The 2016 Colombian Fest had some tremendous music, but its cramped location on the hot asphalt of the Copernicus Center parking lot made it pretty uncomfortable on a July weekend. In only its second year, the fest had already outgrown its space.
Fortunately, Colombian Fest founder Jorge Ortega saw this as well and immediately started looking for something roomier, which he found at Kelvyn Park in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. With the help of the Chicago Park District and the local alderman’s office, Colombian Festival transformed itself in 2017 into Chicago’s Colombian Festival al Parque.
What a difference a year makes! Blessed with moderate weather, the weekend was a smashing success. As before, Ortega carefully booked the music with an eye toward reflecting the breadth and depth of Colombian music as well as the tastes of a multi-generational audience. Living legends were there like Julio Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada who, as music director at the Discos Fuentes label and with his group Fruko y sus Tesos, practically invented Colombian style salsa in the 1970’s, and the sound he created then still carries tremendous power forty years later. Representing the youth movement were artists like the dynamic Explosión Negra, who infuse traditional Pacifico rhythms with other Afro-Caribbean sounds and hip-hop swagger. Bogota’s Los Rolling Raunas take the interior mountain sounds of the Colombian Andes and perform them with rock energy.
The real pleasures of the weekend were aimed at the old folks, though, which is not to say that younger attendees didn’t show them lots of love. Los Embajadores Vallenatos demonstrated why they were one of the top vallenato bands of the 80s & 90s, and cumbia singer Pastor López hasn’t lost a step in his three decade career. Salsa singer Jorge Maldanodo, though a Puerto Rican, has been beloved in Colombia ever since a 1978 visit as lead singer with the legendary Sonora Mantancera. Checo Acosta, though a bit younger, is extraordinarily popular around carnaval time in Barranquilla, and his show was accompanied by a multitude of musicians and dancers replicating the Congo Grande Comparsa.
All of this would add up to a successful weekend, but it was the presence of the regal Totó la Momposina, Colombia’s undisputed queen of Afro-Latin folkloric music, that was truly historic. Her show nearly transcended music itself in its survey of all the sounds and colors that Colombian culture has given the world. Greeted by the ecstatic crowd, she and her expansive band rewarded them with over an hour of pure bliss. Her concert at Millennium Park a few nights earlier was both excellent and moving, but here, before something like a ‘hometown crowd’, it was on an entirely different level.
One wonders where the fest can go from here, but no doubt Jorge Ortega is already working on it.
Words and images by Charlie Billups, edited by Don Macica –
“His strong cumbia beat with his very skilled accordion play reminded me of parties in my wife’s hometown of Corozal. I could close my eyes on Sunday and imagined that I was in Corozal or at the beach with his music on in the background and people dancing in a beach side restaurant. The atmosphere at the festival was exactly like that of a festival in Colombia.”
Agúzate photographer Charlie Billups is recalling his two days spent at Colombian Fest / El Gran Festival Colombiano, which took place at the Copernicus Center July 16-17 during a sweltering mid-summer heatwave. He’s speaking about the artist who closed the weekend, the 80-year-old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez from Barranquilla, a port city on the country’s Atlantic coast. “His music represented the joy and fun of being Colombian.”
Billups continues, “The sounds that filled the festival represented several genres of music from different parts of Colombia, all of which are very popular. Cumbia, vallenato, champeta, salsa and merengue. When one of the many, many bands weren’t performing, DJs played vintage records to keep the energy high. The capacity crowd that packed the place on both days loved every minute of it.”
Experiencing Sunday night’s headliner was not the only time Billups felt himself transported from the northwest side of Chicago to the South American nation. He recalls Sunday’s late afternoon set by Charles King, who delivered a stirring performance with his champeta criolla, and how it brought him to another time and place. “The music was sweet reggae sounding but with deep roots in the Colombian coast town of Palenque and enhanced by Mr. King’s deep facial expressions. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was in Cartagena on a taxi ride to the bus station and the driver had the radio on playing Mr. King’s El Martillo.”
