Summer Latin Music Festivals Offer Music And Opportunity

Members of  ÌFÉ perform at NuevoFest in Philadelphia
Members of ÌFÉ perform at NuevoFest in Philadelphia
Felix Contreras/NPR

This year we mark our annual summer Latin music festival show with an accompanying deeper dive into the reason some of these festivals exist: lack of inclusion on the big summer festival stages.

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There is a growing musical movement underway, fueled by the same spirit of confronting exclusion that launched female-led music festivals like Lilith Fair in the late 1990s, this time focused on and powered by Latinx musicians. As a response to under-representation on major summer music festival stages and the lack of summer gigs in general that include Latinx culture, festivals like NuevoFest in Philadelphia, Afro-Latino Fest in New York City, RuidoFest in Chicago, Viva! Pomona in the Los Angeles area and Los Dells near Madison, Wisconsin have all popped up over the last several years

In June, the Kansas City-based band Making Movies wrapped up its very first run of a travelling collective of bands they call Carnaval. Though not on the massive scale of Lilith Fair, these game-changers feature an invigorating mélange of Latin grooves and Latin fusion.

The members of Making Movies created their annual Carnaval as a Kansas City, Mo. based mini-fest four years ago; this year it featured nine acts and two local youth performances. Along the way they had an idea: If the big, mainstream summer music festivals were not going to hire them or the bands that they invited to K.C., then they would take their music directly to Latin music fans in 21 U.S. cities.

But when Making Movies began the traveling version of Carnaval in Boulder, Colo. in May, there were not a lot of people to witness history in the making.

"When we started the tour, we played to smaller crowds of 100 or more people," says band member Diego Chi. "But by the time we got to Pomona, Calif., three weeks later, 700 folks were singing and dancing their hearts out with us. The celebrating could be heard for blocks outside the venue."

Carnaval actually began as an answer to under-representation in the Kansas City music scene: Making Movies had better luck getting gigs by promoting itself as a rock band without mentioning its brand of Latin fusion. So it set out to change things. What started as a homegrown youth music camp, with invitations to SoCal Latin alternative bands Ozomatli and Las Cafeteras to come teach, soon grew organically into a carnaval, a Latin carnival.

"It became like a jam session of like-minded musicians, then community organizations started to show up" giving the band the idea of mixing music and social activism, says Diego Chi's brother and band mate, Enrique.

Blending "folkloric performances alongside innovative international artists," they enlisted Latin Grammy-winning artists Alex Cuba and Flor de Toloache to join Making Movies and Las Cafeteras on the inaugural tour this year, and added other bands on the road.

For Enrique Chi, 21 cities is just the start.

"For me the big dream is to make it a national tour next year and create music that really fits our spiritual, musical path ... and integrate the tour more effectively with community and social justice organizations."

Social justice and cultural awareness are also at the heart of Brooklyn-based Afro-Latino Fest.

"There wasn't anything that could bring together Afro-Latinos in the community from across nationalities," says Director Amilcar Priestley, whose wife, Mai-Elka Prado Gil, founded the festival in 2013.

Priestly says identity is an essential topic because even within the Latinx community, those who have roots in the African diaspora can feel marginalized.

"There are a lot of people who don't know what Afro-Latino is. People often want to pigeonhole you, and say, 'You are this but you are not that. You are that but you're not this.'"

The first Afro-Latino Fest set up music and vendors by a subway station in 2013 to attract passers-by.

"Many engaged in the event," said founder Prado Gil in the lead-up to this year's festival, held July 13-15 in Brooklyn. "Last year the maximum of 500 people attended the conference and the concerts sold out with 1,300 people. This year we expect 1,500 for the concert, 500 again for the conference, and 800 to 1,000 for our first full film festival."

An awards ceremony included a posthumous award to Afro Brazilian activist and politician Marielle Franco, who was assassinated earlier this year.

"More are coming into their own and identifying as Afro-Latino," says Priestly. "The conversation about Afro-Latinidad has exploded, here in the U.S. especially, and we're at an important time. I think we've been fortunate to be a bit ahead of the curve in the conversation and how it pushes forward."

A short drive down the New Jersey turnpike the same weekend as Afro-Latino Fest, NuevoFest has been moving the needle on inclusion and integration in the City of Brotherly Love. Since its launch six summers ago, the annual Latin music festival has drawn a healthy cross-section of Philadelphians to the one-day free concert.

It was founded by Marángeli Mejía-Rabell and Rahsaan Lucas of AfroTaino Productions in association with NPR member station WXPN's Latin Roots program. The acts have ranged from traditional to alternative Latin music.

According to Mejía-Rabell, "We went from 50 guests in our first year, consisting of mostly locals, to 1,500+ guests throughout the event's duration, and a lot are coming from out of the city: New York, D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and the outer Pennsylvania burbs."

