Tremor Music Festival Puts the Azores Islands Center Stage

The opening event for the Tremor Festival took place in a warehouse that sits at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a small fishing port called Rabo de Peixe on São Miguel, a lush volcanic island that is two hours by plane from Lisbon and a bit more than twice that from Boston. Inside the building, the audience was met with the site of several large, handcrafted wooden fishing boats in various stages of construction, their whale-like hulls still sculptural shadows, awaiting coats of white paint and bright blue or red trim, and a portrait of a guardian saint on the bow.

Students from the Escola de Música de Rabo de Peixe, a state-funded children's music school that turns out improvisational jazz players and singers, performed a tribute to Sandro G, the godfather of rap on the Azores Islands, who immortalized Rabo de Peixe, a town known for its tuna fisherman, but also as a sort of South Bronx by the sea, in an enduring song. Like many Azoreans before him, Sandro G has since moved to the United States. The evening also included the premiere of AZ-Rap: Sons of the Wind, a Red Bull documentary on the Azores' bantam hip-hop scene that beautifully captures the sensorial intensity of the artists' homeland.

São Miguel, the largest of nine Azores islands, an autonomous region of Portugal, is a place whose majestic natural landscapes put mere humans in their place. Over five days (April 4-8), Tremor featured a series of secret shows that brought music -- and two buses full of festivalgoers -- to must-see locations like Furnas, known for its natural thermal baths, where Lisbon's Norberto Lobo played guitar music for an over-capacity crowd in the hot pool of a new boutique hotel. At the recently opened Arquipélago Contemporary Arts Center, a 19th-century alcohol factory whose exquisite renovation and redesign won the international 2016 FAD award for architecture, DJs took over the musty arched cellar caves, and Portuguese progressive jazz combo Volupia dos Cinzas played in an ultra-modern black box theater. The Dutch artist Jacco Gardner created an environment-inspired ambient soundtrack for a hike through moss-covered forest around one of the island's green volcano crater lakes.

"This is Azores; there is no other way to explain what is happening at this festival," says André Forte, press and artist relations manager for Lovers & Lollypops, the Porto-based promoters and label that partnered with São Miguel native Antonio Pedro Lopes and the publishers of a local culture guide called Yuzin to create Tremor four years ago.

Lovers & Lollypops' Márcio Laranjeira, who is Tremor's artistic director, notes that the festival started with the intention to showcase the Azores' exceptional environment, its architectural patrimony -- which is the legacy of the Atlantic archipelago's role in the history of European expansion -- and its important maritime culture.

"We wanted to show people that this place exists and tell them how you get there," he tells Billboard. "The focus of the program is the island and what the island can offer, and the places that can give you that 'wow' effect. We show these special locations that will attract people. The most amazing thing is that we still have more places to show like those ones every year."

It's not surprising to learn that Tremor counts on funding from the Azores regional government, and that its sponsors include the Azorean airline SATA, which has recently begun expanding its international routes under the name Azores Airlines.

The festival fits into an active tourism strategy that has brought an increasing amount of visitors to the islands in the last few years. But Laranjeira stresses that Tremor's goal is to create a cultural encounter in the Azores, not an excuse for a typical spring break scene. Only 1,500 tickets are made available for the festival, and the 30-euro price for a five-day pass is affordable for local residents, as well as the kind of indie-friendly crowd the organizers want to attract.

"The government, SATA and private sponsors allow us to keep the price low," says Laranjeira, noting that the cost of admission for any festival in mainland Portugal would have to be considerably higher. "And it's good to see that they have the same vision that we do. They prefer to make it this size and make it worth it, than do a huge thing that is just a party."

The majority of Tremor attendees this year were residents of São Miguel and other islands, followed by people who traveled from mainland Portugal. The festival also attracted people from the U.K., France and the United States.

As in past years, superstar headliners were notably absent from the program. This year's biggest act was the Angolan artist Bonga, who has been popular in Portugal since the 1970s. The lineup included electronic music, rock, jazz and folk-influenced styles that reflected the central role of guitar in traditional Portuguese music; a lot of it resisted any particular description. "The main thing for us is to have a diverse offering," Laranjeira says. "And that way, you don't have the pressure of looking for big headlining names. You can look for music that really excites you. We are lucky to have an audience with an open mind."

Laranjeira points out that Tremor has had a year-round impact on the Azores music scene.

"The idea for Tremor was also about starting to get more culture on the island for people who live there," he says.

"Before we started the festival there were a lot people playing, musicians from the island, but most were playing covers. We started telling musicians, 'If you want to play at the festival, you need to write your own songs.'

"In the first year, we struggled to get anyone from Azores on the program," he adds. "Now we struggle not to leave anyone out. Now they are playing in a different way; they are more focused on doing their own music."

On its final day, the festival took over the volcanic stone streets and buildings of Punta Delgada, the Azorean capital city, for free-wheeling shows that took place in a men's clothing store, a fado house and delicatessen that sells salt cod and Azorean canned tuna, a historic house-turned-hostel, an art gallery, and bars and restaurants in the city's historic district.

While some of the shows filled up small rooms to capacity, there were no big crowds to contend with. The route to the different venues, marked on a little hard-to-read map, felt serendipitous, and for any veteran of packed music festivals, joyously retro.

"Azores is a small place, and the first year of the festival we were afraid it would be just us," Laranjeira recalls. "Now it's a blend of people coming from outside the island and locals."

Tremor may be the most attractive destination festival in the world right now, and word about it will predictably spread. But Laranjeira insists that the organizers will resist the call to expand it. "I think the island won't let us go big even if we go crazy and try to make it bigger," he says. "One reason is that it's really almost impossible to do anything in the open air because the weather is just insane." (Azoreans frequently remark that on the islands, it's not unusual to experience all four seasons in one day.)

"When you get here you behave differently," he adds. "Even the way you walk, it changes, it gets slower. That comes from this place and this weather and these colors, and if you do something that is bigger or faster, the island will reject you."