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Back Roads Beat

The 2006 Panama Jazz Festival

By Published: February 7, 2006
Instead its image on the modern global stage was shaped by events such as the U.S. invasion that ousted dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989. Regaining control of the canal in 1999 was a major economic boost and the country is working aggressively to establish itself as a cultural and eco tourism destination. The industry is credited with helping boost the gross national product by 22 percent in 2005 compared to 2004, with a new cruise ship terminal in the capital for large ships and three megamalls costing $100 million each are among the costly visitor-oriented investments being made.

The country's tourism minister is Panamanian salsa star and movie actor Ruben Blades, who moved back to his homeland from the U.S. two years ago to take the job. He says part of his plan is taking visitors on tours of places where he and others played in their younger days.

The country served as a crossroads for African slaves traded by Englishmen, was conquered centuries ago by Spain, saw the French lose 22,000 lives in a futile attempt to build a canal in the 1880s, followed by the United States successfully completing the project in 1904, one year after Panama became an independent nation. All of these contributed musical influences, along with its Caribbean geography.

Pianist Luis Russell became Panama's first jazz star, moving to New Orleans in 1919 after winning $3,000 in a lottery. After a stint in Chicago he moved to New York City, leading one of the city's top bands beginning in the late 1920s - until it was taken over by Louis Armstrong, one of many notables to play with it, although Russell remained its music director. Other early-era notables include vocalist and "queen of the tamborera" Sylvia De Grasse at her peak from the 1940s to 1960s in the U.S. and Central America; pianist Papo Lucca, known for his salsa work in Puerto Rico; and organist Avelino Munoz.

Early Panamanian jazz combined American-style swing with a Caribbean accent that, according to an outstanding story on Panama's music history by Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Reich (easily found on Google - the URL is too long to include here), made it "more lyrical, more folkloric and less rhythmically agitated than its American counterpart." Reich recommends several currently available albums including accordionist Aceves Nunez's Panama En Ritmo, Vol. 1, Boa and Garnett's Legendas Del Tambo Jazz (I'll second this from personal experience), and the modern Bannaba Project's Panamanian Ethnofussion.

Musicians such as Paz and Garnett grew up listening to and performing such music during the 1940s and '50s, but the only documentation of the era beyond the memories of such players are a handful of recordings unavailable to the public. But their longevity has kept that music alive for modern generations.

"You get a lot of percussion and rhythm and feeling, along with the soul of jazz," said Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro during a tour of the city for media organizations covering the festival. His familiarity with the country's music is more than passing - he has a younger brother who played with a Latin rock group for several years and recorded five albums.

If there's a face to associate with the image of what Panama is trying to become, Navarro is it. An energetic and charismatic politician who appears to be in his 40s, the two-term leader is ready with quick and often quick-witted comments on almost any subject from serious to trivial. His narrative to reporters of the city's politics, history and economic development plans was frequently interrupted with greetings among laborers, crafts vendors in sightseeing areas and visitors. One older U.S. visitor in shorts, a colorful shirt and baseball cap was content to exchange a few words about the weather, reasonably temperate for the sunny tropical conditions.

"If you come back in October or November I can guarantee you rain," Navarro warned.

That timing was one of the mistakes learned during the inaugural festival, which took place in September, he said. Shifting it to January is one of the many small improvements experience is making possible.

"I think the festival is growing its own legs," Navarro said. "It will become more institutional...I think Danilo is also learning to do it his way. He's getting damn good at organizing the festival."

Jazz As Panamanian Folk As Jazz

Opening night featured two saxophone-led bands sandwiching a pair of Panamanian folk groups. But the middle shows offered glimpses into how the country's musical roots tie into jazz, beginning with the four-member guitar-and-vocal Cantadera featuring an apparent traditional father/freethinking daughter dispute bordering on operatic parody (not knowing Spanish, I could be way off). It ends with a hug, of course, between vocalists Tonito Vargas and Manuelito Corrales, but maybe it was part of the show-ending congratulations as Perez returned for his MC duties.

"How about that - they just improvised that on the spot," he said.

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