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Photography Jeremy Mannella

What went down at SXM Festival

Hosted on the idyllic island of Saint Martin, SXM attracted some of biggest names in electronic dance music

If you were to circle every destination around the world where you thought there was a constantly evolving dance music scene, the same few names would appear. Maybe a handful of other places would crop up for those who have their ear to the ground, but the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, which attracts some of the biggest names in dance music every year, is still relatively unknown to the wider public. For a week around the middle of March, Saint Martin opens its beaches, mountains and villas to SXM Festival, an electronic dance music festival that first took place back in 2016.

“What makes this festival different from others is that SXM is the only festival that really takes over a whole island,” explains Olivia Gottlieb, vice president of marketing and business development of SXM. Since the festival’s inception, the line-up has featured giants of the electronic music scene such as Jamie Jones, Marco Carola, Nina Kraviz and Honey Dijon as well as showcasing an ever-expanding roster of local DJs. Showcasing many of the talented local DJs has always been on the top priority list for the organisers of the festival, none more so than Julian Prince – DJ, events organiser and founder of SXM. “This party shows one week of Saint Martin and what happens here electronic music-wise. The guys work really hard the whole year round to keep the vibe alive,” says Prince, adding “for us, it’s one way to reward them for their hard work.”

Prince spent his formative years cutting his teeth in and around the Montreal house scene of the 1990s. “Montreal had an incredible scene back then, countless after-hour clubs and some clandestine clubs as well,” Prince explains. The European and American-influenced sound of the Montreal scene bleeds through every stage of the festival, as does the “party anytime you feel like it” attitude, with the option to roll out of one stage in the early hours of the morning and watch the sunrise at another stage – accessible whenever you feel up to the mission. While the festival is not overtly “clandestine”, there is an intimacy around the island that comes with a small, tight-knit crowd. It’s one that from seeing many of the same faces over a week, brings more familiarity and affability to an island where the feeling is already omnipresent. “Not only are you getting the music, the culture of the island, the beauty of the island, the venues, it’s the people you’re surrounded with that are kind, awesome people who are very inclusive and want to make friends,” says Gottlieb.

A scene unlike any other within the Caribbean, the island has attracted a hub of DJs concerned with building a varied and thriving electronic music scene complete with a backdrop of idyllic landscapes. One of the first expat DJs to make his mark on the scene was Mister T, who originally hails from France. He arrived in Saint Martin over a decade ago to helped grow Bliss, one of the biggest and most popular nightclubs in the Caribbean. “I was based in Paris originally, and I organised a big festival with 15 to 20 DJs at Nikki Beach in summer,” says Mister T. “I came here three times and then had an offer to not go back to Europe.” At the time the French DJ first arrived in Saint Martin, adapting to fit the vibe of the island was what proved successful in growing the electronic dance music scene. “The first time I played at Bliss in 2005 I played to local people used to hip hop and local music. I changed my selection a little bit and went to funky house music, disco house music – honestly, I broke the place,” Mister T recalls. 

Similarly, DJ Owlïsh found his way onto the island after spending his adolescence in Paris, working various jobs around France and Saint Martin until he found his passion for electronic music and love for the island. “When I arrived here and discovered the nightlife, I knew I needed to stay,” he tells Dazed. “Even though the island is small, it has so much to offer – from hiking to spending time on the beach.” Owlïsh found himself enamoured with the melodic, funky sounds of the island, and quickly realised that it was becoming ingrained in the culture of Saint Martin through regular exposure. “We give some education about the music when we play,” he explains. “I try to catch the vibe of the people and help them discover my sound and new electronic music.”

The festival has also made space on the lineup for new arrivals to the island – this includes Penelope, a DJ originally from the Netherlands who made the choice to stay on Saint Martin back in 2021. “They [SXM] bring in talent from all over the world, but they also give a lot of local DJs the space to play,” the DJ tells Dazed. “Because Saint Martin is a small island, I don’t really get the opportunity to play on big stages apart from during the festival so it’s great SXM do that.”

It’s a pretty common pipeline for people who visit Saint Martin to go and visit, fall in love with the island, and stay there. “People from all over the world stay here and nobody actually leaves,” explains Penelope. “Even if they leave, they always come back, there’s something magical about this island for sure.” Over the course of the week that I was in Saint Martin, I heard the same phrase repeated multiple times from a variety of people, some of whom had lived there their whole lives and some who had only recently moved over. So what is it that remains so magical about the island – the people? The food? The settings? The music? To me, and I’m sure to many others, it is all of those things, but what really stood out was the community of Saint Martin and how warm, close and caring everybody was to each other and how much everyone genuinely adored the island. 

On the short drive from the airport to the hotel, it’s clear that Saint Martin still bears scars from Hurricane Irma, a traumatic event for everyone with a permanent home or connection to the island. This is not to say the island remains ravaged and desolate, but there is still redevelopment continuing to take place. Such a revival of the island could only be achieved through everyone on the island, including residents old and new, coming together to rebuild their home. “We live here, what else could we do?” says Prince, while Gottlieb adds “I realised how much it’s my home, that you can’t just pack up and go, so how are we going to make the island better, how can we improve it in some way?”

The SXM team put their minds together, along with the island’s government, to find solutions. “We started a GoFundMe, and we raised around $30,000, we never did funding before, so that made us really good at it. We learned how to do more community events and initiatives,” says Prince. Shortly after Hurricane Irma came the pandemic, a double hit enough to make anyone working in events reconsider their career. “The hurricane made us resilient and then the pandemic made us indestructible,” reflects Prince.

Being so heavily tied in with the Saint Martin government, both organisations work tightly to ensure the island will benefit from giving up such a big percentage of land for a week. “We’re lucky to have the local governments who support us and to have also small business community that contributes the way they can to keep the event going,” Prince explains, continuing “we decided this year to go to expose the delicacies of the Caribbean through this event, next year we’re going to be even more local and regional in terms of product.” As well as supporting and boosting the local economy, SXM Festival enforce their “No Trace” policy,  where the team come together to undertake a big cleanup task to make sure no mark of the festival is left on the island. 

Regardless of an ever-changing landscape to run and promote events, the boutique festival market continues to grow. The market is risky and temperamental – many have tried and failed (some more extraordinarily than others) – but through various setbacks SXM has continued to power through and thrive. In all fairness, the festival has a lot in its favour – incredible beaches and facilities that make for great venues, great weather and a thriving local scene. This doesn’t mean success is promised, however, and it requires a genuine love and passion for both the music and process that comes along with running a festival to promise longevity. But thankfully, the entire team as well as the attendees have this in abudance, so the future of SXM looks bright.