When I first heard that the island of Curacao (pronounced Cure-a-sow) was going to stage its first ever jazz festival at the beginning of September, I thought “What? At the height of the hurricane season?”
Then I discovered that the island that lies 35 miles northwest of Venezuelais safely out of the “hurricane zone” and has not experienced a hurricane landfall since the National Hurricane Center began tracking the often ferocious tropical storms. And with only 22 inches of annual rainfall on the semi-arid island, the chance of getting rained out during the two day jazz event seemed fairly minimal.
Curacao, once a Dutch colony, is now an independent nation but a constitutional monarchy and still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with Queen Beatrix as head of state. With historic cultural ties between the two nations, folks from the North Sea Jazz Festival, held in Holland each July and widely acknowledged to be “the largest jazz festival in the world,” helped organize what is called the Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival.
Held on September 3 and 4 this past year, the first edition of the festival, billed as the largest jazz event in the Caribbean, threw the spotlight on 18 internationally renowned musicians on three stages, two of them outdoors and named for jazz greats Sam Cooke, Duke Ellington and salsa queen, Celia Cruz.
Like most current day jazz festivals, the musical genres featured in Curacao went way beyond the boundaries of jazz into pop (Lionel Ritchie), soul (Natalie Cole), jazz/R&B (George Benson), Latin (Grupo Fantasma and Tumbao), salsa (Luis Enrique and India), bossa nova heavily accented with jazz and funk (Sergio Mendes), eclectic (John Legend and Giovanca), jazz/folk (Raul Mindon), Cuban classic son (Sierra Maestra) and international eclectic (Mulato). For lovers of pure jazz, there was also an abundance of exciting groups that included the captivating Michel Camilo Trio, Curacao’s own Randal Corson on piano that also featured Roy Hargrove and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez in the concert, bass sensation, Richard Bona, and the Roy Hargrove Quintet.
Curacao is considered one of the safest Caribbean destinations, but security was tight around the venue – the World Trade Center in Piscadero Bay in the picturesque capital of Willemstad. From the onset, the enthusiasm of the crowd was apparent as an estimated 18,000 jazz lovers made their way through the security check points during the two day event.
Starting at 7:30 p.m. on day one, the crowd’s ebullience grew throughout the evening and reached a climax when Lionel Ritchie took the stage shortly after midnight and performed for nearly an hour and 45 minutes a mix of classic hits that included Commodore-era favorites and newer studio material.
Day two kicked off with Natalie Cole, segued into a crowd rousing concert by John Legend, who opened with “Green Light” and closed with Simply Red, the British soul band that sold more than 50 million albums over their 25 year long career. The concert was part of the group’s farewell tour that will see singer Mick Hucknall continue on as a solo artist.
The concerts were staggered so that it was possible to catch nearly every act during the two day festival. The temperatures hovered in pleasantly in the mid-80s which spurred the sale of beverages, including wine, beer and cocktails. Because the concerts stretched over more than a five hour period on both days, some of the food vendors sold out a little before midnight on day one. I was particularly impressed with the sophistication of the menu choices which featured upscale offerings such as sushi, chicken sate and sliced beef tenderloin on a baguette.
Thirty-eight miles long and 2 to 7.5 miles wide, Curacao has a population of more than 140,000 residents. With such a relatively small population, the island was still able to pull off a very successful jazz festival debut, attended by a mix of residents and international visitors. A few days after Simply Red played the last notes at the final concert, Gregory Elias, one of the festival producers, said “I dream that Curacao will be a permanent host of events of this level. This weekend we put the first step in that direction.”
If You’re Going
The 2011 Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival will take place on September 2 and 3. For more information, visit CuracaonorthseaJazz.com. For more information on Curacao, phone 800-328-7222 or visit Curacao.com
For a place to stay, the Hyatt Regency Curacao opened in April of this year between the Caribbean Sea and Spanish Water Bay, about a 20-minute drive from Willemstad. Located on 27 acres, the Hyatt features an 18-hole Pete Dye championship golf course, three pools, four tennis courts and the richly appointed Atabei Spa that offers a 90-minute massage and more. For dining pleasures, guests can choose between three restaurants – the poolside SWIM, which specializes in fish tacos, the high end SHOR, which offers an open-air terrace and MEDI with an open-air kitchen. Phone 800-554-9288 or visit Curacao.hyatt.com.
For another place to dine inWillemstad, Gouverneur de Rouville at 9 de Rouvilleweg in the Otrabanda, sits on the waterfront with a outdoor balcony view of Punda across the bay. The restored 18th century building is surrounded by other monumental edifices and offers an inclusive menu of sandwiches, wraps, soups, hot appetizers and main course entrees. Phone 599 9 462 5999.
Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Tourism Calgary.