Located on the outer reaches of the festival grounds, it’s often discovered inadvertently by intrepid festival attendees at odd hours of the night and very early morning, wondering, What is that booming patch of palm trees? The jungle alcove can look a little daunting at first because its foliage obscures what’s happening inside. But as you make your way through the brush — dance music reverberating all the while — and the path gradually widens, you find yourself in one of the coolest and most overlooked parts of Okeechobee. A monolithic half-pyramid adorned with faux circuitry stands tall, giving the grooving masses a space to congregate. As the person inside the monument works their skills on the wheels of steel, lasers crisscross through the night air and reflect off the aluminum-wrapped trees, bouncing back onto the frenzied crowd below. This is Jungle 51.
Since Okeechobee’s inaugural edition in 2016, Jungle 51 has stood out as a unique aspect of the festival. Despite Florida’s inviting subtropical climate and abundant wildlife, there aren’t many opportunities for ravers to party outdoors in the state. Even with the richness of the club scene and dance culture in South Florida, there are scant few events or spots where people can groove under the night sky and catch a refreshing breeze, aside from the occasional party or festival on Virginia Key Beach. Even though it goes down only once a year, Jungle 51 makes a strong case for clubgoers to swap concrete walls and bottle service for greenery and hammocks.
Since Okeechobee’s inception, Jungle 51 has been organized and maintained by Julio Santo Domingo and his Sheik 'N’ Beik record label and collective. The Sheik 'N' Beik label head, who DJs under the name Julio and has spun every year of the festival, is one of the founders and co-owners of Okeechobee. He says that even from the festival’s initial planning stages, establishing a space such as Jungle 51 was always a priority.
“It was always my intention to move out of the New York warehouse and weekly party space and find a wilder, natural habitat,” Julio says, referencing Sheik 'N’ Beik’s origins as a mobile New York City party series in 2008. “Sheik 'N’ Beik participates in all aspects of late-night programming, from the creative vision to production to talent booking, and we’ve found a great home at Okeechobee.”
Julio himself began DJ'ing at the age of 15, synthesizing a love for musical movements as varied as French touch to reggae, hip-hop, and electroclash. He says his love for anything and everything danceable can be found in Jungle 51’s diverse programming and artist bookings.
“Jungle 51 has never been a solely techno stage,” Julio says, clearing up a widely held misconception. “The lines often blur between house and techno, and we certainly wouldn't ever want to be pigeonholed. Once you define it, then you are stuck with it, and that sort of kills the beauty of it all.”
As for those responsible for making Jungle 51 come to life with such embellishments, Julio and the Sheik 'N’ Beik team have an accomplished bench of collaborators.
“The Jungle stage design was conceived by me and designed and implemented by Brian Oreck and Darren McGee, who built many of the beautiful temple structures at Burning Man,” Julio says. “The lights and lasers were set up by my friend Max Mackintosh and Warren Flynn from Christie Lites.”
This year’s lineup incluedes an impressive array of acts, ranging from Chicago house queen and transgender activist Honey Dijon to underground Detroit techno hero DJ Bone. According to Julio, he and Sheik 'N’ Beik prioritize quality and surprise over name recognition when booking artists for Jungle 51. This quality-over-quantity approach can be seen with some of the names who’ve graced Jungle 51’s decks in the past, including techno pioneer Derrick May and ascendant producer Omar S.
“The curation process is always a mixture of who we want versus who is available,” Julio says. “A good mix always has legends, well-established headliners, and up-and-coming underground acts. What unites all of them is the firm belief and conviction that they are very talented artists. In the case of Jungle 51, we definitely tend to go against the grain and try to surprise people with quality, unexpected acts.”
Beyond organizing this weekend’s edition of Okeechobee, Julio says he is open to taking the Jungle 51 concept to other venues and gatherings. In the meantime, he has his hands full putting everything in its right place for this weekend, as well as organizing his own DJ sets and celebrations to mark Sheik 'N’ Beik’s tenth anniversary. Looking to the more immediate future, Julio is just excited to share a year’s worth of work with Okeechobee attendees.
“The beauty of Jungle 51 is that people who don't usually listen to house or techno or deeper forms of electronic music end up coming due to the diverse nature of the festival’s booking,” Julio says. “They are dancing to artists that they have never heard about before, which just goes to show that you don't always need to know an artist or a type of music beforehand to enjoy it. It’s all about discovery.”
Julio. Midnight Saturday, March 3, at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee; 305-673-3330; okeechobeefest.com. Tickets cost $299 to $4,500 via eventbrite.com.