DJ Mafe (Maria Fernanda Escobar) helps bring the sounds of the Latin diaspora… (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON…)
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.
“Why is it that I have to go to New York to see Mala Rodriguez or Los Rakas?” Escobar remembers asking herself. “They could be here.”
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.