By Parker Asmann –
In the distance a tall, white party tent extends far above the fence line and into a cloudless sky. With every step the microphones and instruments being sound checked start to sound more like a Tejano band from Texas. Nearly in perfect unison, Jorge Ortega and his team of sound technicians are running around meticulously preparing for their latest event. With only a week until Colombian Fest one would think this had something to do with the festival, but today is just a typical birthday celebration for Ortega.
Colombian Fest, the Midwest’s largest celebration of Colombian music and culture, returns to the Copernicus Center July 16-17 for their second annual festival. Coinciding with Colombian Independence Day, the festival will include legendary and contemporary musicians directly from Colombia as well as artists from Chicago’s thriving Colombian community. From cumbia, vallenato and champeta to currulao and salsa, the festival highlights the richness and diversity of Colombian music and culture.
Ortega, the festival’s director and founder, was born in the seaport town of Barranquilla, in the Atlantico of Colombia. Known for its enormous carnival celebrations equipped with costumed performers and cumbia music, Ortega had to rely on his parents and uncles to understand and experience that Colombian culture after moving to the United States at a young age.
Every weekend Ortega’s father would have loud music from every region in Colombia singing throughout the house, blasting until the wee hours of the morning. While he wasn’t taking notes on what his father had playing in the house, Ortega would be carefully combing through his uncle’s record collection filled with Colombian artists he had brought with him to the United States.
At family parties when his uncle got tired of being in control of the music, Ortega was left to command the sound system as the adults around him danced and sang into the night.
“My parents would have a party and the adults would be doing their thing and the only one left playing with the music was me,” Ortega said. “I was young, my uncle would just let me go ahead and play the music. I was always right there with the sound system.”
Since the age of 18, Ortega has been surrounded by music and has worked countless music festivals. With over 30 years working as a sound engineer and production manager, Ortega and his partner Luis Garcia decided that hosting their own music festival was the next appropriate step to take.
“Colombian Fest started about four years ago,” Ortega said. “We did a picnic in a forest preserve on Irving Park and Cumberland, I think it was for my birthday since it’s a couple days after Colombian Independence on July 20.”
After receiving positive feedback from the first picnic, Ortega decided to hold another picnic the following year, only this time with about double the amount of people. Before long, what started out as a small picnic transformed itself into a full blown music festival.
Colombian culture is anything but simple. From Colombia’s Pacific coast to the interior plains and mountains, and on to the shores of the Caribbean, to its African, Spanish and indigenous roots, Colombia’s diversity is showcased both geographically and culturally. Arguably the epicenter of Latin America, Colombia’s identity is unavoidably influenced by and exported to its neighbors. All of this leaves Ortega with one big question: How could he possibly incorporate all of this diversity into two days?
For Ortega, it all started with the verbenas in Colombia that his parents would describe in stories of their time spent enjoying them. Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s in Barranquilla, Ortega’s parents would frequent the verbenas, popular street parties along Colombia’s Atlantic coast. At the verbenas in Barranquilla, it was as if all of the musical and cultural influences that had shaped Colombia had fallen onto one town.
“The music was introduced in the barrios and the streets of Barranquilla through these sound systems called pickups, or picos for short,” Ortega said. “And that music would come through the boats. With Barranquilla being a port town, a lot of the music that came from Haiti, Jamaica, the United States, Africa and France, all that music came in through the boats.”
Soon enough, Colombian verbenas developed a certain ebb and flow to them that Ortega saw replicated at his parents’ parties.
“Those were the early verbenas, they would play cumbia, vallenato, salsa, African music, and then the African music transitioned into champeta,” Ortega said. “It’s a mix, and I grew up with that mix.”
That mix that Ortega grew up with is showcased in the Colombian artists and local Chicago bands that are slated to perform at this year’s festival. One of the most notable musicians is 80-year-old Anibal Velasquez y Los Locos del Swing. Also a native of Barranquilla, Velasquez universalized the accordion and introduced a livelier form of cumbia known as the Colombian Guaracha. His innovations influenced music in Colombia and throughout Latin America. In Mexico, it’s known as cumbia sonidero.
Also accompanying Velasquez on the list of elite musicians and performers from Colombia are the salsa orchestra Sonora Carruseles and champeta master Charles King. All three of these performers will be receiving Colombian Heritage Awards at the festival for their lifetime of cultural contributions.
While some of Colombia’s native talent will be on full display, a variety of other acts from around the world and Chicago will also be exhibiting their abilities. Chicago’s own Diana Mosquera Ensemble, Ecos del Pacífico Afrocolombiano and Tierra Colombiana Folkloric Dance Company will be highlighting Chicago’s own Colombian heritage.
Ortega is particularly excited about a couple new additions to this year’s lineup, especially Explosión Negra from Colombia’s Pacific coast, representing a new evolution in Colombian music, mixing it with urban hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall, uniting three strains of African music in the Americas.
“Here in Chicago you have a Colombian community that’s pretty diverse,” Ortega said. “You have a mix of Colombians that are from the coast, from Bogota, Medellin, and so with the festival we try and have a little bit of everything.”
Representing all of Colombia’s different cultural and musical identities is important to Ortega and the festival’s organizers, but what’s more important is maintaining and providing the type of sound quality that’s needed to really appreciate the intricacies of the music being performed.
Producing the festival will be LD Audio, one of the largest concert and festival production companies in the Midwest. As head of production management, Ortega and LD Audio owner Luis Garcia have made a commitment to ensuring that the sound quality of the festival exceeds everyone’s expectations. In Ortega’s words, “it’s a ‘sound guys’ festival.”
“My background is as a sound engineer and a production manager for many years, I’ve toured with many big Latin American artists,” Ortega said. “LD Audio and myself have more than 30 years of experience with sound engineering and production.
“We have a level of professionalism and expertise, and we have to bring that because it’s our festival, we’re representing our country, our Colombia.”
Colombia is African, it’s Spanish and it’s indigenous. There are foods and traditions that are entirely unique to a particularly region that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. Colombia is a fusion, a blending of cultures, tastes, and best of all, musical styles. Ortega isn’t focused on having the biggest festival that gains the most attention; he’s committed to having the highest quality festival that displays just how diverse his Colombian culture is. He wants you to experience his verbena.
“This is not a festival, it’s a verbena, a carnival. You want to experience our verbena, come to Colombian Fest.”
Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17, Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Avenue, Chicago colombianfestchicago.com
About the author: Parker Asmann is a freelance reporter based in Chicago focusing on Latin America and the Latinx community. His work has been featured in El BeiSMan and In These Times magazine, as well as The Yucatan Times and San Miguel Times in México.