Beginning on Friday, September 21 and running for an entire week, Chicago was the setting for the World Music Festival. This musical extravaganza, which is now in its fourteenth year featured numerous performers from all over the world, appearing at different venues throughout the city. Wednesday evening, I had the good fortune of attending a performance of a musical genre known as Cumbia at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The exponents of this musical form are a legendary sextet called Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. This group hails from the Caribbean coastal region of Columbia. Los Gaiteros have been in continuous operation since the early 1940’s. Simply stated, their music preserves the rhythms and sounds of Columbian indigenous, Spanish and Afro-Columbian traditions, and features the gaita, an indigenous Columbian flute. In addition to the gaita, percussion figures prominently in Cumbia music. Drums used in Cumbia are of African origin and were brought along with slaves to the New World by the Spanish. Natives used wood, rope and dried animal skins to make their drums. Wednesday evening’s performance featured the beautiful sound of a base drum known as a tambora. These instruments- three varieties of drums, several different styles of gaitas and maracas, when placed in the hands of master musicians of the caliber that was on display Wednesday evening, made for a memorable concert experience.
The heart and soul of Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto is the eighty two year old Juancho “Chuchita” Fernandez. He is not only the very capable lead singer, but he is also the “ bridge builder” between the musicians and audience. At eighty two he exhibits a boyish charm, impressive physical energy, and a flirtatious disposition that kept the partisan audience of flag waving Columbians clapping and dancing in the aisles.
Cumbia is typified by driving percussion rhythms, layered by the high pitched sounds of the gaita pipes. This combination produces a sound that is unvarnished and primordial. This is music that entrances. On Wednesday, in Maurer Hall, it incited and coaxed the audience to sing, clap and cheer for more. At one point, Juancho Fernandez whipped the crowd into a frenzy during a Call and Response number. He “owned” the audience. The gaita players, Joaquin Nicolas Hernandez and Antonio Garcia provided their own brand of high energy and virtuosity with their frenzied pipe playing. The drummers, Gabriel Torregrosa, John Fuentes, and Wilson Fontalvo laid the foundation for the feverish rhythms.
The venue for this performance was Maurer Hall at the Old Town School of Folk Music, located at 4544 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. The auditorium has balcony seating with a completely unobstructed view of the stage The Old Town School, which dates back to 1957 is one of Chicago’s cultural treasures. It not only offers a very ambitious performance schedule, some of which is free to the public, it also offers classes in: Music, Art, Dance and Theater. It currently has an enrollment of approximately six thousand students, including twenty seven hundred children. The school and its performance spaces are a destination for some of the best talent in the world of music and the performing arts.
Regardless of musical taste, a wide variety of genres are yours to enjoy at the Old Town School of Folk Music.