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Back Roads Beat

The 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Almost Free For You Today

By Published: January 30, 2008
Open arms or not, this is a land of speed bumps.

Vehicles frequently operate more at barely more than walking pace on side streets and lodge roads, stopping every 20 yards or so to climb barriers that would challenge a Hummer. They also appear regularly on thoroughfares, making cruise control an ill-advised option.

"You'd be going along and those rental cars had no shocks left," said Mary Donovan, a Seattle resident making her second trip to the area."We commented on it all the time. We were like 'Slow down! Show down!'"

Donovan, traveling with her husband, Steve Seward, and friends from Poulsbo, Wash., said they thought about going to jazz festival on a couple of nights, but didn't have the energy to tackle the journey from their hotel after exploring the area during the day.

Then there's the metaphorical bumps: long walks or shuttle waits to get from your room to the facilities at those expansive resorts; struggles to get internet access; paying $4 a minute for phone calls to the U.S. using a cumbersome system that cuts you off every 20 minutes and resulted in my credit cards being put on security hold because of the repeated high charges.

This, of course, is the atmosphere most visitors seek. People who can't vacation without their Blackberry, laptop computer and widespread wifi will feel like they're in the jungle in more ways than one. They share an odd kinship their globetrotting opposites, the independent travelers who disdain and studiously avoid the all-controlling Disneyesque enterprises devouring the travelers' freedom to experience legitimate culture. Many in our group, including the organizers, wanted to make at least one stop at a street taco stand, but preset scheduling denied most the chance.

Those lavish and imported qualities also characterize the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival, for better and worse.

Nightly lineups consist of a Mexican opening act and a "big name" main concert, with nearly all shows fusion-oriented. Nothing in this year's lineup offered listeners any obvious sounds of Mexico or much approaching straight-ahead jazz.

"We're starting people with (fusion) so they're not afraid to get into that kind of music," said Fernando Toussaint, a drummer who has played in all of the festivals and serves as its director.

All of the headline performers said they planned to play regular shows without adoptions or tributes, arguing that's actually the best cultural contribution. Miller said he learned an important lesson in Brazil when his group assumed they needed to add a samba to the set, since they're part of every local band's playlist.

"But in Brazil everybody already plays a samba, so why should I play what they already know?" he said. "It's almost an insult. I think the important thing is to play what you bring."

Benson, the most anticipated visitor among locals I talked to, said "we're going to play all the hits" to please the crowd.

"I'm not to prove anything, (or) to make this day different than all other days," he said.

Derbez, in his historical narratives, derides a longstanding assumption that "Mexican jazz to be Mexican must syncopate songs like 'La Cucaracha,' 'Besame Mucho,' 'La Rielera,' 'El Jarabe Loco,' (and) 'La Bamba,' and must turn 'Take Five' into a jarabe or a huapango, 'All Blues' a bolero and 'When The Saints Go Marching In' a valona, a son, a corrido or something that can be played by norteno conjuntos and mariachis."

Such concepts don't apply to Toussaint, a self-taught musician who's spent most of his life listening to landmark old-school and fusion players.

"My grandpa used to listen to Miles Davis and all the big names in jazz," he said. "It was in the background all the time."

Toussaint and his brothers, Eugenio and Enrique, formed Sacbe, the first jazz group to create its own label in Mexico and among the first to use synthesizers (a four-disc set of more than 20 years' work can be heard and is available for as little as $6 at

"The biggest influence we had was Weather Report," he said. "I also like Frank Zappa."

He spends eight months a year organizing the festival mostly by himself, a job he's had since some locals with an interest in music and tourism approached him with the concept.

"It all started as a dream," he said. "It was like four or five people who thought about it...They knew I was a drummer, they knew I was a musician, so they thought I was ideal."

The beach setting presents logistical problems—the stage wasn't sheltered the first few years, among other things—but Toussaint said he prefers it to a performing arts facility.

"The production is complicated because of the sand and the humidity," he said. "But the scenery is so beautiful I want to keep it there."

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