When SXM Festival ran its first edition in 2016, it dazzled party-goers with awe-inspiring locations and an easy-going, island-breeze lifestyle. The music, too, was on point, offering a lush array of house and techno strains fitting of the beach-side locales. The festival ran again in 2017, further expanding and honing its offering while cementing its name as a premier destination festival. Then, late in 2017, Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean islands and the American Southeast, with Saint Martin right in its firing line. Irma destroyed 70% of the infrastructure on the Dutch side of the island and around 90% on the French side, and at least 11 people lost their lives. Needless to say, running a festival just months after destruction of this magnitude was a futile pursuit and the difficult decision was made to call the 2018 edition off. Instead, festival founders Julian Prince and Driss Skali shifted their focus to helping the island and its inhabitants recover via their Two Bunch Palms foundation.

This year, SXM Festival made its return, running from March 13 to 17 and hosting performances from some of the most respected and sought after artists in house, techno, and minimal, including Ricardo Villalobos, Zip, Sonja Moonear, SIT, Thugfucker, Shaun Reeves, M.A.N.D.Y., Francesca Lombardo, Fumiya Tanaka, Dewalta, and Lamache, to name a few. It was a five-day musical and visual treat and an immense comeback for both the festival and the island. It’s a satisfying feeling listening and dancing to your favorite DJs on the beach in the Carribean while knowing that every dollar you spend is helping the struggling Saint Martin economy and tourism industry. The festival also organized a day for artists and attendees to help restore damaged parts of the island.

As soon as we arrived, a range of improvements and updates were immediately apparent. The aesthetics and management of the festival’s main Happy Bay site had been refurbished, with the walkways guided by intriguing art pieces and glowing structures, and the smaller stage being covered with what looked to be a canopy of driftwood. The Arc Stage was even more of an impressive sight to behold, with grass and flowers growing out of a colossal wooden structure, and a huge Aztec-style Mask to its side lit up in a vast array of colors. Both had immense soundsystems that held their own throughout, too.

An early musical highlight, on Thursday night, was the surprise b2b pairing of Molly and Francesca Lombardo. Although they operate as solo artists in slightly different scenes, the pair had unbelievable flow, rolling through insatiable grooves old and new, and closing with a Prince dance-off to rapturous response. Later that same night at Lotus, one of the festival’s two club-based locations, The Other Side hosted another two b2b pairings in Gescu and Sepp, and Lamache and Dana Ruh. We arrived as the former pair were dishing out deep, stripped back techno cuts to a packed floor, before the latter took charge with more percussive, wide-reaching club offerings, including the upcoming “Maiden 161” by Foster (a.k.a. Robin Ordell and Uri Gincel). At both the beach and club venues, the crowds were receptive, respectful, and welcoming—traits that would continue throughout the festival’s duration. It must be mentioned, however, that it was difficult and somewhat jarring to enter and enjoy a club venue after partying on a beach all day and evening.

Saturday and Sunday provided an almost non-stop, unmissable schedule that, for many attendees, led to a dancefloor marathon to the finish line. Early highlights on Saturday included, unsurprisingly, Fumiya Tanaka and Sonja Moonear. Fumiya’s two-hour set flowed perfectly into Moonear’s, and she took over from the Japanese artist’s more minimal-based output and built the atmosphere with a selection of driving deep house and techno grooves. The party was now very much in full force. Then came the incomparable one-two-punch scheduling of Zip and Ricard Villalobos—the latter of whom returned after a lackluster performance in 2017. Up first and scheduled to play during sunrise, Zip didn’t disappoint. After a somewhat shaky start where he could be seen noticeably working hard to get in the groove, he starting throwing down his typical old housey numbers that guided the vibe to a place of pure joy as the sun came up—we couldn’t think of a more idyllic location to see Zip doing what he does best. Finally, up came Ricardo Villalobos. Many attendees were highly skeptical of the booking after the aforementioned performance in 2017, but he closed out the Sunday morning in true Ricardo style, playing a full repertoire of tweaked-out techno tracks and locked grooves that ensured that everyone left the beach danced out. This year the festival also extended the times for its main offerings, with Saturday into Sunday morning now running to 11 a.m.

With just a little time to rest, on Sunday afternoon into night, XLR8R and Dailycid hosted the closing party on the beach stage at Happy Bay with a dexterous line up that included SIT, DeWalta, Digby, DJ W!LD, and WXC. As always with closing parties, unexpected magic happened and we witnessed a surprise b2b set by SIT’s Vlad Caia and DeWalta, which easily marked the highlight of the night. After their set on the Arc Stage, the Apollonia boys even made the trek down to the beach stage to dance and join in on the fun for the final few hours of what was a triumphant comeback for SXM.

As with most festivals in their infancy, SXM was not without its small pitfalls. On more than a few occasions we overheard complaints of infrequent shuttle busses causing grief with going to and from the events. Another issue we noticed, especially for a growing festival, was the competition between parties and venues. With the festival spread across its main beach site—which itself had two stages—and two clubs, there were some clashes and, at times, a splintered attendance and vibe.

These small gripes aside, it’s hard to think of a festival that has an underground lineup this good and that is surrounded by paradise in the Caribbean. We’re already looking forward to and planning next year.

Photos: SXM Festival, Nicolas De Panam, Tin Tin.