A free trip to a jazz festival near Cancun, complete with luxury trappings. All I'm expected to do in return is write something about it.
What could possibly go wrong, aside from a few meddlesome skeptics questioning my objectivity?
To them here's my assessment of the 2007 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival: Greatest. Festival. Ever.
Just kidding. A three-day, six-concert festival featuring headline shows by commercial stalwarts Marcus Miller, Tower of Power and George Benson doesn't get that honor unless the junket includes first-class plane tickets. Also, with Mexico's population historically indifferent or hostile toward jazz, the Americanized fusion played by the three regional bands was hardly ideal for capturing the country's underestimated role in the genre's development. Finally, while the rest of the media on the public relations tour mostly raved about the all-inclusive resort and daytime tour activities, I was a magnet for a comedy of mishaps confirming I'm as suited for such places as a milk bucket under a bull.
So this isn't the unabashed puffery our truly hype-worthy hosts are hoping for, but the Riviera Maya festival is a pretty good experience in a pretty good winter destination. In fact, my recommendation for people interested in unveiling the obscurity of Mexican jazz is to stay longer and go beyond the cushion of familiar luxury, something that may be aided by a longer festival in future years.
It all started with an e-mail in my spam box, alongside the impotence and weight loss ads, inviting me to the festival from November 29 to December 1.
"The Riviera Maya is emerging as one of the premiere jazz music events in the Americas. Hosted by the Riviera Maya Tourism Promotion Board, press trip participants will have the opportunity to experience a first-rate line-up for one of the most important musical events. Headlining the Festival will be legendary jazz artist George Benson along with Tower of Power, a group known for their combination of R&B, soul and jazz."
"This fully-hosted trip includes airfare from your nearest gateway city, hotel, stay, all meals and entry fees to attractions in accordance with the itinerary." The festival location, it added, was "named a Top Destination in Mexico two years in a row by Travel Weekly...and is also one of the fastest growing destinations in Mexico."
I've gotten similar pitches before. Last year an invitation to a festival in Cuba turned out to be a chance to pay my way there (and probably get arrested, thanks to U.S. restrictions) like any other visitor. But the Mexico invite was intriguing enough to invest three minutes on an e-mail, since my global tour of unusual jazz spots generally avoids tropical beach areas, which I don't particularly like. I got a response almost immediately from Stephanie Worth of the New York PR firm Adams Unlimited, and a couple of days and a few messages later I was booked for four days near some town called Playa del Carmen.
A little Web research reveals Playa del Carmen was a small fishing village that's now a tourist mecca of about 100,000 about an hour's drive from even more party-hearty Cancun. Featured attractions for the booming number of cruise ship and resort visitors include a lengthy pedestrian mall, lively nightlife scene and, of course, vast turquoise-water beaches.
The jazz festival is on one of the more popular beaches and organizers estimated more than 10,000 people a night might attend the free performances. Each night featured an opening concert by a regional band, none known to me, but one of which has been among the country's premier groups for more than two decades.
"Riviera Maya" refers to a 40-mile tourism district along the main highway from Playa del Carmen to Tulum pueblo, consisting largely of vast all-inclusive resorts, villa rentals, and recreational facilities offering things like scuba diving and jungle ATV riding.
"The resorts are generally secluded, and prevent one from experiencing the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city, and to some extent Mexican culture as well, since you will be surrounded by Western tourists and amenities," Wikipedia's travel guide notes.
No matter, I figured. I was told the city had a jazz club or two, and I figured I could scope out the local scene and learn about jazz in Mexico in general by wandering the less touristy streets during the day, which would also be the perfect opportunity to savor brain tacos and other cheap street food.