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Costa Rica Turns Up The Music

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Los Angeles' MacArthur Park is the most-populated Central American community and most densely populated immigrant community in the U.S. One of my goals in programming the concerts there is for the music to represent what is happening in the community. Finding new artists from Central America has, however, been a challenge.

Moreover, Central American events in the area have traditionally not been popular with other communities. While Mexican, Colombian and other Latin events get a strong diverse turnout, Central American concerts in L.A. are not reaching new audiences.

This was definitely on my mind when I attended the Womex conference last October -- the annual think-tank of music producers, makers and shakers who gather to watch emerging artists and discuss the future of global music. The conference was held in Copenhagen and featured over 50 unique artists at a multi-stage venue and a massive exhibit hall. One booth immediately caught my attention: "Central American Music Market."

I was soon talking to someone at the booth about the challenges I was facing. He not only told me about a festival he was organizing in Costa Rica to showcase Central American talent, but issued an invitation to me on the spot. I accepted even though the festival was one day after the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas.

SXSW is very intense with many breaking bands to catch and special performances by some of my favorite artists. I planned to pace myself in Austin and save some energy for Costa Rica. This plan failed almost as soon as it was conceived. I gave SXSW all I had and then jumped on a plane for my next destination - San Jose, Costa Rica.

My first welcome came at customs. They threw my bag on the table, opened it and started asking questions. I told them I was from Los Angeles ... here for the arts festival.... mentioned I was a festival producer ... looking to discover local talent to bring back home. My bag was zipped, I got a big smile, a thumbs up, and instructed to enjoy the festival.

The Central American Music Market conference was part of the larger Festival Internacional de las Artes (FIA) at Sabano Park with outdoor stages, art installations, arts and crafts, and food vendors. I was on one of the panels with representatives from Latin America, North America and Europe that shared ideas on how to help Central American artists in our countries. The conference was the first time an organized effort was made to focus on advancing Central American music and culture. We discussed important showcases for their artists to participate in; various talent agencies that can help plan tours; media that is influential to programmers; the increasing popularity of Colombian music and other cross-cultural music; and the potential for traditional and alternative music from this area.

When it came time to see the musical talent, I admit I was expecting five days of traditional music and dance. What I didn't expect was the surprising representation of alternative artists.

On my first night at the festival I met the lead singer from a local group called Sonambulo who described his music as psychedelic tropical rock. He filled me in on the local music scene, how several young bands from different parts of Central America formed a network to support each other, and the challenges they are facing. When it was time for his group to perform of course I was there.

I was in a seat near the front when Sonambulo started setting up. I noticed more and more teenagers arrive. They crouched in front of the first row, filled up the aisles and started packing the room behind me. I remember thinking, "I'd better like this, because I'm completely trapped." Next thing you know the band is jamming, the kids are pushing, jumping, screaming and taking out our front-section chairs. The front section got smaller and smaller and I realized this was one I was going to lose so I joined in. I loved the energy and it's always great to see the local reaction to a band.

Deep bass-lines and a gritty, yet smooth voice drove each song, mixed with elements of salsa, cumbia, and some reggae to deliver tropical psychedelic rock. Older people walking by would hear the hints of tradition in the music and stopped to watch with curiosity. Towards the end of the set it was apparent that this band was interesting enough to bring people together.

What I aim to do through my programming is to build community with different cultures and generations at each concert. There are many exciting artists and styles of music that allow this to happen. Traditional roots are the foundation for many cutting-edge hip hop, rock and electronic groups throughout Latin America. Audiences pick up on this and want to explore the music deeper, creating an exchange of culture and history. One of my favorite bookings last year was Sexteto Tabala - a traditional Afro-Colombian group from Palenque de San Basilio. The audience was full of people I usually see at alternative shows, because many alternative artists from Colombia are great with explaining their musical tradition. The audience knew the importance of this group and that they were a major influence on today's artists. Sonambulo delivered this experience in Costa Rica as did La Cuenta Son Machin from Nicaragua. When they performed they had an interest in explaining what influenced their music to the young audience. Other impressive groups were Perrozompopo, also from Nicaragua, and the local Cocofunka.

I realized this music can help me reach new audiences in Los Angeles. In addition to MacArthur Park, I have the Pasadena location - only a 15-minute drive between venues, but in Los Angeles that means a completely different demographic. Between these two programs, there is no doubt we can create unique cultural experiences for new audiences.

My Costa Rica experience reaffirmed my belief that nothing brings people closer than music. There is the perfect group out there to fit any situation. It's a matter of discovery and engaging in conversations with people that actually care. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse and populated cities in the world. Luckily, through programs like the Levitt Pavilion Summer Concert Series we can bring the music to the people and, at the same time, meet our neighbors.