Bogota Reinvents Itself Through Tropical Music

Over the weekend of September 6-9, visitors were introduced to representatives of various cultural organizations, such as Fundación Batuta, the culture-supporting National Bank, and musical producers like Iván Benavides, who pioneered recording folkloric groups like Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto (who appeared at the 2007 Latin Grammy Awards with Calle 13). The meetings also coincided with the outdoor festival Jazz al Parque, one of several festivals that feature genres like rock, hip-hop, salsa, and Colombian (varied local genres) in free concerts in parks around the city. The final concert featured renowned saxophonist Joe Lovano and experimental fusion band Screaming Headless Torsos.

Undoubtedly Bogotá made a strong case for itself as being an emerging capital of music, especially in Latin America. The night I arrived there was a packed show featuring electro-cumbia indie giants Bomba Estereo, who were releasing their new album, Elegancia Tropical, reinforcing the one-nation-under-a-tropical-groove agenda. The show at Jorge Eliécer Gaitán theater finished strong with the increasingly trendy rock-influenced salsa band La 33, and the impressive cumbia fusionists Onda Trópica, founded by electro-cumbia standout Mario Galeano Toro.

That same weekend in September, representatives of the mayor's office and the four sister cities found themselves in the middle of the raucous, celebratory scene taking place nightly at the Gaira Café. Painstakingly designed to create the feel of the Valledupar tropics, the club has the trappings of a vallenato-based Hard Rock Café. But in between intense DJ sets where everything is played from La 33 to Oakland's Panamanian hip-hoppers Los Rakas, there are spontaneous performances by vallenato vocalists, often joined by a bizarrely dressed entourage, creating an almost cabaret feel. The invited Europeans, finally getting their feet on the ground of this ultra-elevated city (8,612 feet closer to heaven, as it were), joined the surging dancers.

As part of the jazz festival, happening concurrently, there was a stirring performance by Dominican pianist Michel Camilo, accompanied by the legendary Puerto Rican percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo. Camilo addressed the crowd with his typical warmth, which was reciprocated as the crowd was dazzled by the interplay between Camilo's rough percussive playing and Hidalgo's wide-angled subtlety—it was as if he were masking that he was playing six congas at once. Just as earlier in the day, when there was an outdoor heavy metal concert downtown, Bogotanos proved again that their tastes were not limited to salsa, cumbia and vallenato.

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was the performance of Big Band Bogotá, which performed music from the American jazz canon, but also an original piece by New York-based Colombian percussionist Samuel Torres, and a tribute to Lucho Bermúdez. While the band's performance was a surprisingly exciting reinvigoration of the big band jazz, format, the way it captured the nostalgic lament of Colombian folkloric music gave it emotional force. I can't wait to see this band astound hipsters and jazzophiles alike at a venue like New York's Central Park Summerstage.

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