Aruba. It’s a word that conjures soft focus-lensed notions of white sand beaches, warm azure waters, a certain late-era Beach Boys soft rock classic and fruity cocktails garnished with tiny paper umbrellas. The petite Caribbean island does not, however, have a strong association with the world of dance music.
This is changing, however, and quickly. In the last three years, the island has experienced a boom in dance-related entertainment, with a pair of influential new festivals hosting both internationally known acts and local producers alike. While many Arubans have contributed to the cause, Dirty Dutch upstart and island transplant Chuckie has been especially clutch in the expansion, using his influence, and a private jet, to bring the modern dance festival experience to the island.
Tucked 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is roughly the same size as San Francisco and is home to a population of just over 100,000. Along with nearby Curaçao, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius and Saba, the island is part of the Dutch Caribbean and has been under Dutch rule for nearly 400 years. Its official language, Papiamento, contains elements of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, African and Arawak.
Annually, more than a million tourists—most of them American—travel to Aruba for the beaches, casinos and sun-kissed, slowed down island lifestyle. While the island’s Starbucks, Taco Bell, Louis Vuitton and Hard Rock Café altogether demonstrate that Aruba isn’t immune to the influence of international corporations, the dirt roads, often patchy internet and occasional power outages still give visitors the sense of being cut off from reality. Many full time residents leave Aruba on the regular just to stay aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world.
This is likely why dance music, a longtime force in the Dutch mother country and a sonic and economic revelation in the United States for nearly a decade, took longer to break in Aruba. While local promoters I Love Muzika have long hosted shows at local clubs, it was Chuckie—who is of Dutch descent and was born in the former Dutch territory of Suriname—who first exposed the island to the popularity, bombast and revenue potential of EDM-style dance festivals.
This breakthrough came during a June 2012 festival organized by the Aruba Tourism Authority, or ATA. The first two nights of the show featured Latin crooner Marc Anthony and Colombian singer Juanes. Chuckie was scheduled to celebrate his birthday—and his recent move to the island— during his festival-closing Sunday set. He flew in friends including Akon, Just Blaze, Jasmine Villegas and, he says, “almost the whole national Dutch soccer team,” to party alongside him.
While this final night of the festival was by some accounts under-promoted, roughly 7,000 people turned out, jamming the streets of Aruba’s port city of Oranjestad and demonstrating the massive force of dance music.
“Aruba didn’t know what was happening in the rest of the world in terms of electronic music,” says Aruban real estate developer Toine van de Donk. “It took Chuckie coming here for people to realize.”
Chuckie subsequently pitched ATA on the idea of throwing the Aruba’s first-ever dance music festival. First, however, he had to show them what EDM looked like when it was fully flexing. He thus put everyone from ATA on a private jet from Aruba straight to the United States’ beating heart of EDM.
“I had to make them understand my world first,” Chuckie says. “I can imagine it’s hard to grasp if somebody tells you that you can throw a festival with 15,000 people on a small island and that people will come just to see the DJ. I flew them to Las Vegas to show them exactly what I was doing.”
Upon arriving at the Sin City club, the 16 members of ATA handed over their cell phones and signed confidentiality agreements before partying with an A-list crowd of models and movie stars. By the end of the night, ATA officials were on stage with Chuckie, wilding out under the flashing lights and confetti bursts. Everyone got back on the Gulfstream convinced that a dance festival in Aruba was a grand idea.
“Chuckie made it happen,” says van de Donk, who was on the fateful trip. “He showed Aruba electronic music in the States.”
A contract was soon in place for Electric Festival, Aruba’s first all-dance music event. The show took place in September 2013 with a mixed bag of artists including Hardwell, Erick Morillo, Nicole Moudaber and Nero. A suitably large soundsystem had to be shipped over from the Netherlands. The headliner was, of course, the island’s resident superstar.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” thundered the ominous voice narrating intro for Chuckie’s Electric Festival 2013 set, “today we present to you the power, the movement, the music.” The message was an invocation officially summoning the digital gods of dance to Aruba. The crowd went nuts.
As Aruba has only a handful of nightclubs, the festival was well received by locals hungry for the music that they had previously largely only heard via the Internet. (When Chuckie played Aruban beach club Moomba in 2008, for example, so many people showed up that the club’s owner had to fly back from Curaçao to help quell the crowd of thousands.) The second incarnation of Electric Festival got a major nod of approval from the upper echelons of the dance world, with the longstanding Amsterdam Dance Event hosting panels on the island during the 2014 show.
The scene expanded again this same year with the launch of the Love Festival, a three-day show that went down for the third time this past June on the dazzling Eagle Beach. The three-stage event focused on local and underground producers, with Aruban artists Nutzbeatz and DJ Yeimy playing alongside house, bass, EDM and techno producers from around the world. The festival production was on par with a well-developed Burning Man camp, and in the VIP section, the Aruban Prime Minister mingled with other members of the island elite. The third incarnation of Electric Festival happens this Labor Day weekend with artists including Deorro, Sunnery James and Ryan Marciano, David Squillace and a host of locals.
“We have about eight to ten local artists playing electronic music,” says Nutzbeatz. “Electric Festival and Love Festival adopted the big festival style and adapted it for a small island, which has been very good for the local producers. The locals are invited to open for the top DJs, which helps us develop into even better artists.”
“All of the sudden the local DJs became sort of heroes, because we brought them in on the contract and they got a name on the island and better income,” says van de Donk. “Private parties started booking DJs for their parties too.”
While importing American-style EDM events has been an international trend, with countries around the world hosting shows put on by US-based promoters like Insomniac and Ultra, Aruba has largely forged its own scene, albeit one that mimics the experiences (VIP sections, costumed dancers, an international roster of artists), found in Vegas, Miami, Ibiza and other dance hubs.
The goal for local business developers is now to bring more famous names to the island for one-off sets and in this way cater Aruba’s longstanding economic driver, tourism, to a dance world jet set that has long been keen on partying in far-flung paradises.
“I think by getting big names to the island, it gave local artists and producers a lot of inspiration and hope,” Chuckie says. “Aruba is no longer just a Caribbean island, but an island known for throwing some of the best electronic music events in the region.”