Music, it has to be emphasised, is a fundamental part of Ecuadorian life. Whether you are on a bus or coach, shopping or simply walking in the streets (whilst dodging cars, buses and taxis and left dazed by the fumes spewing out of vehicles toiling up the endless hills, obscuring cars following with the clouds of blackness left in their wake), you will hear music. Ecuador is music-rich due to the diversity of its people. There are 28 distinct ethnic groups and the diversity of music is related to this immense wealth of culture. Influences range from the African Marumba rhythms found in the coastal areas, which is heavily influenced by the music brought over from Africa long ago and favoured by the Afro-Ecuadorian population. Marumba music is heavily weighted on the ¾ rhythm.
Other genres include Paseja, which has a slightly melancholic beat, San Juan, a happy, lighter genre, and Albazo which has a different beat again, not as happy as San Juan but lighter than Paseja. There are also Pasacalle, Pasillo and the beloved and peculiar brand of Ecuadorian popular music which is extremely popular with many songs having 2 bar phrases with the first a 4/4 beat and the next a ¾ beat, giving the music a somewhat hop-along feel but also making it very catchy.
Music often springs up spontaneously. All it takes is a couple of people with guitars and before you know it there is an impromptu gig going on. One occurred whilst I was in the Old Historic Centre of Quito with 3 men playing guitars. Before long people from the crowd came forward and danced to the varying rhythms, mostly a sort of shuffling, stepping dance. The mix of ages was interesting as well as the ethnic diversity of the audience and dancers. Jazz is here too with venues tending to put on a varied musical programme which includes jazz. An example is a venue on 4th October (street) in Quito which recently hosted the Music Messengers (Natalie Jacobs on alto sax and clarinet, Rafael Morales on drums and Jonathan Andrade on guitar).
Ecuador has many jazz artists who perform regularly at venues including small music cafes, university campuses and theatres, though there are few solely jazz venues. People enjoy musicians like Sammy Davis Jnr, Sinatra, Nat King Cole and other swinging musicians/performers but there is also a decent smattering of more eclectic tastes reflected in posts on social media and in conversations and many people also enjoy Wynton Marsalis, Oliver Nelson, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis and the ever popular Hypnotic Brass Ensemble featuring the 8 sons of the trumpet player Phil Cohran (Sun Ra Arkestra).
Every so often (and it is never set in stone when this might occur but usually in October), there is an international jazz event, held in a major city such as Cuenca and hosted by venues like the Jazz Society Café and other medium sized venues. Past performers have included New York pianist Jim Gala (who often comperes and curates), Canadian saxophone player Paul Bouchard, and ‘a rosta of international jazz musicians from all over the world’ which include many artists unknown and some reasonably familiar.
The Jazz Society Café in Cuenca was a venue for International Jazz Day in 2014 and the line-up for this honour included many international musicians and was hosted by Jim Gala. Venues in Quito have recently hosted combos including Juanpa Naula on guitar, Raimon Rovira on piano and Gilberto Riviera on saxophone and The Universidad San Francisco in Quito have provided a stage for musicians such as George Herarra who made his debut in 2013 at age 14 and has since played with Herbie Hancock.
Venues in the capital include the highly thought of El Pobre Diablo where you can get dinner and jazz from around $70 for two people. Several venues offer this combination. However, be wary. Ecuadorians love to talk and a constant theme in reviews is that the music takes second place to the general noise and hub-bub of an Ecuadorian eatery. Time too is an Ecuadorian enigma. A starting time for a gig is something of an approximation and may be adhered to but most likely not. Most gigs do not start on time so allow plenty of it. Sometimes (and I have heard this from several sources), not all musicians will be present when the music starts and will gradually join others as the set progresses, which might prove interesting and it is not so unusual in some UK venues even for one or two players to arrive late but in Ecuadorian venues, the performance can apparently take on a fugue-like essence, swelling in volume and texture as more musicians finally arrive, sometimes only all being present for the final number of a set. Nevertheless, I have been told these evenings can be magical, if a little hit and miss.
So, I am finding out about jazz in Ecuador, even if, as yet, I have not gone to a gig. One of the problems is safety. After dark Quito’s streets take on a menacing feel. Areas which feel perfectly safe during the day (which ends at 6.30 with a suddenness which is quite amazing), take on a very different feel at night. As a long-term visitor, I have been given many lectures about keeping safe, only taking the money I need with me, not to carry a credit card or passport (many venues will not take a credit card anyhow without a passport and they check the signatures match like fastidious accountants), and never carry a decent ‘phone if you need it for photographs etc.
Many visitors invest in a simple ‘Ecua-phone’, which works on the local networks and is not as valuable as a smart phone. Pickpockets, mugging and hold ups with knives are common if you are unawares and getting back after 8 pm or so can be dangerous because there are many illegal taxis operating, whose (apparent) sole desire is to pick up a ‘Gringo’ and whisk you to the outskirts of town where they will divest you of anything of value, including bags, rings and watches and leave you to find your own way back. Given that Quito stretches 22 km along a high valley (over 9000 feet), this is not an attractive prospect. Spotting legitimate taxis at night is more problematic than in daylight because you need to check several points of proof of their legitimacy: an orange plate, the name of the operator on the side and a blue square also on the cab’s side indicating they are licenced by the authorities of Quito and then you have to check they use the ‘taxi-metro’ which is the licenced fare metre, or you will pay heavily for even a short distance.
That said, legitimate taxis are safer than night buses, for which many people must sign an insurance waiver as they are so dangerous, and cheap. Checking all the licence points as you stop one of the thousands of cabs is nigh on impossible so group travel to gigs is an absolute must and as yet, I have not found a jazz society which is active but I will and from what I have heard so far, the music scene in Ecuador and especially the jazz scene is rich, full of genuine surprises and talented individuals and groups and just waiting to be explored.
Text: Sammy Stein and main feature image
Sidebar images: Teatro Nacional Sucre, Ecuador and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s)