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A culture with a lost past
A young woman swathed in a luminous green gown twists and turns onstage, as if possessed.
As she sways across the proscenium, bending her body in sinuous and hypnotic ways, a small army of percussionists fires off a flurry of backbeats, their tempo accelerating as the tribal dance unfolds.
Thousands in the audience, watching beneath a scorching afternoon sun, cheer loudly, their chants almost drowning out the accompanying jazz band, while the dancer continues to gyrate before them, her gestures inspiring further waves of adulation and exultation.
But the Panamanians egging on the performer aren't merely whiling away an afternoon at the Panama Jazz Festival, where the Bannaba Project -- which merges ritual dance with modern jazz -- is proving a certifiable sensation.
More important, the locals are beholding their ancient past, attempting to connect with the origins of a Panamanian culture they're only beginning to rediscover and understand.
Their quest carries implications for the rest of the musical world, for it speaks to the origins of jazz and its precursors.
That's because Panama -- like Havana and New Orleans -- once stood at the crossroads of the slave trade, the Africans who forcibly were brought here, and elsewhere across the Americas, carrying with them the rhythms and techniques that eventually blossomed into jazz and its many offshoots.
But while the sounds of Havana and New Orleans have been celebrated around the world, the historic music of Panama practically has disappeared. Thanks to centuries of conquest by armies near and far, thanks to the often overweening cultural influence of the United States -- which controlled the Panama Canal through most of the 20th Century -- Panamanians have almost no record of a musical scene that may have rivaled New Orleans as a nexus of early jazz.
By trying to retrieve their musical heritage, through performance ensembles such as the Bannaba Project and through the fledgling Panama Jazz Festival itself, Panamanians are not only attempting to reconstruct their cultural legacy. Equally important, they're trying to find -- through music -- a sense of self-worth that has been battered through centuries of domination by foreign powers.
"We need to bring our self-esteem up, after all the stuff that has happened here," says Panamanian salsa star and movie actor Ruben Blades, who last year left Hollywood to become Panama's minister of tourism.
Speaking passionately about his country during lunch at Restaurante Martin Fierro, a short drive from his office in the capital's architecturally majestic but partly crumbling Old City, Blades believes that his compatriots are on a mission. Panamanians, he says, are trying to "understand our own music."
Adds Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, chatting between sets at the jazz festival he created, "We have to help our self-image, and I think music does that.
"We have to erase the stereotype, the idea that Panama is mangos and bananas, that whole mentality.
"We have a lot of great talent here. The one thing we have is culture -- but we don't know it."
Panama today indeed stands at a kind of crossroads. Having received control of its primary economic engine -- the Panama Canal -- from the U.S. on the last day of 1999 and having elected Pres. Martin Torrijos last fall, the country finally stands poised to fully take hold of its future. Yet after centuries of living under the influence of Colombia, Spain, France, the United States and other external forces, Panama has yet to find its own voice and identity, its sense of its cultural worth.
To do so, it has begun looking to a musical past that barely has survived. Only a few tantalizing fragments of Panama's sprawling musical history endures, in fact, to suggest that this isthmus -- where the sun seems to rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic -- once flourished as a cultural powerhouse. From the ancient chants and ritualized dances of the indigenous Kuna people (including the aforementioned dancer of the Bannaba Project) to the American-made recordings of Panama's first bona fide jazz star, pianist Luis Russell (who powered Louis Armstrong's great bands of the 1930s), Panama's musical roots run deep.
Moreover, the history of this country -- which didn't become an independent nation until 1903 -- hauntingly echoes the origins of America's first city of jazz, New Orleans. Just as the cultures of Spain, France, Africa and North America shaped the music of Louisiana, so too did these same influences converge in Panama.
The Spanish conquerors of centuries ago left behind their language, architecture and European musical traditions, while the English traders who brought slaves here provided a critical element in the emergence of a distinct Panamanian music: the mystical, ancient sounds of Africa, borne by men and women in chains.
The arrival of the French, in the 1880s, to attempt to build a canal (a failed venture that cost 22,000 lives and nearly bankrupted France) and the Americans in 1904, to construct the Panama Canal, completed the picture. Like Louisiana, Panama at the dawn of the 20th Century was poised to create a nascent jazz.
But with the exception of the music of Luis Russell, a Panamanian jazz genius who moved to New Orleans in 1919, at age 17, the first chapter of Panama jazz may totally have escaped documentation. If we are to judge by the accomplishments of Russell -- who famously collaborated with such first-generation New Orleans jazzmen as clarinetist Albert Nicholas, drummer Paul Barbarin and the great Satchmo himself -- the initial wave of Panamanian jazz artists was formidable.
That a Panama-trained musician such as Russell, one of many Panamanian jazz pioneers, could hold his own alongside the first great jazzmen of New Orleans suggests that the Central American country may have been at the forefront of the music.
