Interview: Toca Cielo
Toca Cielo's Monica Powell and JustinJustin Toca celebrate their fiesta's third anniversary.
Wed May 22 2013
Photograph: Filip Wolak
Drummers and musicians, body painters, stilt walkers, dancers dressed in jaw-dropping costumes and DJs spinning a high-impact mix of tribal-tech rhythms—that’s Toca Cielo, the themed, full-throttle monthly shindig that’s been packing Cielo for the past three years. The party’s founders, JustinJustin Toca (who doubles as the night’s lead percussionist) and Monica Powell, are celebrating their fiesta’s birthday on Friday, May 24—and expect a lot of Furies, Lizzies, Boppers and Rogues to be on hand, as the evening’s theme will be everyone’s favorite New York faux-gang flick, The Warriors.
Time Out New York: Monica, you work as a bartender at Cielo. I’m guessing that helped you decide what club should host Toca Cielo.
Monica Powell: Yeah. Nicolas [Mater, Cielo’s head honcho] had a staff meeting and told us he was looking for new promoters. Justin’s always thrown these cultural, Brazilian-influenced parties, so I said, “My boyfriend has a great party, and it has a clientele that isn’t Cielo’s usual crowd.” I explained how it involves drummers and dancers, and asked him if he’d give it a one-time shot.
JustinJustin Toca: Carlos [Semanas] , the club’s doorman, vouched highly for the party; he knows me from way back. So I had him vouching for me, and Monica vouching for me. I had a meeting with Nicolas, and the first thing he said was, “I know you.” We apparently had met a long time ago through the club scene.
Time Out New York: So there was already a bit of a connection.
JustinJustin Toca: Yeah, and now he owns a club! So he said to me, “I’ll give you a two-hour trial run. Bring your people.”
Monica Powell: And I think we only had a week and a half to get it together.
JustinJustin Toca: But I said, “Okay, no problem. We’ll try it out.”
Time Out New York: You had to start moving fast.
JustinJustin Toca: Really fast, and I’m the kind of person who likes to handpick my DJs. I can’t promote a party and bring people to it without knowing what the DJ is going to play. At that point, I was more into capoeira and Brazilian culture. I wasn’t really doing house-music parties; I was doing world-music parties, where they would play samba, hip-hop, merengue, samba and that kind of thing. That was my background; this was going to be the first time for this. But we went ahead and did this trial two-hour run to start off one of the club’s nights—and we managed to bring in 250 people.
Time Out New York: I remember that!
JustinJustin Toca: And for our part of the night, we had this American guy who plays a lot of Brazilian music, DJ Chocolate. It went really well, and the club was in shock. They were like, Holy shit—this guy brought in a lot of people!
Time Out New York: So you were in?
Monica Powell: What happened was they gave the party another two-hour run.
Time Out New York: They wanted to make sure the first time wasn’t just a fluke.
JustinJustin Toca: Right. And we got [Sol Selectas’] Sabo to spin that one. I know him, and I knew he could play the music that we wanted. Again, a lot of people showed up. Finally, I had another meeting with Nicolas. He said, “You seem like the kind of guy who likes to do things your own way.” I said, “Yes, I don’t like to work with other people unless we are on the same vibe.” Finally he said, “Okay, you can have your own night.” And we got a Friday night all to ourselves.
Time Out New York: Dressing in themed costumes has always been a big part of Toca Cielo’s appeal. Why did you decide to make that one of the party’s defining aspects?
Monica Powell: I originally come from the ’90s gay house-music scene, and I was always that dressed-up freak girl who would make people ask, “Is that a girl or is that a guy?” Also, I have a theater background, and I love costumes and vintage and all that. When I was going to Twilo and Tunnel and Club USA and Robots, I wasn’t dressing in clothes—I was dressing in costumes. And we both love Halloween, of course!
JustinJustin Toca: We started out doing mainly color parties. We did a dress-red one, and then we did a dress-white one. When you dress in white, it signifies cleaning, and it’s kind of giving thanks to all the gods. It’s very connected to religious ceremonies in Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Latino culture.
Monica Powell: But now, as far as colors go, we only do white parties—for Justin’s birthday—and red. All the other parties have actual themes.
Time Out New York: What do you base those themes on?
Monica Powell: Theater, movies, history, whatever. We’ve done zombies, aliens, Grease, an Asian-inspired red-dragon one, gladiators, burlesque. There have been a lot.
Time Out New York: There definitely is something about being dressed up at a party that can make it more fun.
Monica Powell: Oh, yeah. It lowers people’s inhibitions. A lot! It’s sexier.
JustinJustin Toca: Cielo is known for the DJs, but we didn’t necessarily have the DJ be the only focus. The whole point is to have the club be this kind of walk-in theater. The crowd is the show. It’s the combination of the crowd, DJs, performers, dancers, body painters, drummers.… It’s a collaboration, really.
Time Out New York: Even though you don’t put the full focus on DJs, you still get some pretty hot ones to play.
JustinJustin Toca: We look for DJs who play this kind of music: Afro, Latin, Brazilian hard house.
Monica Powell: Yeah, we like it hard! And we like the kind of deep, dirty vocals that remind me of Danny Tenaglia’s music, or what Junior Vasquez used to play at [’90s party] Arena.
Time Out New York: It almost sounds like the middle ground between your two musical backgrounds.
