Jazz Festivals Flower in Colombia
By Mark Holston
Colombians know a great deal about the power of music. In the 1980s and early '90s, when cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and other drug lords turned South America's second most populous country into a battlefield, music was used as a tool to lure youngsters away from a life of drug-fueled violence. In the state of Antioquia, where Escobar lived and directed his criminal empire, dozens of local municipalities started city bands to give kids something constructive to do with their idle time. The results were dramatic: this innovative anti-violence program staged regular performances that helped calm the frayed nerves of locals while inspiring the young musicians to appreciate culture and pursue higher goals in life.
Two decades later, for most Colombians, that tortured era is all but a distant memory. Music, however, is still very much a part of the country's cultural identity. The month of September has become particularly important, for that's when the sounds that reverberate throughout the country's largest cities increasingly have the flavor of jazz in all its stylistic colors. The Colombian Jazz Circuit, a coordinated nationwide effort that facilitates the scheduling of visiting artists, will allow such stellar musicians as saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, backed by Brazil's Trio Corrente, to perform this year at four of the five festivals in as many days. Brazilian guitarist and vocalist Rosa Passos, meanwhile, has concert dates in three cities.
Scheduled for early-to-mid-September, the events include Barranquilla's 16th Barranquijazz festival, Pastojazz in the city of Pasto, and the 12th Ajazzgo Meeting of Jazz, Fusion and Experimental Creators (Encuentro De Creadores De Jazz, Fusión Y Experimental Ajazzgo), in Cali. Also on board are the 24th International Teatro Libre Jazz Festival (Festival Internacional De Jazz Del Teatro Libre), in Bogotá, and the 16th Medellín International Festival of Jazz and World Music (Festival Internacional Medellín De Jazz Y Músicas Del Mundo).
Organizers say that about 90,000 seats are available in various venues over the 12 calendar days of the concurrent festivals. Notable headliners in various cities this year include pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, with his all-star quartet Volcán and a strong lineup of Colombian groups in Cali, while bassist Bobby Valentin's orchestra and Sonora Ponceña, from Puerto Rico, will provide a salsa and Latin jazz-leaning program in Medellín. Flautist Nestor Torres, Italian clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi, Cuban salsa legend Issac Delgado, pianist Steve Kuhn and vocalist Freddy Cole, along with D'Rivera and Passos, will be featured in Barranquilla. The capital city of Bogotá, Colombia's largest metropolis, will present D'Rivera, Rubalcaba, saxophonist Tia Fuller, violinist Regina Carter and her quartet, and Cuban keyboardist Roberto Fonseca, among other groups.
The sweltering Caribbean port city of Barranquilla, Colombia's fourth largest metro area, seems an unlikely locale to be a breeding ground of jazz, but that's a role it has played since the 1920s, when it hosted the country's first ever jazz performance—a club date by a visiting band from Panama. The city has benefited over the decades due to its role as a major port and through trade with the U.S., Cuba and other Caribbean Basin nations. Jazz from the U.S. and Cuban culture, particularly the island nation's music traditions, quickly found favor in Barranquilla. During the 1940s and '50s, Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez (a native of the region) and other Colombian intellectuals further enriched the city's cultural life through their presence.
Today, it is publisher Samuel Minski, whose Fundación Cultural Nueva Música (New Music Cultural Foundation) is the guiding force behind the annual jazz festival, and radio host Antonio Caballero who are leading the effort to make sure that jazz and various Latin styles remain a vibrant part of their city's cultural scene. There are many reasons why terming Barranquijazz The most important jazz festival in Colombia and the Caribbean" isn't such a farfetched claim. As an added bonus, Barranquijazz also includes presentations by folkloric and youth ensembles.
This year, for the first time in the history of the jazz circuit, a Venezuelan city has been invited to participate. The Barquisimeto International Jazz Festival, scheduled for September 1-8, has a packed schedule of presentations that feature artists from Europe, the U.S., Brazil, Colombia and homegrown talent. This year, headliners include Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda, an influential artist in the U.S., Spanish pianist José Carra, and North American vocalist Deborah J. Carter.
More information, including updated details on this year's programming and ticket availability at all of the concurrent festivals, can be obtained at the organization's website.