A couple of weeks ago, a small but evocative display of 30 abstract sculptures, paintings and engravings by artist Manuel Felguérez opened in the stunning boomerang-shaped museum designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki for Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. The exhibition of recent works by Felguérez, one of the most prominent members of the generation that helped pave a new way in Mexican art beyond the aesthetic ideas of Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralists, was quite an event. And indeed it was intended to mark a special occasion: the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mexico and China.
Despite the quality of the exhibition and the presence of the sculptor and painter himself, in reality this is not a common event. Not only is a Latin American art exhibition in China a rare occurrence but, sadly, this cultural exchange mirrors how little importance nations in the region give to a country that has already become their first or second trade partner.
Over the past couple of years only a few major exhibitions have been organized by Latin American countries in China: Colombia brought a large sample of Pre-Hispanic gold objects to the Shanghai Museum and Peru exhibited a range of objects made by Pre-Incan civilizations at the National Museum in Beijing last year. Very little modern art has been displayed, with the possible exceptions of Felguérez and the kinetic works of Venezuela's Carlos Cruz Díez in Ningbo.
But it's not just art. The presence of prominent Latin American intellectuals has generally been scarce. Last year's only high profile visit was that of Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, probably the Latin American intellectual with the closest ties to China, after having lived here for almost a year just before the Cultural Revolution. Argentine poet Juan Gelman and Peruvian novelist—and Nobel laureate—Mario Vargas Llosa have both visited China, albeit on invitations from Spain's Instituto Cervantes. The only important author to visit during this first half of 2012 has been Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki, who spoke in the Chinese capital last week.
Apple Inc. launched its iTunes digital multimedia store yesterday in 16 Latin American countries—a move that industry analysts believe will curb music piracy in the region. The primary regional market for the iTunes Store will be Brazil, and Apple will also begin providing the service to 15 Spanish-speaking countries in the hemisphere: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. iTunes has been in Mexico since 2009.
The entry of iTunes into the Latin American market is notable for a region with widespread piracy. Paulo Rosa, president of the Brazilian Association of Record Producers, said that “the more legal alternatives there are for the consumer, the better it is for the market. Unquestionably, this will help music sales at the expense of piracy.”
According to the 2011 Digital Music Report, published by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 45 percent of Brazilian Internet users pirate music in a given month. The 2011 International Property Rights Index, commissioned by the Property Rights Alliance, notes that Venezuela ranked the worst among 129 countries in terms of piracy of intellectual property rights.
In a related story, Apple announced earlier this week that unlocked iPhones will be available for purchase in Brazil—directly from Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn—beginning Friday, December 16. Foxconn’s new assembly factory in the state of São Paulo is expected to open by year end.
Over the course of my week in Cartagena, I have become more steeped in the language, culture and attitudes of Colombians. It seems fitting, then, that the last music concerts I attended at the Festival Internacional de Música were distinctly rooted in Colombian traditions and modern identities, rather than the classical music of Europe. As much as the festival may cater to an international audience, on Thursday and Friday the spotlight was on Colombia and its next generation of musicians.
At the beginning of Thursday evening’s concert, which took place in the by-now-familiar Plaza San Pedro Claver, the festival’s artistic director Stephen Prutsman appeared on stage. “Tonight you can show your emotion for the music,” he told the audience. “This is no ordinary classical music concert.” To make sure they understood his meaning, he then led them in a practice round of applause.
They did. Thursday evening’s concert, entitled Colombia Mágica (Magical Colombia), drew standing ovations and pleas for encore performances. One group it featured was the Guafa Trio, which—founded in 1998—was one of the first groups to combine classical music’s technical rigor with instruments and traditions native to Colombia. With the high, airy notes of the flute and earthy, sensual beats of the base (contrabajo), Guafa Trio’s music immediately called to mind folkloric tunes of the Andes.
