International icons. New Voices. Wry twists on tradition. Bold new statements. The 12th Chase Latino Cultural Festival (July 23-August 3) at the indoor Queens Theatre in the Park showcases the veteran performers who started it all side by side with performers striking out in new directions. It brings together the “Lawless Goat” of old-school Dominican bachata and the “Good Rooster” of Nuyorican experimental rock. It presents well-loved New York institutions, international icons, and eye-opening newcomers, including world premieres by contemporary dance companies from abroad, thanks to its annual tradition of a commissioned dance piece. Queens Theatre continues as a beacon of diverse Latino performing arts with this annual festival.
“More people are gaining access and exposure to different art and music, old and new, through technology,” muses Festival Artistic Director Claudia Norman. “But we think it’s important to bring artists to the U.S. from abroad and expose people to the classics and innovators through live performance. We want to communicate that the mainstream Latino culture you get from the media is only part of the story.”
The Festival, in what’s become a tradition, tells the other side of the story by inviting ground-breaking veteran artists from unexpected corners of the Americas and Spain, the cherished icons and forgotten pioneers who made Latin music great. The Festival opens with the playful energy of Grupo Afroperuano Caracumbe (International premiere) and the unique sounds and dynamic movements of Peru’s African heritage. The Bachata Roja Legend (New York premiere) will give audiences a taste of the gritty, racy acoustic sounds that laid the groundwork for today’s radio favorites, uniting half a dozen respected elders—including a musician known only as “The Lawless Goat”—and a few new faces from the Dominican Republic. Rubén Rada, in a rare concert outside of the Uruguayan community, takes the Afro-Uruguayan candombe many Latin Americans remember fondly from carnivals back home to a new, rocking level, in a rare opportunity to hear Uruguay’s best-loved export. Timbales maestro and New York native Jaime “Jimmy” Sabater, credited with coining the term salsa in an early ’60s hit, demonstrates how everyone’s favorite dance music can be elevated to high art. Finally, the multi-generational tradition behind Colombia’s Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, performing in the U.S. for the first time since the release of their Grammy-winning CD, reveals a whole other side of the Afro-Colombian musical landscape and the traditional roots of modern cumbia, emphasizing the distinct quill-and-cactus resonance of the gaita flute. On a lighter note, Colombian stand-up comedians Tola y Maruja explore an icon of traditional humor in their latest routine, the hilarious history of a notorious Colombian joke starring a raunchy rube, once banned by the Catholic Church.
While honoring the roots and the greats, the Festival also highlights emerging and surprising voices from the Latino community who have taken up the traditional torch and run with it. Zemog el Gallo Bueno (Queens premiere) takes Puerto Rican musical traditions pioneered by musicians like Sabater and stands them on their head, thanks to an infusion of innovative rock and clever lyrics exploring the puzzle of cultural identity. Continuing the long-standing love affair Festival audiences have had with Afro-Peruvian idols like Eva Ayllón and Peru Negro, Corina Bartra’s soaring voice effortlessly combines refined jazz reflections and a deep understanding of her Peruvian heritage. Similarly refined yet presenting a musical world rarely explored on New York’s stages, Venezuelan guitarist and award-winning arranger and composer Aquiles Báez takes Latin rhythms and sounds and reframes them via sophisticated, striking harmonies. The young Argentine Inca Rose Duo celebrates the many other traditions overshadowed by tango in a family-friendly program featuring the songs of the Argentine cowboys, the gauchos riding Argentina’s broad countryside. Also for children of all ages is a screening of a full-length animated, subtitled feature from Peru, Dragones: Destino de Fuego (Dragons: Destiny of Fire), a coming-of-age story about a young dragon raised by the condors of Lake Titicaca. An open mic night, hosted by veteran poetry slammer Rich Villar (Queens premier), will round out the Festival program, giving young poets and writers a chance to add their new voices to the mix.
Yet another tradition, an original work of dance by a Latin American choreographer has been specially commissioned to debut at this year’s Festival. This year’s creator, Magdalena Brezzo, will present a new work (world premiere) with the dancers of the Mexican contemporary dance company Camerino 4, appearing in the U.S. for the first time. Trained as a sculptor, Brezzo envisions movement in terms of space, perspective, and light, which makes for striking dance. In elegant counterpoint, New York darlings Noche Flamenca will return to the Festival with their raw grace and absorbing approach to flamenco music and dance that never fails to feel fiery and fresh.
Over the years, the Festival has evolved a distinct identity as a showcase for global stars and saucy newcomers, often presenting different facets of the same artistic tradition from year to year. Experimenters and explorers compare and contrast with the mainstays and icons of festivals past. “If you look at artists like Bartra, it’s fascinating to compare her work with Eva Ayllón. Or if you listen to Zemog and then to Sabater, or even think back to performers like Candido, you get a whole other perspective on what tradition is and what you can do with it,” Norman points out. Moreover, the Festival makes its mission to encourage this innovation by continually presenting new works and new names. As its national impact grows, so too does its ability to gain recognition for new Latino artists’ high artistic standards and quality performances.It has also come up with a unique and compelling approach to serving the communities surrounding the Theatre. It pushes for more than interethnic understanding and cultural awareness; it encourages intergenerational dialogue in immigrant families. “When you come to establish yourself in a new environment, a new culture, the best way to let others understand where you are coming from is to share the experience of music or dance,” Norman explains. “Many first-generation folks in the audience have kids starting to play music. They’re the parents of the new generation of artists taking root in NYC. And the Festival aims to reunite these generations.”
Performances bridge the gap between the younger generation who only hear salsa, cumbia, and bachata on the airwaves, and their parents who love its roots. It brings together recent immigrants who never got a chance to attend a theater back home, with seasoned Festival buffs jumping at the chance to dance the night away, read their latest rhymes, or expand their horizons. It spreads the word about the great diversity and creativity thriving in Queens and around Latin America nationwide.
For information and tickets, contact the Queens Theatre in the Park box office at 718-760-0064 or go to http://www.queenstheatre.org/.