Notes From The Boquete Jazz & Blues Festival

Recently, the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival transformed the quiet town of Boquete. The 4 days festival held in February, could have easily called itself the Boquete ‘BLUES’ and Jazz festival. With world class Blues musicians headlining the event, Blues and Boogie-Woogie were the mainstay that rocked the slopes of the Baru Volcano. The festival officially kicked off with a Mardi Gras style parade through the town, led by a local trumpet band playing tunes like “When The Saints Go Marching In”. Residents in colorfully decorated golf carts followed the band. Multi colored wigs, feather boas, angel wings and painted faces were a few of the details dressing a rainbow of celebrating music lovers, dancing their way through Boquete’s main streets. Candies and beaded necklaces were tossed to scampering children who followed the parade to gather as much treasure as they could.

The essence of the festival was captured at packed restaurants and bars that hosted open jam sessions. Jazz, Salsa and Blues headliners jumped into impromptu collaborations, taking popular tunes into new and energetic directions.

Music and harmony lived on stage and off, making for an unforgettable event. Artist Deanna Bogart put it aptly when she said, “The audience and the musicians become equal and everyone is part of one big family”. Indeed, artistic talent was alive from costumes to jam sessions that invited the audience to participate.

As for visitors from the beach area, there were several festival first-timers, including this reporter. Many expected to be underwhelmed, and were pleasantly surprised to experience the opposite. "I can't wait till next year”, said Steve Most, who visited the event for the weekend with a group of friends. Some beach visitors like Tricia Nier made new friends in Boquete and used the opportunity to take in some of the attractions such as zip-lining and coffee tours. The cooler mountain temperatures had some beach residents wearing scarves! For others, the Boquete climate was, as Virginia Maskell put it “a lovely retreat from the heat”.

The festival itself is put on by a charitable, private, not-for-profit foundation, dedicated to supporting and enriching cultural life in Boquete and beyond. It is run exclusively by unpaid volunteers who organize the community, local small businesses and international artists to come together for 4 days of music and fun in the small town of Boquete. Foundation President Hans Lebuser said, “It is a lot of work and takes the entire year to plan”. At this year’s festival there were 80 volunteers who took care of everything from feeding the artists to picking up trash. 100% of Festival profits go towards the support of musical programs within local schools.  The main festival stage this year hosted the talent of budding musicians produced by the local school programs. The biggest change the festival has seen since its inception is the addition of Blues acts since 2011.

Here are some of the notable blues artists featured at the festival. This is by no means a complete list:

THE BOQATS. Boquete’s own Blues Band, led by Gary Whiting who did sound and backed up several Festival acts. This band has an amazing sound and rocked the crowd to their feet at the an open air kick off concert. The Boqats would love to play in the Coronado and Beach area, so if you are looking for acts give Gary a call. you will not be disappointed at the draw this band has. Gary Whiting 6521-0664,

ANDY EGERT. If you missed the festival, you still have a chance to get a taste of it on February 25th at Picasso Restaurant in Coronado, where Andy Egart and John Carney will light up the stage at the beaches. Hailing from Switzerland, Andy is known to be one of the hardest working bluesman around, and is winner of the Best Swiss Blues Band Award. If you want to take your guitar playing up a notch, Andy is hosting a Blues Guitar workshop this year in Tuscany.

DEANNA BOGART. The 50 some year old, Deanna won the hearts of festival fans with her dazzling keyboards, soulful saxophone playing and smoky vocals. Deanna’s brilliance doesn't end at her musical ability. She is an educator and mentor sharing her insight and wisdom. “I don’t buy age”, says Deanna. “If you want to play music, just start and keep doing it”.

SHAKURA S’AIDA. The 2015 BJBF was Shakura’s first time in Panama. A long time Torontonian who has been involved in the Canadian music scene for 25 years. Shakura’s power vocals and commanding stage presence had audiences enthralled.

LEON BLUE. Mr. Blue may be the finest blues piano man you’ve never heard of. Blue has played with many notable musicians in his long and storied career. While Blue was in Panama for the first time, he may not have known where he was. When I asked him what he liked best about Panama, he said “The Puerto Rican girls”. (smiley face)

LIL’ ED & THE BLUES IMPERIALS. Blues runs in Ed’s blood. His uncle and musical mentor was the famous J.B. Hutto. Characterized by the fez he wears, and known for his lively performances and dazzling smile, Ed has a following of die hard fans who call themselves “Ed Heads”.

JOHN CARNEY. We have seen John and his band Gato Maximo play at beach venues. Hailing from the US, John was actually born in Panama. He has a B.F.A in Music Performance and has played with the Albuquerque Lesser Symphony Orchestra. A music man at heart John’s skill with the guitar was apparent in his jams with Latin and Blues musicians alike.

EDGAR VARGAS FERNANDEZ. Keep your eye open for Edgar. He is an up and coming Panamanian guitar player from Chiriqui, who has been playing in bands and orchestras across Panama. He recently won the Shred Guitar award, and knows his way around a guitar.