The concert also featured Marta Gómez, a singer/songwriter who is originally from Cali. Wearing a long black dress under a bright yellow shawl, her black hair neatly parted and slicked back in a tight bun, Gómez made for a striking presence on stage even before she began singing. Accompanied by musicians from across South America and even Russia, her voice strong and charged with emotion (reminding me alternately of Mercedes Sosa, Enya and Alanis Morissette), and her hips swaying naturally to the music, Marta Gómez hypnotized the audience. They held their breaths during her melancholy solos, clapped enthusiastically to the beat of her cumbia, and cried for more when it was all over.
Marta Gómez y su grupo performing at the Plaza San Pedro Claver. Photo courtesy of Joshua Z Weinstein.
Julia Salvi, a native of Colombia, recalls bringing her Italian husband Victor to Cartagena for the first time, around early 2005: “Of course he loved it right away, and started thinking about what he could do here. When other people were thinking about buying houses, he was thinking about buying a theater,” she chuckles.
It might sound crazy, but the Salvis, who own a harp-making business, were contemplating a new musical venture that would have a philanthropic component. Although their name isn’t on any theater in Cartagena, the changes they have brought to the city are indelible. With the inaugural Festival Internacional de Música in 2007, Julia and Victor Salvi established the Fundación Victor Salvi to promote the music industry and the musical development of youth in Colombia. Julia is now the president of the Salvi Foundation.
At the beginning, the festival was funded entirely by the Salvis. Over the past five years, however, it has grown very quickly, expanding its funding base alongside the growing numbers of participants, concerts and educational activities, This year, it met its budget of $5 million primarily through in-kind and cash support from corporations, private foundations and individual donations. Financial support from the federal and local government is minimal, consisting of a $100,000 donation from the government of the City of Cartagena and a $15,000 grant from the Ministry of Culture. “I wish I could have more,” says Salvi, but she is also quick to point out that the government supports the festival in other ways (for example, helping with publicity and facilitating necessary permits), and that she does not want to depend on politicians—who change frequently and could be a source of financial instability—for money, preferring instead to be self-sustaining.
Salvi says the Festival Internacional de Música plays a significant role in international and cultural tourism. She estimates that 35 percent of paid-ticket holders are foreigners and 25 percent are Colombians who currently live abroad. The festival directors try “not to lose the balance” between international and local audiences to ensure an international perspective. Nonetheless, the festival’s free concerts, which are open to the public and make up about one-third of its programming, do attract a local audience. For example, at the open-air concerts—written about in previous posts from Cartagena this week (here and here)—Salvi estimates that approximately 40 percent of the standing audiences were from Cartagena.
¿A cuántos aquí les gusta el tango? (Who here likes tango?) asked the emcee of last night’s concert. Amid general cheers from the audience, the loudest response was from the woman behind me, who promptly and enthusiastically yelled, ¡Todos! (“Everyone!”).
Todos is what this concert was all about. Sponsored by the international credit card company Diners Club and held at the Plaza San Pedro Claver, the selection of works and the style of performance were the most modern, accessible and laid-back yet witnessed at the festival. The performance included Argentine harpist María Luisa Rayán-Forero, who interpreted famed Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s Otoño Porteño and Libertango with an instrument and style not ordinarily expected of the tango. With the fingers of her left hand slowly plucking strings to create low, sultry, jazz-like chords, those on her right hand danced over the harp to render the tango’s melodies. To keep time, her knuckles occasionally rapped on the instrument itself, and Rayán-Forero’s harp sounded more like an upright bass and guitar with occasional percussion. The effect was hypnotic and seductive, completely transporting the audience to the streets of Buenos Aires.
The program also included violin and flute solos which, although from the early twentieth century, felt much more contemporary. Twenty-five-year-old French violinist Arnaud Sussman played Fritz Kreisler’s Three Pieces with a technique reminiscent of Van Halen on the guitar; extended use of arpeggiation; and quick fluttering of his fingers at the highest notes possible—creating an almost discomforting, but nonetheless enthralling, effect. Colombian flutist Gabriel Ahumada brought new life to one of the most famous and popular pieces in classical music: the Carmen Fantasy. Playing the long solo from memory, the high notes and extremely quick tempo of certain segments captivated the audience, who audibly hummed along.