Unfortunately, Panamanians of Russell's vintage "had a chance to listen to the jazz but never the technology to record jazz groups here in Panama," says Ernesto Crouch, a Panamanian music historian and drummer who has been researching the subject for decades.
From the late 19th Century to the early 20th, when attempts to build the canal brought a wide swath of cultural influences here, Panama "was slums," adds Crouch, the country too poor and technologically undeveloped to try to document its own art.
"Even by the '30s, there were no recordings," says Francisco Buckley, a Panamanian music scholar who stands under a tent throughout the festival, in the Old City, selling copies of his recent book "The Salsa Music of Panama and Other Matters" (available only in Panama).
"But the people who heard this music, they remember," adds Buckley, who interviewed scores of musicians and listeners for his volume. In addition, he cites yellowed newspaper clippings that reference a jazz scene that thrived in the Panamanian provinces of Colon and Boca del Toros. For centuries, Africans concentrated here, on the side of Panama facing the Atlantic and the U.S., the city of Colon emerging as the capital of a recognizably Central American brand of jazz.
The scene blossomed as Americans and others began work on the Panama Canal, in 1904 -- just when a New Orleans jazz pianist named Jelly Roll Morton began composing "King Porter Stomp," which would become a theme song for the new music.
The influx of American servicemen and civilians, as well as workers from across the Western Hemisphere, practically ignited Colon with the sound of jazz. The city became a kind of New Orleans of the Caribbean, its all-night bars, rowdy dance bands and 24-hour carnival atmosphere providing an ambience parallel to the Crescent City to the north.
Nearly forgotten musicians such as Samuel "Sam" Gooding, who led an eponymous band, and Professor Reginald Prescott, who fronted The Ambassadors of Jazz, thrived in Panama throughout the Roaring '20s. They played rooms such as the Blue Moon and the Cotton Club, creating a music designed to entertain the American visitors, and others.
"Colon was a crazy place, because that was where most of the ships came in," says Buckley, who enthusiastically discusses the history of Panamanian music with passersby throughout the festival.
"The sailors would go around the clubs, and they brought music, they sometimes brought their instruments to play.
"If 1904 was the beginning of the American influence, by 1914, when the canal was completed, American servicemen were all over Colon.
"If the Panamanian musicians wanted to make money, they had to play what the Americans wanted to hear."
Moreover, only American armed services radio broadcast in Panama until 1937, when the country's first independent station went on the air, which meant that American big-band and small-ensemble music held sway throughout Panama during nearly the first four decades of the 20th Century.
But Luis Russell may be the only early-generation Panamanian jazz star whose music survives on recording, thanks wholly to his move to the States. The entire world that produced him seems to have disappeared, having never been recorded in any form. Though Fred Ramdeen's and Henry Barlow's bands in the 1930s, Victor Reid's Aristocrats of Jazz and Eduardo Ralston's Royal Sultans in the 1940s are mentioned in old concert flyers and news reports, their music vanished with their era.
Not until the late 1950s and '60s did Panama begin recording its own artists, yet even these historic discs are difficult to find, because the country did not have the wherewithal to collate and archive its popular music.
Yet the occasional recording that has surfaced reveals a musical culture of extraordinary power, originality and sophistication.
Though these LPs are difficult to find, pianist Perez -- who has been collecting this music for a lifetime -- spends an afternoon playing cassette tapes for a visitor in the Panama City apartment of his father, the singer and educator Danilo Perez Sr.
As the music booms through a couple of small speakers, Perez smiles, dances and occasionally narrates, pointing out key passages in music that most of the world never has heard.
The sounds easily justify his enthusiasm. Listen to the roaring swing band of Armando Boza, the brilliant jazz-organ virtuosity of Avelino Munoz, the calypso-meets-jazz vocals of Sylvia De Grasse, the Cuban-Panamanian melange of pianist Papo Lucca's big band, and it's clear that music of this caliber only could have emerged in a culture in which jazz had thrived for decades.
Like its American counterpart, Panamanian jazz churned out hard-swinging rhythms, brilliant instrumental solos and, sometimes, musical quotations from U.S. stars such as Charlie Parker, James Moody and Ella Fitzgerald.
But Panamanian jazz also distinguished itself from the music of the States, offering a particularly Caribbean perspective on the art form. Generally more lyrical, more folkloric and less rhythmically agitated than its American counterpart, Panamanian jazz -- at least judging by those rare recordings of the '50s -- offered a hauntingly melodic approach to the art of jazz improvisation.
And though there's no mistaking in this music the sway of Cuba -- its dance rhythms and song forms to this day influencing music across the Americas -- the Panamanians in some ways even withstood the impact of Havana. By building performances on Panamanian folk tunes, invoking Panama's signature tamborito rhythm and employing instruments such as the bocona -- a small, five-string guitar probably invented in Panama -- as well as various indigenous drums, the Panamanians created a self-styled music that stands apart from anything else in Central America (or anywhere else).
