At a recent edition of the annual Encuentro NYC festival, audience members lined up facing each other, holding up their hands to make a tunnel for one another to pass through as they danced to a fandango performed by Folklore Urbano, the band led by pianist, composer, and Encuentro NYC founder Pablo Mayor. Diverse as New York City’s nightlife options are, spontaneous traditional social dancing is not a common sight anywhere, but lively scenes like this have come to characterize the twelve-year-old festival, which celebrates music inspired by the traditional rhythms of Colombia.
“Celebrate” is the operative term here. “It really feels like a festival in the direct sense of the word. People are celebrating music. A lot of the music is danceable and it’s fun. It feels like a real celebration,” says Ricardo Gallo, whose new experimental jazz group Los Aliens will be performing at this year’s event, a one-day affair to be held in its established home at Le Poisson Rouge. The night usually starts early with a quieter singer-songwriter or intimate jazz performance and builds slowly to “an all-out Colombian-style dance party,” in the words of musician Anna Povich de Mayor, who organizes and programs Encuentro NYC with her husband. “It’s a very bohemian vibe,” she says. “People sit on the floor when they run out of chairs and tables, which is usually what happens. They drink, eat, dance, listen.”
A truly festive atmosphere is just one thing that makes Encuentro NYC stand out among New York City’s many music fests. It is a celebration of Colombian music with an emphasis on new music inspired by traditional rhythms, a focus that has led to year after year of interesting and original offerings. This year, it will bring together Gallo’s cumbia groove–based experimental jazz with electronic elements, singer-songwriter Veronica Tierra performing boleros and bambucos, and the smooth and swinging sounds of the Gregorio Uribe Big Band. Bulla en el Barrio will round things out with a little bullerengue, a style of cumbia sung only by women. “It’s kind of feminist in a way,” says Mayor. For his part, Mayor will present his El Barrio project, which will blend rhythms of his native country with salsa, a style he has played for many years in other bands. It is a tribute to El Barrio — Spanish Harlem — the cradle of salsa music and the neighborhood where he has taught and worked for many years.
Encuentro NYC’s presence on the scene for more than a decade has helped to inspire and coalesce an exciting and highly heterogeneous community already loosely tied together by a taste for musical adventure and a love of cumbia, champeta, and other Afro-Colombian genres. Gallo attended the first two years of Encuentro NYC and has performed in it nearly every year after in one band or another. He’s seen this happen himself: With every passing Encuentro NYC, people are either forming new bands for it or trying to whip a new project into shape in order to present it in this showcase. “They get to know other musicians. It creates a nice conversation.”
Encuentro NYC is an opportunity for like-minded musicians to connect, and it’s also, inevitably, a celebration of diversity, because few countries possess such wildly divergent indigenous styles of music as Colombia. The country’s geography is one reason for this. “The Andes are right in Colombia, and they divide in three different branches,” Mayor explains. “People were isolated for many years. If you fly from Bogotá to Cali it’s a thirty-minute flight, but if you drive it’s eight hours, because you have to go through the mountains. People grew up with a different version of Colombia in every region. Now we are starting to look at all these regions and say, ‘All right, this is what we have.’ ”
Born and raised in Cali, which is situated relatively close to the country’s Pacific coast, Mayor has found his life and work shaped by his love of that region’s home-grown genres, which offer a unique mix of African, indigenous Colombian, and European influences. Cali’s culture is very much shaped by its Afro-Colombian community, and, Mayor says, “rhythm is very strong there.” Those rhythms were popular in Colombia when he was growing up, but not officially celebrated or supported. “Radio stations would always play music from outside,” he explains. After getting his master’s in jazz arrangement at the University of North Texas, he returned to Colombia and, on re-encountering its music, decided he would dedicate his career to it — to celebrating, supporting, composing, and performing it. After moving to New York to pursue music, Mayor has seen Encuentro NYC become a major part of that mission.
For Encuentro NYC, Colombia’s musical complexity translates into a downright unruly mix of styles and approaches, as demonstrated by the lineup each year, an assemblage that attests to the vibrant nature of this particular network of musicians. “The interesting thing for me is the diversity. Within expressions of Colombian music there’s a wide diversity, and with that not all of it is going to be common ground for everybody. Everybody has different backgrounds. Some people are into folklore, some people are more into experimental stuff,” says Gallo.
Mayor says it’s the project itself that now needs help to expand. The festival started when Mayor organized a night featuring local Latin bands headlined by the world-famous traditional cumbia group Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. When 100 people showed up, on fairly short notice, to El Taller Latino Americano in Spanish Harlem, Mayor had the feeling he was on to something. Over the years, Encuentro NYC has featured other great visiting artists from Colombia, but increasingly the festival is focused on musicians who live and work in New York City.
“At first it was to support the bands, but now we have a lot of professional bands who are making it and traveling all over the world [to play Encuentro NYC],” he says. “We feel like it’s time as well for us to grow. It’s been twelve years and we barely make it.” The festival has always been executed on a shoestring budget, supported only by ticket sales. Mayor would love to secure the kind of sponsors who could help sustain and build it and bring Encuentro NYC’s mission to a broader audience. He’d love to see it held twice yearly and even become a free event. For this year, an international audience and community of supporters will come together in the same location to listen, dance, and celebrate — and hopefully we’ll get the chance to do that more often with Encuentro NYC in 2016.
Encuentro NYC takes place at Le Poisson Rouge on November 14. For ticket information, click here.