A Celebration of Colombian Culture

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A March trip to Bogotá, Colombia, strengthened ties between the college and the music-rich South American nation through myriad events. “Colombia is one of four nations that Berklee has decided to focus attention upon, along with China, India and Brazil,” noted president Roger H. Brown, “because of its richness and variety of musical traditions. It’s both north and south of the equator, has Atlantic and Pacific coasts, mountains, plains, and beaches, touches both Central and South America, and has more than 1,000 indigenous rhythms.”


One of the trip’s early highlights was Brown’s presentation of the Berklee Latin Music Masters award to Colombian musician and actor Carlos Vives. A superstar to Colombian music and television audiences, Vives has sold more than 50 million records and won two Grammys, 11 Latin Grammys, and received many other accolades. In presenting the Berklee award to Vives, Brown stated, “Carlos is a charismatic and powerful performer who has endured as an artist because of his unique combination of energy and sensitivity. He also cares about education and culture and has shown deep respect for Colombian musical traditions.”

During a meeting focused on public policy and music development in Colombia, María Claudia Parias, executive director of Fundación Nacional Batuta, brought together leaders of Colombian music education initiatives with Berklee President Roger Brown, trustees Luis Alvarez and Steven Holtzman, as well as Cindy Albert Link, senior vice president of Institutional Advancement, and other Berklee staff members. The Berklee group, joined by Marcelo Cabrol, representing the Inter-American Development Bank, adjourned with Parias for a lunch hosted by Mariana Garcés, the Colombian Minister of Culture.

Later that day, the Berklee contingent was given a tour of the new six-story facilities of Berklee International Network partner, Escuela de Música, Medios, Arte y Tecnologia (EMMAT). Founded in 2006 by Berklee alumnus Alejandro Cajiao ’05, EMMAT is one of the top schools of contemporary music in Colombia with numerous Berklee alumni on its faculty.

Bogotá Celebration

The centerpiece of the visit was the March 7 concert titled “Caminos de Ida y Vuelta” at Bogotá’s exquisite Teatro Mayor. Berklee trustee Mónica Giraldo ’02 of Bogotá, together with Javier Limón, the artistic director for Berklee’s Mediterranean Music Institute, served as the artistic directors for an unforgettable celebration of Colombia’s diverse musical culture. (Giraldo and Limón were also featured performers.) Giraldo had gathered a roster of revered Colombian musicians to represent the country’s traditional folkloric music and popular contemporary styles backed by musicians from the artists’ touring groups and a core of Berklee student and alumni players. Esther Rojas ’16, serving as the show’s musical director and bassist, led a rhythm section comprising students Zahili González (piano), Isaac Matus (percussion), and Urián Sarmiento (vocals, percussion), plus alumni Nacho González ’16 (guitar), Felipe González ’15 (drums), Orlando Retana (drums), and Takafumi Nikaido ’16 (percussion). Professor Oscar Stagnaro was the concert’s executive musical director.

The program opened serenely with four ballads sung to the quiet accompaniment of Limón’s guitar. The first pair of songs showcased the resonant alto voice of Tonina Saputo, a current Berklee student from Colombia. A second pair featured the airy voice of Nella Rojas ’15. Next up was the first Colombian star, vocalist Chabuco, well known for blending his Caribbean vallenato musical roots with jazz. He offered two songs from his album Clásicos Café La Bolsa. “Te Busco,” an introspective ballad, featured tasteful acoustic piano work from Zahili Gonzalez. Launching next into the laid back tropical Latin groove of “Nino de Amor,” Chabuco encouraged the very willing crowd to sing along with him.

The trio Monsieur Periné represented a new, adventurous hybrid style embracing cumbia, bolero, son, and Gypsy jazz. Catalina Garcia’s plaintive vocals floated over the vigorous charango and guitar strumming of her band mates Santiago Prieto and Nicholas Junca on “Mi Libertad.” On “Lloré,” the group mixed in a rock backbeat and reggae rhythms.

The Berklee band sat out for songs by Herencia de Timbiqui, which represented the sound of the dance music that evolved from the African traditions of Colombia’s western Pacific coast. The group’s “Amanecé” spotlighted the vocal harmonies of frontmen Begner Vásquez and Wilian Angulo. Backed by a marimba player and two hand drummers, the groove they created instantly had the crowd singing and clapping along.

Orlando “Cholo” Valderama took the energy in a different direction with his musica llanera style representing the rustic sounds of the eastern plains of Colombia. Cholo’s simultaneously mournful and forceful singing conjured up images of a lone cattleman’s voice echoing across the grasslands to his herds. His players joined with the Berklee band in a jam instigated by Cholo who offered solo space to his virtuosic sidemen playing arpa llanera, maracas, and cuatro and to the pianist, drummer, and guitarist in the Berklee band. The display of tasteful virtuosity brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation.

“Elegia” a lyrical and at times jazz-infused piano solo by Francy Montalvo, changed the pace before Berklee trustee and songwriter Mónica Giraldo shared two of her original songs in a sophisticated pop-folk vein. She was joined by Colombian folkloric music legend Totó La Momposina on the second number, “Asi lo Canto Yo” before Totó took the spotlight with her band for two songs in the traditional bullerengue style for which she is famous. Momposina’s group featuring, seven percussionists and a clarinetist, conjured up hypnotic rhythmic grooves that had everyone onstage dancing and swaying to the beat.

Colombia’s Heartland


When Carlos Vives came to center stage for the concert’s final segment, the crowd erupted in applause. He sang his hits “Ella” and “Hijo del Vallenato” with backing from the Berklee musicians as well as his own percussionists and his famous accordion-playing sideman Egidio Cuadrado. The crowd roared in approval.

For the encore, all singers and instrumentalists joined together on Vives’s anthemic “La Tierra del Olivido,” a song that celebrates the geographic and cultural diversity of Colombia. Reprising the version from a popular 2015 video of the song, each singer took a few lines. Vives even shared the mic with his young daughter Elena. A perfect closer, the song came from the hearts of the performers and lifted the crowd with a swell of patriotism for the culture of their native land.

Afterward, the show’s musical director Esther Rojas said, “As a Colombian musician and a Berklee alumna, sharing the stage with Carlos, Totó, Chabuco, Monsieur Periné, and other big names in Colombian music was a dream come true. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity.”

Mónica Giraldo stated, “These Colombian musicians are the kind that touch you and it was very powerful to have them surrounded by the best Berklee talent. What a night for Colombia and Berklee.”