Two of Saturday’s headliners especially stood out in Billup’s memory as well.
“Sonora Carrusales, the last performer that night, is a salsa band from Medellin. La Sonora has an extremely powerful sound that evokes Fruko and many bands from Medellin and Cali. The crowd exploded as the band played non-stop for 90 minutes. This band represents the strong salsa legacy that Colombia has. Cali is called the salsa capital of the world. Passion ran high thru the entire place and people did not want to leave even after the three encores by La Sonora.
“Earlier Saturday afternoon Jimmy Zambrano and former Binomio de Oro member Duban Bayona delivered to me what represents the heart of coastal Colombian music, vallenato. People in the crowd were transfixed by the soulful melodic performance of Grammy winner Zambrano’s accordion with Bayona’s strong voice. I have to say that this was like going to Colombia and walking down the street on a Saturday night and listening to this duo on picos [Colombian sound systems] in the balconies.”
Charlie Billups’ great photos are a testament to his love of Latin American culture and community. Several illustrate this article, and you can find many, many more at his website. For his part, Charlie has just one more thing to say.
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 _____
Chicagoans are a hardy bunch. We suffer through what seems like endless winters because we know one thing: Summer music in Chicago is awesome! Nearly every weekend has one neighborhood festival or another. There’s the city-owned world class concert venue Pritzker Pavilion downtown, but in recent years the neighborhood parks have stepped up big time too. Besides all the free stuff, there are also a few privately run festivals where the music to dollar ratio is especially high.
There’s something for everyone, but we have a mission here at Agúzate that keeps us focused on places where the Afro-Latin quotient is high. Here then, is our guide to where we want to be this summer.
Of course, you’re invited too!
The 606 Block Party, June 4: We start in the ‘hood, or more accurately, the four neighborhoods that Chicago’s urban trail park runs through: Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. They are celebrating their first anniversary by throwing a huge party, and the Latino flavor of the trail’s western half leads to some pretty good music. Humboldt Boulevard between Cortland and Wabansia is where you’ll find salsa orchestra Luis Palermo and the Brasa All-Stars, the Latin ska of Los Vicios de Papá, and Bomba conBuya with special guest bomba maestroLeró Martinez. More action can be found in the smaller parks along the trail, including rumba Cubana from Iré Elese Abure, booming Brazilian samba from Bloco Maximo, Tango & folkloric music by bandoneón player Richard Scofano and even more bomba and plena with Leró Martinez, Jerry Ferrao, Arawak’Opia and saxophonist Roy McGrath.
Night Out in the Parks, various dates: Speaking of Roy McGrath, we’ve been following his Julia al Son de Jazz project ever since he premiered it at The 606 last year. McGrath reports that it is still growing and refining, and the public will get three more chances to check in on its progress in three spots around the city: June 24 at Fred Anderson Park in the South Loop, July 29 at Riis Park and August 26 at Gage Park. More 606 celebrants return as well, including Bomba con BuyaJuly 25 in Blackhawk Park and Iré Elese AbureAugust 27 at Julia de Burgos Park. Miramar, whose new album is a tribute to Puerto Rican songwriter Sylvia Rexach, performs June 24 in Hermosa Park. Finally, AfriCaribe brings the bomba y plena to three spots as well, June 23 in Churchill Park, July 11 in Wicker Park and August 10 in Foster Park.
Millennium Park Summer Music Series, various dates: There are many reasons to spend a summer evening here, but for us, none are more essential than the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra on June 27. Opening for El Maestro is Afro-Colombian folkloric ensemble Ecos del Pacifico. Other promising shows include Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante (you might recognize him from his haunting theme to Netflix’s Narcos) on June 13, Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti and Positive Force on July 11, Congolese band Mbongwana Star with local favorites Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta on August 11 and, making up for last year’s State Department visa meltdown, highlife legend King Sunny Ade on July 18. UPDATE: Puerto Rican singer Ileana Cabra Joglar, better known as iLe, has been added on July 14.