The most popular—and populist—piece of the evening was the Largo al Factotum aria from Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Baritone Christòpheren Nomura appeared on stage drinking a glass of wine, then ran to the microphone just in time to begin singing, accompanied on piano by the festival’s artistic director, Stephen Prutsman. Within seconds, the audience was laughing. Although the aria is very demanding technically—with its constant singing of triplets, allegro vivace (quick and lively) tempo, and tongue-twisting Italian superlatives (everything ending in –issimo)—you would never know, given the levity and humor Nomura brought to it. Coming close to the end, he rendered the repeated “Figaros” for which the piece is known with especial gusto. At one point, he even called out to the audience, “¡Todos! Fiiii-ga-roooo.”
The audience was only happy to oblige. Todos indeed.
Baritone Christòpheren Nomura. Photo courtesy of Joshua Z Weinstein.
*Nina Agrawal is an associate editor for Americas Quarterly. She is blogging this week from the 2011 Cartagena International Music Festival.
January 10, 2011: "Cartagena Comes Alive at International Music Festival"
The arepas are hot, the micheladas cold, and the music ubiquitous. A thick blanket of humidity hangs in the air, and the sunlight is blinding, even behind layers of fog. This is Cartagena de las Indias, a port city on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast and the seat of the Festival Internacional de Música (International Music Festival).
Surrounded by beaches, full of colonial architecture and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena has long been a popular destination for tourism, even when insecurity and violence in Colombia were at their height. With the renaissance of the past two decades, however, there has been an explosion of cultural activity. This January and February, Cartagena will play host to three major cultural festivals: the International Music Festival, the Hay Festival for literature and the Cartagena Film Festival.
One might ask how this city of 1 million inhabitants—as unknown internationally as beloved locally—has come to attract the attention of so many international artists. One reason: both the local and national government (i.e., municipal bodies and the federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism) have robust public policies promoting culture. Another, more practical reason is that the festival-as-cultural-commodity has found its optimal space here: Cartagena is beautiful (colonial architecture in the old city, picture-perfect beaches on the islands), strategically important (a port), and sought out by the elite.
In my short time here, I have already witnessed Cartagena—as a festival host—in action. On Friday night, the inaugural concert at the Adolfo Mejía Theater (named after a Cartagenero who composed songs about the city in a local musical style) in the Old City was clearly a place for the Colombian and international elite to see and be seen. Women in elegant gowns attended on the arms of men in white guayaberas, or linen dress shirts. President Juan Manuel Santos and investor, industrialist and philanthropist Julio Mario Santo Domingo (of the Emporio Santo Domingo holdings company) came with their families in tow. The program consisted of Johann Sebastian Bach, Joaquín Rodrigo and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and was performed by the City of London Symphony and three soloists (one harpist, two violinists). The concert was everything one might expect of an opening night at a festival of international acclaim—dignified, reserved and respectfully yet enthusiastically received by its patron audience.
Audience spillover, mostly Cartageneros, watching on a TV screen nearby. Photo courtesy of Joshua Z Weinstein.
Two nights later, an open-air, public concert in the Plaza San Pedro Claver was even more lively and impassioned than that on opening night. Maybe it was the open-air environment on a warm evening with a mild breeze, or maybe it was the captivating cello and violin soloists performing works by French composers François Couperin and Camille Saint-Saens.
Audiences in the U.S. and Europe are used to Latin music tours consisting of hip-shaking pop stars and traditional Latin music in the forms of salsa, cumbia, and samba etc. But a new generation of Latin American composers are making headlines across the globe with classical music that resonates beyond borders and brings new sounds to symphonies worldwide. This week one place to take in this wave of Latin music is Brooklyn: this Saturday, the borough’s world-renowned Brooklyn Academy of Music will be hosting some of the region’s greatest musical talents at the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Nuevo Latino festival.
Saturday’s programming will be conducted by BP’s music director Michael Christie and will feature Gabriela Lena Frank, Enrico Chapela and Paul Desenne, three of the regions “rising star” composers who will come together for the first time to share some of their sounds with Brooklyn.