Monday, September 13, 2010

Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival 2010 Review

The plan worked out. Like most other Caribbean islands, Curaçao depends largely on tourism that normally hits rock bottom in early September when the heat is temporarily not attenuated by a constant breeze. To lure visitors to the largest of the Dutch islands in the Western hemisphere anyway, promoters in the capital Willemstad had the idea of a musical event. In collaboration with the famous North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Holland, the Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival was created.

Its first edition attracted nearly fifteen thousand visitors on each of the two nights, almost half of them from off island. While waiting for my flight back to Berlin via Amsterdam, I met a guy from Dallas who told me that he had surprised his wife with a trip to the festival to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Journalists had flocked to the event from Holland, the US, Brazil, Suriname and other countries to experience the festival and explore this island, which lies close to the Venezuelan coast. Part of the attraction is historic. The center of Willemstad—once the hub of Holland’s busy slave trade, and still full of Dutch colonial architecture and housing as well as the oldest American synagogue in continuous use is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

Historic Waterfront in Willemstad

Like many jazz festivals today, the event in Curaçao presented a lot of R&B, Latin and African music, in addition to jazz, of course. The opening band at Willemstad’s World Trade Center were Cuba’s veterans of son music Sierra Maestra, still featuring a few of the musicians who founded the band back in the mid-70s. They played the only indoor venue, the Celia Stage, named after the legendary salsa singer Celia Cruz, the godmother of salsa. New York’s Latin music queen La India performed a bit later on the Sir Duke Stage in front of about a thousand people and backed by a fantastic orchestra. Meanwhile, the third and biggest venue, the Sam Cooke Stage, was filled with thousands of fans for guitar legend George Benson. He delivered his usual mix of commercial vocal ballads and first class grooving guitar jazz.

George Benson
The “jazz police” were placated by artists like piano virtuoso Michel Camilo from the Dominican Republic who told his enthusiastic audience that he had been to Curaçao before—for his honeymoon. His fellow pianist Randal Corsen, based in Holland but a native of Curaçao, had put together an incredibly grooving all-star band with Roy Hargove on trumpet, Puerto Rican sax man David Sánchez, the great drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez from Cuba and on percussion Corsen’s compatriot Pernell Saturnino. Saturnino spent many years in the US working with the likes of Paquito D’Rivera and Andy Narell. But in April he decided to relocate back to his native island to open a percussion academy which, of course, does not stop him from performing internationally. Pernell proved to be the festival’s busiest musician, turning up as a guest with five or six different groups.

 Another local act was the band Tumbao Cubaçao, formed by natives and immigrants from Cuba who delivered an interesting fusion of rhythms from both islands. Two completely different shows closed the first evening: the solo performance of Raúl Midón, who displayed once more his incredible talents both as a singer and a guitarist, and soul veteran Lionel Richie who drew the expected huge crowd.

Sergio Mendes
 The second evening opened with Natalie Cole in a swinging and sometimes Latin-influenced set in the tradition of her dad Nat King and her uncle Freddy Cole, while Sergio Mendes presented Brazilian classics with an international band featuring, for example, a bassist from Sri Lanka. Mulato, a band from Willemstad, used jazz, soul and music from the Dutch Antilles and Brazil to create a unique and very danceable mix. Roy Hargrove’s quintet played another straight-ahead jazz set. Hargrove was also one of the most active players during the nightly jam sessions at Willemstad’s Renaissance Hotel.

From Austin, Texas, the eleven-strong Grupo Fantasma came through with an exciting fusion of salsa, Latin-rock and funk that got everybody dancing. And the festival’s only artist from Africa, Cameroonian bassist and singer Richard Bona, delivered—incapable of disappointing—another amazing set with a particularly interesting medley of compositions by Bona’s former employer Joe Zawinul. The young singer Giovanca was born in Holland where she still lives, but her parents come from Curaçao and she feels at home both in Europe and on the island to whom she dedicated a beautiful song sung in Papiamentu, the local vernacular that everybody speaks in addition to the official language Dutch and, in most cases, English and Spanish too. The festival closed out with UK’s pop super-group Simply Red on their farewell tour.

As no major problems occurred and the whole event was almost sold out, the organizers announced that there will be a second Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival in 2011.

- Wolfgang König

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