It’s an audience like no other. The musicians are surrounded by children in wheelchairs. They all have some kind of mental handicap but really do seem to be enjoying the music, some of them joining in.
The Mustard Seed Community, in the north of the country, is the morning’s venue for the 22nd Dominican Republic Jazz Festival.
One of the biggest cultural events in the Caribbean, the DR Jazz Festival is unlike any other. As well as sending musicians into children’s homes and schools, it stages open-air concerts on big stages in different locations from August to November. Even better it’s 100% free, although VIP seats are available to purchase. Surprisingly, it also manages to attract major talent from all over the world.
There’s also a political message as the theme this year is “Voices for Peace & Humanity” – there’s special emphasis on the ability of jazz singers to bring a powerful message of freedom, creativity and hope. If all that sounds rather grand, then any profit goes to FEDUJAZZ, which provides free music education to over 100 children.
At their teaching facility in Cabarete, I get to see this in action. As part of the festival, the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors, a group of students from the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, have flown in not only to perform but also to give masterclasses to the children. They’re led by distinguished Italian saxophonist Marco Pignataro who’s the MD of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute and during the course of the week, they also visit local schools and the Mustard Seed community.
The first concert is in Puerto Plata on the DR’s north coast where Christopher Columbus once anchored his ships in the bay. It’s an attractive colonial town and the stage is set up in the square in front of the cathedral. I grab a glass of the local rum and enjoy a set from singer Sissy Castriobani and her trio. She sings in her native Sicilian, with Latin rhythms, although she does manage to throw in a Chopin Nocturne. For one number she’s joined by Marco Pignataro, on soprano, who complements her perfectly.
She’s followed by Xiomara Fortuna, from the Dominican Republic, who mixes jazz reggae, merengue and bachata. It shows in her choice of songs and the crowd love her renditions of Lullaby of Birdland and My Baby Just Cares for You. Her version of the Chilean Gracias a la Vida is a real crowd pleaser and everyone goes home happy.
Next day the festival moves to the beach at Sosúa and local schools have been invited for a special morning concert. The stage is still under construction but that doesn’t stop Israeli singer Tutti Druyan and Puerto Rican Saxophonist, Edmar Colón, getting the kids to join in. They play a number and then break it down into its separate elements showing how the bass, drums and piano interact. Xiomara Fortuna then appears, accompanying herself on a hand drum, and it’s a memorable morning.
It’s an archetypal Caribbean setting, with the stage and seats on the sand, right next to the sea. In the evening Tutti is back in front of the large crowd, effortlessly delivering modern standards like Yesterday and Stevie Wonder’s Lately with Edmar’s solos weaving serpent-like beneath her singing.
Local content is provided by Grupo Bonyé, a band of sixteen friends from the DR capital Santa Domingo. Singers Felix Baez, Nestor Sanchez, Chinese Mendez, Franklyn Soto and Roberto Bobadilla lead the ensemble through a set of traditional Dominican meringue, salsa and son Cubano. It’s the perfect music for the beach and there’s dancing on the sand.
Next morning we’re by the ocean again but this time in Cabarete. More schools have been bussed in to hear the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors who do their usual brilliant job of engaging the children. Afterwards, Brazilian singer Luciana Souza sings a samba and invites some brave kids to dance on stage with her.
At the evening’s concert, the Jazz Ambassadors deliver a polished performance charming the crowd with their youthful talent. Then Luciana Souza takes the stage with Sao Paulo guitarist Chico Pinheiro and together they deliver sublime versions of Jobim classics Corcovado, Girl from Ipanema and Desafinado among others. The interplay between voice and guitar is sublime. Marco Pignataro joins them for If Not for Me and invokes the ghost of Stan Getz.
On the final night, living jazz legend and original Buena Vista Social Club member Omara Portuondo thrills the crowd. At 88, her voice still has the power, but she chooses to deliver most of her set sitting down. She has a great young band, all from Cuba, and the keyboard player impresses. Of course, she delivers all her hits and the audience sings along.
To close the festival, accordion-vocalist Krency Garcia, nicknamed “El Prodigo” and his band increase the musical temperature. He’s also a local boy but has spent time in New York and, featuring saxophonist Sandy Gabriel, their brand of merengue goes down a storm.
You know, I like the way this festival involves the locals, both old and young. And who knows, some of the school children may grow up to be the next generation of Dominican Republic jazz stars. Sadly that option is not open to those handicapped kids at the Mustard Seed Community but I’ll never forget the joy on their faces when the music played.
Tell Me More About The Dominican Jazz Festival
The 2019 Dominican Jazz Festival will take place in October and November.
The Millennium Resort and Spa is a good base in Cabarete, right on the beach.