, announcing that neither of them had ever attended one of the other’s shows, they hadn’t practiced or planned anything before they took the stage at Buku, and they were about to wing it. The crowd lost their minds, and rightfully so. Their styles are so different and yet they chose the perfect compositions when contrasting smooth dance house style with dubby-drops and licks. The variety was incomparable and arguably aided in creating the best set that the Float Den saw on Saturday.
A synth sound building quietly in the distance soon overtook the festival grounds at the Power Plant stage as Deadmau5 appeared. He was missing his notorious cube, a stage display that he’s never without and had just announced he was taking on tour late last year. Still donning his Mau5 head, he played classic throwbacks, including “FML,” a blend of “Ghosts N Stuff” into “Moar Ghosts N Stuff,” and variations on “Strobe.” Within the near hour and a half that he was on stage, Deadmau5 found the perfect balance of smooth, chilled house to trance the crowd before launching into thriving dance tracks at the perfect moment. An enormous barge hauling down the Mississippi let off a loud horn, and it was as if the whole of New Orleans had stopped to watch. Before walking off the stage, Deadmau5 stopped to announce, “Oh, and sorry about the cube thing!” to which his fans erupted with forgiveness.
21 Savage closed out the Ballroom Saturday night with a set that was mostly composed of a cappella. It was interesting in its surprise factor, but his choice to perform this way left the crowd itching for more dance music. Meanwhile, in the Float Den, Zhu had the crowd pulsing with his eerie, wafting voice in tracks like “Wasted” and “In the Morning.” He played a solid 15 minutes longer than expected set time, and almost no one stopped dancing.
The Buku Music + Art Project doesn’t just dare to break the mold of music festivals, rather it insists on cultivating a unique contribution to both the music and art communities unmatched by any other. As a DIY, ever-changing project, there is no telling what next year’s Bukulture will boast, but the anticipation has already begun. With a final send off and a nod at New Orleans’ French influence, the official website reads “Merci Buku!”