"Here's what I think is problematic with major festivals," Mejía-Rabell says. "My perception is that sometimes people take the concept of inclusion very lightly; like with a Band-Aid approach. I'm not saying that every time it's malicious, but I think it's taken for granted, like a quota they gotta meet: 'Let me throw in a Latino act. Or let me throw some color in there.'

"This is not something you can fake. With those who [approach] it with a clear intention and respect — mindfully and with integrity — you get to see a different outcome; a different kind of investment."

The lesson for mainstream curators: Develop trust and relevancy with the Latinx concert-goer.

"You have to make an insightful investment in building relationships with content creators, with programmers, with artists and planners to curate experiences" Mejía-Rabell says. "Never compromise the integrity and what needs to happen to meet that criteria [for Latinx audiences]."

It's a lesson that has seemingly been learned and applied in Chicago, where Ruido Fest was developed outside the Latino community. It's a partnership between Chicago-based production company Metronome Chicago, corporate event producers StarEvents, who organize the once-grassroots punk-rock enterprise Riot Fest, along with Eduardo Calvillo, a Latin alternative promoter and the founder of the Chicago radio show Sin Anestesia.

The June festival, now in its fourth year, features top Latin alternative acts and a new focus on developing stronger local talent. Metronome Chicago owner Max Wagner says its debut attracted some 25,000 thousand festival-goers over three days to the heavily Mexican American community of Pilsen. He says the next year drew 30,000 and then 35,000 last year, with a projected increase of 10% for 2018.

"You're smart to work with people who live and breathe that art," says Wagner, who works with Calvillo to curate the line-up.

"Latin Americans are no different than other Americans. They have broad interests in tastes in music and culture. Sometimes they have a connection to Spanish and sometimes they don't .... It's important to have the fan's perspective. We want to be relevant and important and a cultural touchstone for our niche audience," Wagner says. He adds that "a burgeoning local scene should, in the long run, help to create more opportunities for those same artists in mainstream venues."

On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Viva! Pomona, held in August, is becoming a destination for emerging Latinx artists. The bilingual festival was founded by skateboarder Rene Contreras seven years ago in association with local nightclub The Glass House. It began with Contreras' desire to "bring people to the burbs" with punk bands and no budget and quickly blossomed into an international multi-genre Latin music exchange that "graduates" bands into the indie market.

Contreras says he launched it on a cover charge basis. "It started off with 14 local bands in three stages and took over the block in downtown Pomona. Like 400 people showed up." By the second year talent bookers and artists were contacting him. "Some bands offered to come on their own dime with only a guarantee to play – just to have that platform." Since then City Hall has allowed him to use its main stage, and the festival has doubled in size. One turning point he describes seeing is "when the opener would move up on the lineup; like an ecosystem to headline the show."

Contreras curates the show, books the bands, and markets everything. "The biggest challenge is the process," he says. "It's like a triathalon."

Contreras was doing such a good job at curation that two years ago the mega-mainstream summer festival Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival took notice of his upstart festival in Pomona and hired him to help them reach out to Latin musicians. They also decided to create a mini festival in April called Chella featuring four Latin music bands for the local Indio, Calif. community. It drew 4,000 people, "primarily Latino and largely farmworkers ... from grandmothers to kids."

"If done right, Latin music in major festivals is a must and it's important to the U.S. and the world," he says.

The title of Longest History of Success in Serving an Underserved Music Audience would have to go to the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC), founded 19 years ago by Nacional Records CEO Tomas Cookman, which ran last week in New York City.

The five days of panels, workshops, networking and deal-making attracts thousands of industry people, bands from the U.S. and throughout the Spanish-speaking world as well as international media.

There are also numerous concerts and performances that feature hundreds of Latin alternative artists around Manhattan's clubs and theaters, plus major concerts in Brooklyn in conjunction with summer-long Celebrate Brooklyn concert series and SummerStage in Central Park.

Two years ago, the LAMC, Nacional Records and Cookman's management company came under the umbrella of Industria Works, an artist development partnership. Industria Works General Manager Jennifer Sarkissian, who oversees LAMC now, says it takes time build a presence. She helped put together the first Supersónico festival in Los Angeles a few years ago. "It sold out, so we did it again and it sold out again, so we'll be bringing it back this [fall]. It's exciting to see more Latin-focused fests around the country. And I think LAMC helped pave the way for that."

Sarkissian says she'd also "like to see major festivals featuring more lineups with Anglo and Latin artists side-by-side."

Among major mainstream festivals, South By Southwest (SXSW) is the only festival that has been significantly increasing it's Latin music presence. Thanks to Latinx curator Alicia Zertuche, it kicked off the festival season this year featuring some 200 Latin music artists — its largest booking yet — out of some 2,000 artists overall.

"The audience is there for that," Sarkissian says. "The time is right. That's the world we live in now."

So, until those bigger stages become more diverse, these festivals offer lots of music for long time fans and adventurous new comers as well.

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