Where the jazz ends and the folkloric tradition begins varies from one recording and one performance to another, just as it does in Cuba.
Yet the Panamanians have a cultural legacy to be proud of -- if only they could flesh it out.
"One of the problems that we have in Panama is that we have no institution that keeps order or documentation of our music," says Ricaurte Villarreal, a virtuoso percussionist and folklorist who teaches at the University of Panama. As he speaks, he illustrates particular rhythms and pitch patterns on the traditional Panamanian drum he carries wherever he goes.
"So even the recordings from the '50s and '60s that do exist are very hard to find," adds Villarreal. "They are in private collections, not public."
Yet to those who heard this music as it was being forged, it left an indelible impression.
"It was a fascinating time to be in Panama when I was growing up, in the '40s and '50s," remembers Victor "Vitin" Paz, a legendary Panamanian trumpeter who eventually moved to New York before returning to Panama City, five years ago.
Sitting on a bench in a Panama City park, occasionally noodling on his trumpet, Paz thinks back on music he heard more than half a century ago, its cadences clearly playing in his inner ear as he speaks.
"We listened to the Armed Forces radio, where we heard the American music -- Harry James, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway.
"And then, from my house, I could hear the music coming out of the bars -- Spanish music, Cuban music, Panamanian jazz. It was thrilling, like the whole world was coming together in Panama."
Inside the clubs, the Panamanian players were combining the fire and fury of American jazz with the smoldering melodicism and unhurried rhythms of the Caribbean.
"You could hear on alto saxophone Bat Gordon, who could blow like crazy in those days," recalls Carlos Garnett, who was born in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone in 1938, moved to the States in 1962, where he earned a sterling reputation, before returning home a few years ago. At the Panama Jazz Festival, he galvanizes the crowd with the sheer sonic heft and musical complexity of his solos.
"And on trumpet there was Gene White, and on piano Victor Boa," adds Garnett, the latter having championed Panama's "tambo jazz," which embraces uniquely Panamanian rhythms. "All killer musicians."
Indeed, Gordon and White often were referred to as the Parker and Gillespie of Panama, while Boa's all-over-the-keyboard virtuosity evoked comparisons to no less than Art Tatum. Singer Barbara Wilson, meanwhile, was dubbed Panama's Ella Fitzgerald.
Complex folkloric music
But that was only one facet of Panama's musical riches. Another was its extraordinarily complex and subtle folkloric music. It developed as blacks, Hispanics and indigenous Panamanians intermingled, creating a huge but unwritten lexicon of intricate rhythmic patterns and motifs, as well as distinctly Panamanian drums (such as the pujador, the repicador and the caja santena) and other indigenous musical instruments. The music of Panamanian antiquity still flourishes in the country's interior, where more than half a dozen tribes with roots in Africa have developed a seemingly infinite array of rhythms and improvisational forms.
But this music does not exist on recordings or in notation -- it survives entirely in the hands and hearts of the men and women who perform it. If it were ever properly and systematically documented, it could offer a window on the roots of jazz and, perhaps, all African-derived music.
"The sadness is that not only does the world not know the beauty of Panamanian music -- even we Panamanians do not," says the folklorist Villarreal, who has been spending his own time, buying his own recording equipment and otherwise digging into his own pocket to try to capture the music of Panama's tribes before it disappears or transforms itself.
Since Blades became minister of tourism, last September, "I've been traveling through all the country, trying to understand what it is that we have," Blades says.
"I was stunned by the quality of what I was listening to. . . . I'm telling you, man, the thing is -- it's hypnotic, it's got something that I thought was Haitian. But when you hear it, when you hear this stuff, you go, `My God, the chords, what they're doing!'
"And the songs have very poetic names, like, `The Song About the Dance of the Long-Beaked Bird' -- really complicated."
Though casual observers might say, "So what?" -- who cares what Panama's jazz musicians invented in 1904 or their African tribes have been playing for centuries? -- the answers mean a great deal to many people, starting with Panamanians.
An oft-tempestuous relationship with the United States may help explain why many Panamanians long to find a cultural profile of their own. The tensions date back to Panama's first day as sovereign country, in 1903, when many Panamanians felt that they had been forced to pay too high a price for U.S. support of their bid for independence -- American control of the canal, in perpetuity.
The presence of American military in and outside the Canal Zone, where American soldiers enjoyed a higher standard of living than Panamanians, predictably did not sit well with locals. And a riot in 1964, when American troops killed and injured Panamanians protesting the removal of their flag from the Canal Zone, embittered many.
The U.S. invasion to oust Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, in 1989, also nurtured tensions.
"It's very hard to be invaded by a foreign country and see people getting killed," says Javier Carrizo, president of Fundacion Violete por el Arte, an organization that has been championing Panamanian music for nearly two decades.
"There was too much killing, too much suffering.
"Music brings us back to life," adds Carrizo. "It tells us who we are."