Festina lente
By Ken Waxman

“Our idea is to put on record all those sounds that can be produced in a city like Bogotá”, explains Luis Daniel Vega, producer and founder of Festina lente (Fl), a jazz and other musics imprint based in the Colombian capital. “Bogotá is a city where there is very creative music, everything from jazz, in its most dissimilar expressions, to salsa, reggaeton, punk, electro-acoustic, vallenato and classical music. We want to show all sides of this musical city.”

Since its founding in 2009, Fl has released 15 CDs, reflecting the variety of improvised music present in the country’s largest city with a population of seven million. All its artists are Colombian, with the majority based in Bogotá plus a few expatriates such as bassist Juan Pablo Balcázar who now lives in Barcelona or pianist Ricardo Gallo and string player Alejandro Flórez in New York. The label name is an oxymoron adds Vega, meaning “more haste, less speed”, a wise motto for many entrepreneurs, as well as a composition by Asdrubal one of Vega’s favorite Colombian bands.

A long-time jazz fan, Vega’s day job for the past 10 years has been as a journalist and researcher for Javeriana Estereo, Radio Nacional de Colombia and UN Radio, which gives him a unique perspective on the country’s jazz scene. “I like what has happened in Colombia in the last 15 years, he reveals. “Jazz has attained a new originality.” With an initial investment of 4,000 pesos or $2,000, he and José Fernando Perilla, a RNC colleague, started Festina lente with the release of Flórez’s and Gallo’s Meleyolamente, which combines Colombian-Andean music and free improvisation. Later family commitments left Perilla with little time to help, so his place with Fl has been taken by another RNC colleague Mario Cubillos. Pressed in an edition of 500 copies – like all Fl CDs – Meleyolamente has since sold out its initial run.

Vega, who makes Fl’s artistic decisions, says: “I started the label to record discs that nobody otherwise would have recorded here in Bogotá.” Most of Fl’s artists are friends who share specific ideas with Fl’s founders about jazz and music in Colombia in general. Some had already or subsequently have recorded for local or out of-country imprints, but all were approached to create specific Fl discs by Vega. While some Fl CDs are of previously-recorded sessions, then released by Fl, most discs are commissioned by the imprint, which pays all art, design, pressing and distribution costs, and for the latter, recording costs as well. “The label is financed through disc sales,” explains Vega. “But in some cases, Mario and I contribute extra money out of our own pockets.”

“When I recorded with Flórez for Fl, it was going to be my third CD and it was an experiment,” recalls Gallo, who divides his time between Bogotá and New York. “Something particular about the label is that it appeared without big pretensions or aspirations, so we weren’t really expecting much; it was like doing the CD independently but with some financial and press support from Vega. Now the label has gained some recognition due to the variety of the recordings. I think it's really interesting that the label has been noticed outside of Colombia, because it has evolved in a non-entrepreneurial way, focusing on the music and facilitating new possibilities of what music from Colombia can be.”

Adds bassist Santiago Botero, who plays in both Amsterdam and Bogotá: “I recorded my CD and then Festina was interested in releasing it. It’s an experiment trying to use melodies based on cumbia and Andres Landeros’ accordion music givent a treatment similar to Ornette Coleman’s or Zorn's Masada music. In Europe labels weren’t thrilled by the idea. If you’re doing Latin music you must have some maracas and make everybody dance and if you are doing free jazz music it must sound weird, edgy and avant-gardish – whatever that means. They couldn’t define me, so they said no. But Luis Daniel liked the idea and he knows where it comes from.”

Festina lente’s appreciation for all sorts of improvised music means that no one style is represented.. Releases range from the outright free improvisation of the 14-piece Asociacion Libre Orkestra’s eponymous CD; to the chamber jazz of Meleyolamente; includes smoother stylists such as guitarist Daniel Pinilla’ Intuiciones or bassist Julián Gómez’s Impulso; features world-jazz from bassist Juan Manuel Toro Parsec Trío’s Sublánimal and Tibaguí’s Malandanza; as well as the tropical – not “Latin jazz”, insists Vega – punk-jazz cumbia of Los Pirañas trio’s Toma tu jabón Kapax. “Many CDs have elements of jazz it’s true, but also contain elements of rock, chamber music, and traditional Colombian music,” Vega asserts. “We could say that it’s ‘anywhere music’.”

“I love the diversity,” exclaims Botero. “It makes each release unique and each cd different from the other. Other labels’ catalogues are quite boring and you might not notice other artists because a lot of them sound similar. It makes me happy to know that my CD is in a whole different world from the other releases.”

Adds Gallo: “Festina lente records projects without genre barrier, and in a way it’s a reflection of not only jazz in Colombia but recent Colombian music in general –lots of people doing interesting stuff in between the lines. As for myself, I’m also interested in all the ‘in-betweens’ that could be interesting to some people, confusing for others. That recording with Flórez takes a tradition of plucked strings instruments of the Andes of Colombia, which is almost always linked to song forms or instrumental music, and uses those elements to improvise with it. That can be uncomfortable to some Colombian purists of the traditional genre, but that's what we’re interested in.”

Another distinctive characteristic of Festina lente CDs is that few are recorded in professional studios. Instead unconventional spaces including halls, farms and more frequently bars such as Bogotá’s well-known Matik-Matik, which presents many of these bands in a live setting, are the recording sites of choice. “In a studio, we would have all the amenities, but they’re expensive and cold,” notes Vega. “But now it's easy and effective to record at home, at the bar or on a farm. Budgets are reduced; and if you change the setting, the music flows differently.” As for the sound quality of these CDs compared to studio sessions, “we have nothing to envy from studio sessions,” he insists.

“In general Fl feels fresh,” adds Botero. “It’s not a label of musicians for musicians. It’s a label from a bunch of music lovers to get out the music they would like to see in record stores. I knew Luis Daniel before he started F1. He really doesn’t underestimate the audience. He feels that anybody can listen to a non-commercial-music concert and appreciate as much as something supported by the mainstream media.”

What of the future? Many projects are on tap, divulges Vega. “Soon the duet Velez-Velandia will be ready. It’s an unprecedented meeting between Jacobo Velez, one of the best saxophonist of Colombia, and Edson Velandia, an insane singer, guitarist and songwriter who lives on the outskirts of Bogotá. With Edson Velandia we’ll soon also be recording Municipal Symphonies. It will be an improvised session conducted by Velandi that combines jazz, rock, symphonic music and rasqa, an indefinable genre invented by Velandia. We’re also editing the debut CD by Botero’s Mula, a new group featuring bassist Santiago, as well as the second disc by Los Pirañas.

Although physical distribution of Festina lente discs is centred in Colombai, a few copies circulate in NYC. Even if only a select few beyond the country’s borders hear it, Vega and associates plan to continue their mission of recording the wealth of jazz-oriented music from Colombia.

—For New York City Jazz Record December 2012