St Martin, Leewards Islands

The island of St Martin is dazzling, a paradise of idyllic beaches. Located in the Leeward cluster in the Caribbean sea, it’s known affectionately as The Friendly Island by locals. After having spent a week in St Martin for the SXM festival, it’s hard to argue with that.

One recurring theme of my conversations with locals is Hurricane Irma. In November 2017, Hurricane Irma, one of the most violent to hit the island in recent memory, caused widespread destruction across the island, and the 2018 edition of SXM to be cancelled. Sixteen months later, damaged buildings and shipwrecks still scatter the island, showing us the relief effort is far from complete. It took eight months just to clear the debris.

With close ties to the island amongst the organisers, SXM festival has been an important part of the island’s recovery, with a GoFundMe campaign set up by founder Julian Prince raising $38,178 in 2017. To illustrate the meaningful change this has affected, we’re taken to a local basketball court which was destroyed by Irma. SXM Festival have set up a scheme in order to rebuild it – and during our visit around 50 people are here to add the finishing touches to the paintwork. Locals tell me they haven’t been able to play ball here for well over a year since Irma hit and they can’t wait to get back on the court.

The festival’s main hub is at Happy Bay on the French side, a beautiful beach with two stages where most of the big hitters perform. Nestled on the beach is the wooded second stage where the more underground sounds are to be found. Like Be Svendson, whose live set of melodic, airy house was a highlight of the Friday night.

London’s Fuse crew bring the rollers deep in the jungle at Loterie Farm. It’s a vibe, but towards the end of the set we can’t quite see whether its Enzo Siragusa, Archie Hamilton or Seb Zito who’s playing as there’s about 10 people crammed in the treehouse DJ booth wafting their hands to techy numbers like Damian Lazarus’ edit of Teddy Pendergrass’ I Don’t Love You Anymore.

On Saturday during the day, attendees flock to a VIP-only villa party in the plush mountains of the island’s French side. The party starts off with some mellow house grooves before Ali + Bettina take up the sunset slot at the decedent residence. They nail the brief, banging out epic closers. Erol Alkan’s meandering extension of Connan Mockasin’s Forever Dolphin Love has people dancing on sunbeds while wealthy revellers sway around in the infinity pool.

Undeniably the pick of the line-up is Saturday’s takeover of the main Canopy stage running until 10am with Zip and Ricardo Villalobos set to headline. Sonja Moonear surprises us all by dropping Objekt’s Needle and Thread, before Zip reaches for jovial house like Strictly Rhythm classic Let’s Groove by George Morel.

Villalobos’ comes on at sunrise, and his changeover is typically entertaining. As always, the moment he arrives, the mood is electric. He meanders through the 50 or so people gathered in the booth kissing and laughing before he greets longtime Perlon colleague Zip. If 50 people aren’t in the booth to smooch with the sweaty icon, did a Ricardo set even happen?

Still, the Chilean is in playful form, joking with friends in the booth. At one point he picks up a cuddly toy monkey and has the crowd chuckling as he tries to place it back in position. He seems in excellent spirits as he weaves through his usual wiggy minimal fare – peak Ricardo – transitioning into  abstract jazz around 11am, before the strung out crowd head for the taxi rank.

By the end of the weekend, even the fresh-faced Minister of Tourism is dancing with guests in the VIP area. While the line-up could look for a tad more diversity in 2020, SXM’s devotion to working with their island home of St Martin is clear – Fyre Fest this isn’t.