DJ Betto Arcos Shares His Musical Finds From The Panama Jazz Festival

Feb 11, 2017
Originally published on February 11, 2017 5:29 pm

When he's not a guest of weekends on All Things Considered, Betto Arcos is traveling the world discovering new music. On this episode, he returns from the Panama Jazz Festival to share songs representing the jazz, folk and calypso influences thriving in Panama's local music scenes. Hear the conversation at the audio link, and listen to his picks below.

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We're going to keep things going with some music straight from Panama.


SINGH: We're joined by world music deejay and NPR contributor Betto Arcos, who just returned from his trip to the Panama Jazz Festival. Welcome back, Betto.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me, Lakshmi.

SINGH: So you brought us back the best kind of souvenir, I think, which is music, right? So what are we listening to?

ARCOS: This fantastic band The Beachers.


THE BEACHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: First, you know, a lot of people don't think of Calypso when they think of Panamanian music. Now, we must remember, Lakshmi, that Panama has had a major contribution of Afro-Antillean immigrants, people that came from the West Indies, not just during the Panama Canal, but actually even before when they were building the railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. This was the work of the French. And so there's been a very strong migration from the West Indies into Panama. And this is the reason why Calypso is such an important part of Panamanian music.

SINGH: Betto, for people who know pretty much nothing else about the country of Panama - you touched on this - they will at least have heard of the Panama Canal, but that canal in the geographic location of Panama puts it at a kind of a cultural crossroads, as you noted, connecting South and Central America with the Caribbean Sea on one side, not to mention this history of colonization and African slavery. And that rich history definitely comes across in the music, right?

ARCOS: Absolutely. This is part of the reason why I think Panama has one of the richest musical cultures, not just in in Central America, but I would say in the entire American continent. So let's move on to this singer that - actually the Jazz Festival paid tribute. It was a - every year the Panama Jazz Festival honors a figure in Panamanian music. And this year, it was dedicated to the great singer Violeta Green who was from Panama City, but of Afro-Antillean descent. Let's listen to the tune called "The Joker."


VIOLETA GREEN: (Singing) There's always a joker. That's the game. There's always a (unintelligible) on his back. And everyone loves when he's sad (ph).

ARCOS: Violeta Green, in addition to singing jazz - actually she used to sing boleros, and she used to sing Calypso tunes as well. But she really made her mark as a jazz singer, and she, in fact, recorded most of her work as a jazz singer beginning in the 1960s into the '70s. She was the most sought after vocalist in jazz in Panama, recorded with some of the great bands including this one which accompanied her Los Embajadores - really a phenomenal artist. There's not much about her online if you look around, but she was an important figure nonetheless.

SINGH: A lot of Panamanian history there with that last artist. We talked a little bit about some fusion styles of music, right? Tell me about style or sound that you think is traditionally Panamanian clearly.

ARCOS: The most traditional, the most clearly Panamanian music that I can think of is the style called mejorana. Let's listen to this artist, Gustavo Salamin, who plays a tune, an homage to the region where the music comes from - "La Peninsula De Azuero," the Azuero Peninsula which is in Central Panama where the music comes from.


GUSTAVO SALAMIN: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: The guitar that Gustavo Salamin plays is called guitarra mejoranera or simply mejoranera. It's a five-string guitar. It's an instrument that really has roots in the baroque instruments that came during the colonization of the Americas in the 1600s by the Spanish. And so it has this kind of baroque sound. These are nylon strings. It's an instrument carved out of a one solid piece of wood. It's very beautiful. It combines rhythm and harmony. I just love the sound.


SINGH: Well, Betto, I think you got one more for us to take us out on a good beat. Hit it.


ARCOS: This is a band that I fell in love with the moment I saw them onstage. They're called Afrodisiaco, and they are absolutely the best ensemble that represents what Panama and its music is about today. This is a band that's led by two women who decided to create a musical project based on the Panamanian drums. They're really doing something very special where they take the traditional Panamanian drum styles from four different regions of Panama, and they create something completely new. Let's take a listen to Afrodisiaco.


AFRODISIACO: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: This is a style of music called tamborito atravesao (ph). It comes from the central region of Panama where the mejorana that we heard earlier comes from. And it really showcases the different influences and styles of music that are unique to this part of the world, Panama.

SINGH: Well, Betto, you've given me a crash course in Panamanian music. My head's spinning, but I'm swaying at the same time (laughter). So thank you. That was NPR contributor Betto Arcos. Betto, again, thank you.

ARCOS: My pleasure, Lakshmi. Thank you so much for inviting me.


AFRODISIACO: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.