Square Roots Festival, July 8-10: The street fest version of its predecessor, the glorious Folk & Roots Festival, may never quite hit those heights of communal bliss, but the venerable Old Town School continues to bring in excellent music, and this year is no exception. We’ll be checking out roots reggae from Taj Weekes, the Ethiopian pop of Debo Band and the classic New York Latin sound of Los Hacheros.
Chicago SummerDance, various dates: A tradition going on 20 years, this globally generous three month dance party on Chicago’s front lawn will present several local and international artists, including Angel Melendez & the 911 Mambo Orchestra, Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, Los Hacheros, Ola Fresca and Carpacho y Su Super Combo.
Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, July 15-16: Make sure your Uber account is in good standing, ‘cause you’re going to need it this weekend! We’ll start off Friday night with a festival that, without fail, presents the absolute best in Latin Jazz. And though we don’t yet know what they are planning for this year, it’s a sure bet that you’ll want to see some of it. UPDATE: Legendary San Francisco percussionist and bandleader John Santos has been announced as the Friday night headliner. Juan Pastor’s Chinchano opens.
El Gran Festival Colombiano, July 16-17: Back for its second year, they are working hard to build on last summer’s great lineup with 79 year old cumbia legend Anibal Velasquez, champeta master Charles King, salsa dura from Pibo Márquez’ Salsa Caribbean All Stars, Lucho Morales y Su Fiesta Vallenato, Afro-Colombian rising stars Explosión Negra and the old school salsa orchestra Sonora Carruseles. On the DJ side you’ll find Geko Jones from the Que Bajo?! collective and festival organizer Jorge Ortega himself spinning classic vinyl.
Celebrate Clark Street, July 16-17: Back for its eleventh year, the music at this humble and slightly gritty festival (I can say that ‘cause it’s in my neighborhood) always turns it into something of a mini-World Music Fest. This year is no exception. We’re especially excited about Palenke SoulTribe, Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars and the El Freaky collective.
Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival, July 16-17: Uber goes to the suburbs, right? It is, as they say, cooler by the lake, and you can’t get any closer than at this summertime favorite. This year, check out the Cuban-Arabic-Flamenco-Gypsy Swing of Sultans of String, the Chicago Afrobeat Project, and the hard hitting Johnny Blas Afro Libre Orchestra.
Festival Cubano, August 12-14: No lineup has yet been made public, but in the past they have showcased such giants as Willy Chirino, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and Alfredo de la Fe. Last year brought the first visits of Cubans directly from the island, and there’s no reason to think that will stop now. UPDATE: Reunited hip-hop trio Orishas plus Albita and La India have been announced as headliners.
Chicago Jazz Festival, September 1-4: There are few better ways to end your summer than by immersing yourself in jazz at this 38 year old tradition. The Big Papi of jazz fests promises something for everyone, but we are especially excited about two performances: The experimental Afro-Latin collective James Sanders’ Proyecto Libre on Friday and the closing night concert, a Latin Jazz All Stars 95th birthday tribute to legendary Cuban congueroCandido Camero with Candido himself.
You have to come indoors sometime, and the early part of the summer provides a few excellent opportunities to do just that, including:
Venezuela by way of New York hedonists Los Amigos Invisibles hit Bottom Lounge June 9.
Darwin Noguera & Victor Garcia’s CALJE(June 10) and Colombian/New York band leader Gregorio Uribe(June 12), both at Sabor a Café Steakhouse.
Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez Trio at the Jazz ShowcaseJune 16-19.
Triple Threat! Dos Santos Antibeat Orquesta with funk/soul/reggae band Fatbook and global jazz beatmaster Makaya McCraven at Martyrs June 17.