Monica Powell: Definitely. A lot of our DJs are New York–based, and to my ear, they have that cunty, dirty tribal underground sound that comes from here.
JustinJustin Toca: We don’t like songs that have long buildups or anything.
Time Out New York: Yes, I think I saw you post somewhere that you don’t like “that boring shit.”
JustinJustin Toca: [Laughs] Well, this is how I feel: I’ve paid my $20 and I’m in a New York club. I want it to be thumping and hard.
Monica Powell: Yeah—you’re only there for four hours or whatever, and you want to get your money’s worth.
Time Out New York: Besides the sound, do you look for anything else in a DJ?
JustinJustin Toca: We like to get young guys who have hunger. We’ll hook them up as the opening DJ with a veteran who will be the closing DJ, someone who’s been around for years. And sometimes what happens is that the younger guy ends up slapping the older guy around.
Monica Powell: We don’t tell the opening DJ to set the older guy up to make him look good.
JustinJustin Toca: We say, “You’ve got three hours. Go for it; show us what you got.”
Time Out New York: You always have live percussion, right?
JustinJustin Toca: Yes. Tribalism, to me, is the drum. It’s all about the drum. Even if you have music that’s so-so, the drumming will add another layer, a kind of live energy that we love. We can’t get enough of it. And we’ll also bring saxophonists, violinists, trumpet players, rappers and whatever else we can get.
Monica Powell: We’realso big on featuring dance companies. All kinds of them—it could be samba companies, but it could even be modern dance or tap dance. We’ll have them on the dance floor to perform, and then after the performance they just become part of the party.
JustinJustin Toca: One of the best compliments that anybody ever gave us was from somebody who said, “At your party, you never see anyone texting.”
Time Out New York: That means people at Toca Cielo are fullyinvested in the party.
JustinJustin Toca: It’s good when people give us feedback like that, because when we’re in the party, we don’t really notice things! We’re fully into it too.
Time Out New York: The Warriors is a fun, classic New York City–oriented choice for your anniversary night.
Monica Powell: We thought so. We also have Sid Vaga as the DJ, who’s played for us a few times.
JustinJustin Toca: He really plays the music we like—hard, Afro-Brazilian tech stuff, mixed up with all this weird stuff. Sometimes it’s like, What the hell is he playing? But it all flows really nicely. And he looks like he could be from The Warriors! He’s a tough-looking guy.
Monica Powell: And we also have Steve Tek, who always plays our anniversary parties and my birthdays.
JustinJustin Toca: He’s a guy we always go to. He’s not that well-known in the industry yet, but he’s the guy—he’s our personal favorite.
Time Out New York: There’s a bit of a Burning Man edge to Toca Cielo, isn’t there?
Monica Powell: People have said that, and we definitely get some Burning Man lovers coming to our events, depending on who we book as DJs.
JustinJustin Toca: We love people who want to get dressed up for the parties, and people who will be fully into it.
Time Out New York: How much do you attribute the party’s success to the fact that it’s held at Cielo, which has such a good setup and great sound system?
Monica Powell: Oh, we’re completely blessed. And we’re blessed that Justin and I found each other, since we have so much in common. And we feel like we’ve paid our dues. I’ve been in the scene since ’93, both working and dancing; Justin’s been promoting parties for 20 years. I think our contacts, our knowledge and our experience are all coming together. But I personally had actually never promoted a party until we started doing this.
Time Out New York: I think most people don’t realize that promoting a party is a lot of work. There’s a lot of organizing involved.
Monica Powell: Just trying to stay on top of all the performers is a big job!
JustinJustin Toca: But we love this. We were made for nightlife. We have such a love for this that it makes us work harder. We can’t just do the same old party, over and over—it has to be something edgy and special. But going back to the club: When you walk into Cielo, it’s like going into another dimension. The way it’s designed, its intimacy, the lowered dance floor…
Monica Powell: It’s perfect for the theatricality of the night. Everyone can see the performers, and they can see each other.
JustinJustin Toca: And it’s a place where you can just be free, without worrying about somebody grinding on you or whatever. I mean, there is a lot of kissing and stuff. But it’s cool.
Time Out New York: You guys actually met at Cielo, right?
Monica Powell: I was bartending, Justin came in—it was one of Louie Vega’s nights there—and I completely picked him up. [Laughs] That was almost seven years ago, and we’ve been together almost every day since.
Time Out New York: And now you are starting a new venture together.
Monica Powell: We’re opening the Toca NYC store, which will be specializing in vintage costumes and antiques.
JustinJustin Toca: Besides, Monica needed an office!
Monica Powell: Yeah, I wanted an office, and then we had the idea to buy some costumes for our parties, and then one thing led to another. We ended up getting a lot of costumes, and we’ll be renting them out. We actually have some Warriors outfits! And we’re trying to keep it affordable.
JustinJustin Toca: We’re also very community-driven. We raise money to take a group of capoeira teachers to Nicaragua to teach underprivileged children.
Monica Powell: We go to seven different cities there, and over 600 children get exposed to capoeira.
JustinJustin Toca: And now, we have this dream to bring the house-music vibe down there. That’s long-term, of course, but we wouldn’t have even thought of doing something like that without Toca Cielo.
Toca Cielo’s Three-Year Anniversary: Warriors is at Cielo Friday, May 24.
Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum