Chile Chile Culture Music Reporting — 24 January 2012


George Allen

For three days last week, jazz musicians from around the world performed in a sculpture park alongside the Mapocho river for the 11th annual Providencia Jazz Festival in Santiago, Chile. In the past, the festival has held performances by musicians like Argentinian pianist Lito Vitale, percussionist Tito Puente Jr. (son of famed Puerto Rican percussionist Tito Puente), Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias, Canadian guitarist Brian Hughes, Mexican-American percussionist Poncho Sánchez, and Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. This year, organizers from the Providencia Cultural Institute attempted to highlight young less well-known talent with performances by bands like homegrown Orión Lion y Lautarinos, Los Angeles-based Tizer (led by keyboardist Lao Tizer—pronounced TY-zer), and the Austrian piano-violin duo of Dave Helbock and Simon Frick. At the same time organizers were able to organize performances by veteran musicians—Peruvian José Luis Madueño (featuring Andrea de Martis), Vana Gierig’s trio (featuring Thomas Pfleger), Reflections (led by Dave Samuels and Oscar Feldman), and Dave Young’s quartet—illustrating the growing notoriety and prestige of the Providencia Jazz Festival.

The Providencia Sculpture Park, the chosen site for the Jazz festival, is a grassy two blocks that runs along the north side of the Mapocho river. The idea for the park was conceived in 1982 when the Mapocho broke its banks during a flash flood and destroyed the gardens that covered the north side of the river. Today, the Mapocho is encased on both sides by tall concrete walls–like the Los Angeles river.  The chocolate-milk colored water is so shallow it doesn’t even touch the wall on either side.

On the south side of the river–abutting the perpetually noisy Andrés Bello Avenue–is another narrow park. It was there, on the first night of the festival that I sat on a wooden bench and watched the sun set above the crowded park. Bikers and joggers careened along dirt paths between couples sprawled out necking on the grass.  Groups of friends sat on blankets, gazing out above the murky Mapocho, swapping swigs from red Escudo beer cans. Tourists in khaki cargo pants toting large backpacks walked by casually now and then looking down at their travel guides.

It was difficult to tell how many people inhabiting the park at that moment were there for the jazz festival. One hour before scheduled start time the red bleachers on the south side of the river were almost vacant, but the grassy space on each side was filling quickly with chairs and blankets. A man managing the ticket counter told me that while the jazz festival was popular the south-side bleachers (capacity 3,000) never filled up. The more expensive north-side, however, always sold out.

The stage was set-up on the north-side of the river. Two rectangular groups of chairs were arranged directly in front of the stage that sat maybe 700 people. On either side in triangle sections were more seats probably capable of seating close to the same number. I was told repeatedly that the north side could seat up to 6,000, but it looked too small for that. The seats directly in front of the stage, termed the “gold section”, cost roughly $30 USD, and the seats beside it, the “silver section”, about $20 USD. Across the river, 80 meters from the stage according to José Miguel, sound systems director, were the red bleachers—cost:  $6 USD.

Typical of Chilean males–so say their females–José is short and moreno (tanned) with dark hair cropped to finish in a point at the back of his neck, like an abbreviated mullet. When I approached him, he sat thumbing his phone in front of a large sound-mixing panel under a tarp at the back of the gold section. I asked him about the difficulties of mixing a jazz show. “You just have to stay really focused. You have to be ready for the solos, a piano solo, an electric guitar solo. You have to be part of the music,” he replied. And the bleachers across the river, I queried, “Is it hard to make the sound reach the people sitting there?” He responded, “You just have to adjust the sound more.  You see those two big speakers set up on the sides of the stage? They’re pointing toward the other side of the river. The idea is to make each solo sound good to the listener 80 meters away, and the listener who is 25 meters away.”

As I sat on the park bench wondering how to send the sound of an intricate guitar solo or upper-register run across the distance of a football field, a young man in jeans and a blue hooded sweat-shirt came running in my direction. Then, out of nowhere a second man appeared and tackled the young man from behind. The would-be robber screamed as his pursuer put his knee in the middle of his back and kept it there until two other apparently less fit men caught up. After getting their breath back, the men took turns berating the young man for stealing something. Soon several policemen arrived wearing white motorcycle helmets and green body armor. When the cops stood the young man up he looked like he was about to cry. His skin was dark brown, and his cropped gelled hair was slightly askew. His bleached jeans were stained with mud. Everyone watched as the cops led him away to a white SUV where the police allowed one of the chasers to scold him one last time before they closed the door and drove away.

About the poor and down-trodden–and in this case the criminal–the Chileans often say, “The cake is poorly divided” (“está mal repartida la torta”).  This attitude is surprising because Chile has one of the most successful economies in South America. GDP is growing at around eight percent, and average per-capita wealth is the highest in Latin America. Behind the macro-statistics however, is a different story. Gonzalo Durán of non-profit Fundación del Sol, says 75% of the profits from GDP growth in 2011 went to 10% of the population. In actuality, Durán argues, the economy is dominated by an even smaller percentage. Less than one percent of the population–make an average monthly income of USD 38,000. At the other end of the spectrum, 76% of working Chileans earn less than 700 US dollars per month. So it could be indeed that “The cake is poorly divided”.

The burgeoning wealth of Chile lies just outside the park and the festival of jazz. Further east, challenging the Andes in its majesty, is the Gran Torre Costanera skyscraper. Once completed it will be the tallest building in South America.  At 980 ft. (compared with Empire State at 1,250 ft.) it will house offices, two hotels, and a shopping mall.

At the festival, musicians, staff, journalists, and VIPs entered from behind the stage on Santa Maria street, a leafy, three-lane street that runs parallel to the Costanera Norte.  That is a freeway which serves as the gateway to Santiago’s most tony neighborhoods: Las Condes, Providencia, and Viticura. Providencia is located in northeast Santiago, just between downtown and Las Condes. It is one of Santiago’s commercial hubs, home to foreign embassies and a lively night-life centered around a small bohemian neighborhood called “Bellavista” . In a recent government study that sought to measure quality of life–Indice Desarrollo Humano (IDH: Statistics of Human Development)–both Providencia and Las Condes were rated in the top three neighbourhoods in the city. The average household income in Providencia is $55,000 USD whereas the national average in Chile is $10,000 USD. With 20% of its population over age 60 it Santiago’s oldest neighborhood.

Santiago does not have a unified metropolitan government. Instead, it’s divided into 37 comunas (districts) that are autonomously governed by locally elected officials. The mayor of Providencia for two decades running is Cristián Labbé Galilea. A member of Chile’s conservative UDI party (Independent Democratic Union), Labbé is a retired military colonel who served as chief of personal security to Augusto Pinochet after the successful coup d’etat that deposed Salvador Allende in 1973. Labbé also served in the Chilean secret police, DINA, and has been accused of aiding the torture of prisoners. Labbé has denied all charges, but remains an unrepentant Pinochetista. He visited the former dictator 14 times while he awaited extradition in London from 1998 to 2000, and halted trash pick-up at the Spanish and British embassies to protest their involvement in the case against Pinochet. More recently, Labbé organized a book launching party to celebrate historian Gisela Silva Encina’s book Miguel Krasnoff, Prisoner for Serving Chile that seeks to re-vindicate former General Krasnoff, who was sentenced to 144 years in prison for crimes against humanity committed while serving as an officer in DINA.

Labbé has also played a divisive role in the student protests that have engulfed Chile over the past year. The mayor recently announced that he would prohibit students that participated in the protests, as well as students that live outside of Providencia, from enrolling in the public school system this upcoming semester. (85% of the public school students in Providencia live outside the region.) This announcement sparked protests outside of Labbé’s house–which were eventually broken up by riot police using tear gas and water canons (Chile’s Institute for National Human Rights—INDH—have condemned Labbé’s frequent use of force to disperse protesters)–as well as a terse response from Minister of Education Felipe Bulnes, who said he was “displeased and disappointed with the mayors actions.”

To my knowledge, Labbé never showed up to the jazz festival. Friends of mine speculated that he didn’t show because of rumors that students might try to disrupt the festival if he attended, but aside from several police vans that slowly patrolled the streets bordering the festival no one looked prepared for protesters. Most people, organizers and police included, appeared relaxed or tired. A security guard dressed in a red windbreaker, who declined to share his name, smiled meekly and shook his head when I asked if there had been any trouble this year. “Do you like jazz?” I asked. “I’m not a big fan no,” he responded. “I listen to it, but I’m not a big fan. This is my fourth year working here, and I’ve liked some of the bands. Honestly though, I like romantic music.”

Thirty minutes after scheduled start time the gold section was still more than half empty. The majority middle-aged crowd stood around eating candied popcorn ($2/bag), sipping Canada Dry (also $2), and smoking cigarettes. When the first band, Orión Leon y Lautarinos finally came on stage, an elderly female usher offered this journalist a seat near the front row. “Do you like jazz?” I asked. “No”, she replied. “I prefer classical music.”

Orión Leon y Lautarinos was the only Chilean group to perform at the jazz festival. The group is led by pianist and composer, Orión Leon who wore a shiny red shirt under a black suit-jacket and did all the talking to the audience. The group played a mix of folkloric and classical original compositions, with foot-stomping rhythms, and occasional flourishes of improvisational brilliance. The Lautarinos (named after Mapuche Indian leader Lautauro) wore black slacks and white collared shirts, with a dash of red. They consisted of Francisco Villarroel, violin; Orlando Araya, tenor sax; Cristián Álvarez, tuba; and Diego Letelier, drums. The group seemed nervous, but cohesive.

After the first song, Orión Leon’s voice quivered, as he said that they were incredibly proud to represent their country in the most prestigious jazz event in Chile. Local television cameras recorded the Chilean bands performance, but the crowd’s response was tepid. Orión did his best to encourage the crowd. He was constantly trying to connect, smiling and bobbing his head in their direction, and at one point standing up to lead the audience in a clap that slowly died as he sat back down at the piano.

After Orión and the Lautarinos finished, the usher walked off and came back with a bottle of carbonated water. “Thirsty?” she asked, and handed me the bottle. Half-way through the next performance she got up and left.

Somewhere in the middle of Peruvian pianist-composer José Luis Madueño’s set I thought about getting up too. Madueño is an excellent musician, and he was accompanied by other very accomplished artists including the sexy vocalist Andrea de Martis. But the set felt long—the Peruvian ambassador was in attendance, which perhaps  explains the length—and too predictable, like the kind of music you might expect from an infomercial world music CD.

By the time Lao Tizer’s band started to play, nearly the entire gold and silver sections were empty. This was unfortunate because off all the groups to play that evening Tizer is the most accessible to the layman. While being introduced, bassist Rufus Philpot and guitarist Jeff Coleman traded riffs and laughed, while the rest of the seven member band, Chieli Minucci, guitar; Steve Nieves, percussion, sax, vocals; Raul Pineda, drums; Karen Briggs, violin; and Lao Tizer, keyboard, shuffled around stage, visibly amused. In their first song, an upbeat number called “Uptown”, Steve Nieves jumped out from behind his percussion set in the back of the stage with a tenor sax, wearing tight black pants and a kaleidoscopic satin shirt, thrusting his hips, and riffed into the funky melody. With his gelled curly hair, and satin shirt opened to the sternum, he looked liked Lil Richard.

That is not to say there is anything simplistic about Tizer’s music. They’re like the most sophisticated jam-band you ever listened to. They have a complex sound drawn from classical jazz, blues, rock, funk, and fusion (one could go on) that they meld into groovy, definitely danceable, songs you wish you had a drink in your hand to listen to, and that I found myself humming on the bus ride home. No one in the group spoke Spanish, so little was said between songs, except after a thirteen minute rendition of “UpTown” Lao yelled out to the crowd that remained, “Hola Santiago! No hablo Español!”.


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