Photo credit: Nash Does Work
It’s early September, but summer isn’t over in Lisbon. Despite it being late afternoon, it’s 32°C (90°F) and the heat seems to radiate from the mosaic streets. The sun lies low in the sky, giving the inner city an orange glow, lighting up the palm trees and illuminating the brightly colored houses. It’s peaceful in the center of Lisbon today, but as I approach my destination of Parque Eduardo VII, Lisbon’s largest city park, the tranquility is disturbed by a low, distant thumping.
As I approach the park, the sound transforms from a dull thud to a deep pounding. It seems to be coming from the sky itself, but as I turn the corner of the grand Parques de Pombal, towards the entrance of LISB-ON festival, the sound becomes localized.
It’s coming from the Main Stage. Moodymann stands on an elevated platform behind an expansive set of decks. His expression is joyous, his stance defiant as he plays an upbeat, funky house track to a backdrop of spider plants and potted palm trees. A brightly dressed crowd of locals watch and dance happily, beers in hand, in groups of three or four. The Detroit legend intersperses his set with low commentary, encouraging the crowd to boogie on — but they need no encouragement.
At first, it seems strange to find one of Detroit’s most respected DJs playing in the center of a park on a sunny afternoon in the middle of Lisbon, but then again: this city is full of surprises. It’s day one of LISB-ON 2019, a three-day open-air city festival founded in 2014 by a group of friends with a shared love of Lisbon culture and electronic music.
Jose Diogo, or Ze as his friends call him, is one of the founding team members of LISB-ON. He’s seen the festival grow from a grassroots gathering to an international event — along with Lisbon’s explosive creative scene. But, as he explains, it hasn’t always been this way.
“From 2011 to 2013, Portugal went through a huge crisis,” Ze says. “Our unemployment rate went from 10% to 20%. It was chaos. People just didn’t have money to go out and party.” In 2015 Portugal requested a bail-out, which helped get the economy back on its feet. “In 2015, we had a huge tourism boom,” says Ze. “People came from abroad to live here and they opened galleries, bars, restaurants. Suddenly the nightlife — and day life — changed.”
Ze explains how, with 300 days of sunshine a year, the world began to realize how much the city had to offer — at very low prices. “People were discovering new music, so a lot of DJs live here now. Artists visit monthly. And you can find a bar or club for any kind of music you like.”
LISB-ON is a beautiful festival. It boasts a main stage for international acts and two smaller stages for lesser-known, local talent. Winding paths lined with sycamore trees connect the three stages, and lanterns and fairy lights hang from the branches and rafters, setting the entire site a-glow as soon as the sun goes down. The festival has a family vibe, with play areas and beanbags for kids to hang out on. There are plenty of food trucks and bars too — my personal favorite exclusively serves the local Vino Verde wine, which is so pure it doesn’t even give me a hangover.
Ze says that alongside this economic and creative boom, the culture of the city has become more open. “It’s different from our parents’ generation. It’s a very friendly city to all genders and races and sexual orientation,” he says. And it’s festivals like LISB-ON that are leading the way.
“LISB-ON started with a group of friends,” Ze explains. These pals owned several restaurants and a popular underground nightclub before they decided to acquire a license to host the festival in Parque Eduardo VII. “We hosted a tiny two-day festival in 2014, just 3000 people — and it rained,” Ze says. “It was the big downpour of the year.” But that didn’t stop them trying again next year. Since then, the weather improved and the festival has grown to a capacity of 8000, with line-ups that boast some of the world’s biggest artists.
“Lisbon inspires,” Ze says. “The sun, the sea, the beach, the hills, the food. Life is so relaxed and it goes so smoothly. It’s easy to have a good day when it’s always sunny.”
DJ Vibe AKA António “Tó” Pereira is one of Lisbon’s most long-standing and well-respected DJs. He’s been on the scene since the early ’90s and has seen the city change from economic depression to a vibrant party destination. DJ VIbe speaks with a strong Portuguese accent — he has dark hair, dark eyes, peppered stubble and speaks with enthusiasm about the musical landscape of his home city.
“I’ve always been involved with music since I was a kid,” he says. “My father had a record store in the ’80s, so after school I would always go to the record store and listen to music. I started playing in clubs about 37 years ago — I’m 52 now. But music and nightlife have kept me young.”
In fact, DJ Vibe is so involved with the party scene here that he played Lisbon’s first-ever underground rave. “We started the rave scene here in the ’90s,” he says. “It was in an old church in Lisbon in 1992. And after that, it started. DJs were playing in different clubs, and we used to be residents in the clubs. After that, we started to play all over Portugal. More parties, more promoters, and it started growing.”
DJ Vibe has enjoyed seeing his city change from an unknown capital on the edge of Europe to a bustling must-see tourist destination. “I’m proud to be part of this,” he says, “I was one of the first [Portuguese] DJs to start playing all over the world — producing music and records outside of Portugal and America and the UK. I’m proud of that.” DJ Vibe cited how it was the work of his passionate friends and fellow DJs who put Lisbon on the dance music map.
There’s an air of carnival about Lisbon. And it’s not just the brightly colored buildings or beautiful weather or higgledy-piggledy hills adorned with pink, blue, red tinsel. Somehow it’s more than that. It’s as though the city itself is celebrating. Celebrating how, after years of austerity, Lisbon has emerged as one of the most exciting and creative places in the world. A place that local artists, DJs, producers and foodies can be proud to call home.