The Dominican Republic Stages its 22nd Jazz Festival

Rupert Parker enjoys this very inclusive Caribbean music festival

Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors

Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors

Marco Pignataro

Marco Pignataro

Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors w Marco Pignataro

Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors with Marco Pignataro

School Visit

School Visit

Drummer at Mustard Seed

Drummer at Mustard Seed

School Kids

School Kids

Puerto Plata

Puerto Plata

Sissy Castriobani

Sissy Castriobani

Sissy Castriobani 1

Sissy Castriobani

Xiomara Fortuna

Xiomara Fortuna

Sosúa Stage

Sosúa Stage

Tutti Drayan

Tutti Drayan

Edmar Colon

Edmar Colon

Tutti Druyan and Edmar Colón

Tutti Druyan and Edmar Colón

Grupo Bonyé

Grupo Bonyé

Luciana Souza and Kids

Luciana Souza and Kids

Luciana Souza and Chico Pinheiro

Luciana Souza and Chico Pinheiro

Omara Portuondo

Omara Portuondo

Omara Portuondo on Stage

Omara Portuondo on Stage

Omara Portuondo on Stage 1

Omara Portuondo on Stage

Omara Portuondo w Piano Player

Omara Portuondo with Piano Player

El Prodigo

El Prodigo

One of the biggest cultural events in the Caribbean, the DR Jazz Festival is quite unlike any other. It’s staged in the open air in different locations from August to November and is 100% free, although VIP seats are available to purchase. Surprisingly, it also manages to attract major talent from all over the world.

It also has a political message as the theme this year is “Voices for Peace & Humanity” – there’s special emphasis on the ability of singers in jazz to bring a powerful message of freedom, creativity and hope. If all that sounds rather grand, then any profit goes to FEDUJAZZ, which provides free music education to over 100 children in the locality.

At their teaching facility in Cabarete, I get to see this in action. As part of the festival, a group of young musicians from the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston have flown in not only to perform but also to give masterclasses to the students. They’re led by distinguished Italian saxophonist Marco Pignataro who’s the MD of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.

In fact, during the course of the week, they visit local schools and a home for children with disabilities, sharing their enthusiasm for music. They don’t just play but get the kids to interact, clapping out rhythms and doing call and response. At the end there’s time for questions and perhaps some of these children will become the jazz stars of the future.

The first concert is in Puerto Plata on the DR’s north coast where Christopher Columbus once anchored his ships in the bay. It’s an attractive colonial town and the stage is set up in the square in front of the cathedral. I grab a glass of the local rum and enjoy a set from singer Sissy Castriobani and her trio. She sings in her native Sicilian, with Latin rhythms, although she does manage to throw in a Chopin Nocturne. For one number she’s joined by Marco Pignataro, on soprano, who complements her perfectly.

She’s followed by Xiomara Fortuna, from the Dominican Republic, who mixes jazz reggae, merengue and bachata. It shows in her choice of songs and the crowd love her renditions of Lullaby of Birdland and My Baby Just Cares for You. Her version of the Chilean Gracias a la Vida is a real crowd pleaser and everyone goes home happy.

Next day the festival moves to the beach at Sosúa and local schools have been invited for a special morning concert. The stage is still under construction but that doesn’t stop Israeli singer Tutti Druyan and Puerto Rico Saxophonist, Edmar Colón getting the kids to join in. They play a number and then break it down into its separate elements showing how the bass, drums and piano interact. Xiomara Fortuna then appears, accompanying herself on a hand drum, and it’s a memorable morning.

It’s an archetypal Caribbean setting, with the stage and seats on the sand, right next to the sea. In the evening Tutti is back in front of the large crowd, effortlessly delivering modern standards like Yesterday and Stevie Wonder’s Lately with Edmar’s solos weaving serpent-like beneath her singing.

Local content is provided by Grupo Bonyé, a band of sixteen friends from the DR capital Santa Domingo. Singers Felix Baez, Nestor Sanchez, Chinese Mendez, Franklyn Soto and Roberto Bobadilla lead the ensemble through a set of traditional Dominican meringue, salsa and son Cubano. It’s the perfect music for the beach and there’s dancing on the sand.

Next morning we’re by the ocean again but this time in Cabarete. More schools have been bussed in to hear the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors who do their usual brilliant job of engaging the children. Afterwards, Brazilian singer Luciana Souza sings a samba and invites some brave kids to dance on stage with her.

At the evening’s concert, the Ambassadors deliver a polished performance charming the crowd with their youthful talent. Then Luciana Souza takes the stage with Sao Paulo guitarist Chico Pinheiro and together they deliver sublime versions of Jobim classics Corcovado, Girl from Ipanema and Desafinado among others. The interplay between voice and guitar is sublime. Marco Pignataro joins them for If Not for Me and invokes the ghost of Stan Getz.

On the final night, living jazz legend and original Buena Vista Social Club member Omara Portuondo thrills the crowd. At 88, her voice still has the power, but she chooses to sit for most of the set. She has a great young band, all from Cuba, and the keyboard player impresses. Of course she delivers all her hits and the audience sings along.

To close the festival, accordion-vocalist Krency Garcia, nicknamed “El Prodigo”, and his band increase the musical temperature. He’s also a local boy but has spent time in New York and also studied at the Berklee College of Music. Featuring saxophonist Sandy Gabriel, the band’s brand of merengue seems the perfect way end to what’s been an exciting festival.

Factbox

The 2019 Dominican Jazz Festival will take place in October and November.
Go Dominican Republic has information about the island.
The Millennium Resort and Spa makes a good base in Cabarete, right on the beach.

Share