Discovering the Music of Cartagena, Colombia

The old Cartagena opera house is where most concerts are held

Notes from a violin reverberated across an ancient music hall in South America  A young American violinist was playing one of the most difficult pieces of contemporary music to a rapt audience of 700. The combination of the sound and the setting made me cry.

I am a pushover for good music.

Tell me there’s a orchestra performing Beethoven’s Ninth within 100 miles and I’ll walk, swim or bike to hear it.

Sing the Bach St. John Passion for me and I’ll die happy.

But when the invitation came for the Sixth Annual International Music Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, from what I’d heard, the possibility of dying in the streets trying to walk home after a concert might actually be, I thought, a reality.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities in South Ameria.
  • Cartagena is loaded with history (that’s one reason it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
  • For music lovers, it has one of the best chamber music festivals anywhere.

Friends warned: “Cartagena?  Dangerous!  Don’t go!”  One son said “Cartagena?  Take an AK-47 with you.”  (He did not suggest how to get it through the TSA at the airport.)  But still, I knew that I would never dare walk in the streets after a concert and that I would hole up in my hotel any other time of day or night, safely locked in my room.

A street in the historic walled section of Cartagena

Turns out that nowadays, the biggest danger to Americans in Cartagena seems to be naughty “escorts” who tell all, rather than right-wing death squads, left-wing guerillas and narco-trafficking thugs.  The U. S. media, which certainly reported the dangers of Colombia’s drug wars, is about 30 years out of date.  I found out, by being on the scene, that the drug lords and FARC guerillas fought each other to the death, the governments of both Colombia and the US. came in to help clean up the mess, and now any remaining former drug traffickers are teaching salsa.

Music in the Streets

Today’s Cartagena is a city not of crime, but of culture. Everywhere I turned, there was music in the streets, and yes, some people dancing salsa at the many outdoor concerts held in public squares in the historic walled part of Cartagena.  The lovely colonial walled part of the city, incidentally, was one of the most important reasons that Cartagena was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1984.  When I passed by a group of teenagers around midnight after one concert, I might have thought they were loitering… until I heard them singing their “Vallenato,” or folk songs.  I heard people out on the streets singing the pop songs of their favorite Colombian-born singing star, Shakira.  I heard Gergorian chant in my Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel, a former monastery from the 1600’s, as hotel employees dressed as monks solemnly lit candles around the public areas at dusk.

And for 11 days straight — the time frame for the Annual International Cartagena Music Festival —  I listened to some of the best musicians in North and South America performing in huge concert halls, small former hotel chapels, and city centers.  Nearly every night the Adolfo Mejia Theatre, a former opera house with an anaglypta of pastel cherubs and flowers, was the setting for first-rate performances by string quartets, chamber orchestras, piano and violin soloists.

Some of the musical stars of the festival included New York violinist Lara St. John, Maryland pianist Brian Ganz, and from Mexico, Horatio Franco, who played a Bach partita on his wooden flute and interspersed the movements with Mexican folk music, using an ankle bracelet filled with dried butterfly pupa for percussion!. The theme of the festival —  Music of the Americas — could hardly have been better realized.

A Festival for the Public

The audience was made up mostly of well-to-do Colombians from all over their country. Colombia is currently enjoying a healthy economy, and the outdoor venues were filled with local families who came, complete with babies in strollers.  North Americans attend in smaller numbers, but I talked to a couple from Boston who first came down four years ago and now return each January because they love the music and the town.

A Colombian violin student learns from a master

In the days before the concerts begin, the musicians go around town to nursing homes and hospitals to perform for those who are not  able to get to the theater.  During the festival, anyone can buy a ticket to hear a music lecture held in one of the hotel chapels on the morning of the concert.  Also during the festival, many of the musicians present master classes for young Colombian music students.  One of the highlights of the 11 days was the performance of the San Marcos Passion by contemporary Argentian composer Osvaldo Golijov, conducted by Maria Guinand, who has become known for taking in the poorest children of her native Venezuela, teaching them music, and when they become adults, making them part of the Schola Cantorum of Venezuela.  That was the chorus that sang the Passion at the festival in a moving and well-executed premiere of this emotional composition.


To be situated in the midst of the music throughout the festival, stay at the Sofital Santa Clara Hotel. Not only are many of the morning music lectures held in the hotel’s lovely former chapel, but you’ll hear Gregorian chant at duck when employees dressed as monks light the lobby candles.  Also, many of the musicians stay at this hotel, so you can stop by their breakfast tables to compliment them on last night’s concert.



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