As the noonday sun smiles down on the first official day of the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival the band breaks into a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Smiling, cheering crowds line the parade route.
Behind the musicians cruise elaborately decorated golf cart. Creatively attired occupants fling beads and candy with childlike abandon. The celebratory spirit is so infectious, some of the spectators join the parade on foot.
This family-friendly Mardi Gras style parade is the official kick-off to the Boquete Jazz and Blues festival. Along with the usual fun and frolics, the opening day parade featured traditional Panamanian Pollera and Congo dancers, as well as the marching band of the local police and fire brigade.
The festival, an annual charity event, draws world-class musicians and appreciative visitors to the Chiriqui Highlands of Panama. Every February, locals and tourists indulge their senses in music, parties, jam sessions, local food and libations.
The Biggest Little Music Festival in the World
While Old Man Winter pummels parts of North America and Europe, in Panama it’s summer. Along with the promise of sunshine, mild temperatures and low humidity, the town of Boquete invites the world to experience jazz and blues at its best. The mountains surrounding this valley venue echo with the sounds of Latin, modern and smooth jazz, big band and blues.
Each year, the opening parade is followed by musical performances in Boquete’s central square. There the crowd is entertained by festival performers and local dancers. In addition, children show off skills learned via the BJBF Music for Schools Program.
All festival proceeds are donated to improving musical education in area schools. And, the more successful the festival, the more musical instruments find their way into the eager hands of the children.
This intimate setting, where there’s no “such thing as a bad seat, rocked with music from the likes of harmonica legend, Lee Oskar, and the Lowrider Band, Grammy nominee, Joe Louis Walker, Latin Jazz great Maria Rivas and the dynamic Deanna Bogart.
Although amphitheater seating was limited, jazz and blues lovers crammed into local bars and restaurants for several live jams. When musicians of the caliber playing at Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival come together onstage, musical magic ensues.
Making It Happen in Panama
Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival started small in 2007. By 2012 it had become the second largest event of its kind in Panama. In 2016, retired Copa Airlines pilot, John Wolff, assumed the festival’s reins.
Born and Raised in Coral Gables, Florida, John grew up surrounded by music. His father had a recording studio in the house, and professional musicians coming and going was simply a part of the family’s routine. Panama has been John’s home for over 40 years, but his love affair with Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival didn’t begin in earnest until 2012.
John prefers the intimate atmosphere of the Valle Escondido amphitheater to music festivals with 5,000 people watching monitors. At Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival, audiences can get up close to the musicians.
But there is a downside to all this intimacy. “We’ll never make the money we need with an 800 seat venue,” said John. “What we need is sponsors.” And acquiring those all-important sponsors is another aspect of John’s job. A job he gladly performs without pay.
Although professionals have been hired to help keep up with the festival’s growth, the heart and soul of Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival belong to volunteers like John, Green Room Coordinator, Vicki Whittle and the dozens of committed volunteers working behind the scenes to make the festival a success.
In addition to the contributions made by volunteers, sponsors, local businesses and individuals, many of the performers play the festival at a fraction of their usual rate.
Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival has become so well-known worldwide for its stunning location, enthusiastic audiences and hospitable Green Room, there are more international musicians who want to perform in Boquete than there are slots in the schedule.
Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival 2017
Deanna Bogart, Ron Hacker, Lance Anderson and Joe Louis Walker jump-started the party the night before the opening of the festival with a dinner and concert at The Rock, the largest of the jam venues.
After the opening parade, a garden party at Hotel Panamonte late morning warned up the crowd for the evening concert with several hours of extraordinary musical performances.
The Saturday and Sunday afternoon concerts at Valle Escondido thrilled audiences with the combine talent of Guy Davis, Marshall Keys, Scott Ambush, Ann Harris, Carolyn Wonderland, Maria Rivas and the Low Rider Band with Lee Oskar.
The All-Star Jam, led by Deanna Bogart, brought the festival to a spectacular conclusion on Sunday. A Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival first brought a double jam, with jazz on one stage and blues on another at one venue. Attendees moved freely between stages for an overdose of talent.
As if in answer to John Wolff’s plea for sponsors, Copa Airlines, The Panama Tourist Authority and Cebaco Bay came through with platinum sponsorships. And, Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC) declared the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival a “National Cultural Event”.
With World-class jazz and blues, a stunning setting surrounded by mountains kissed by the sun and caressed by rainbows and a worthy cause for the benefit of local children, you would be hard pressed to find three better reasons to put the festival on your 2018 calendar.
View the 2017 Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival line-up on YouTube.
If You Go
How to Get There
The town of Boquete in Chiriqui Province lies in an agricultural area at an elevation of 3000 feet. Fly into Panama City, then take a Copa Airlines flight to David, the capital of Chiriqui Province. You can also rent a car or take a bus – an approximately 7.5 hour drive. If you fly or take the bus, you will need to take another bus to Boquete. Or you can catch a cab for approximately $35 to $40.
Where to Stay
Boquete offers a variety of hotels, hostals, AirBnBs and rentals. Hotel Panamonte, Boquete Garden Inn, Hotel at Valle Escondido and El Refugio del Rio Hostal are just a small sample of your choices. Book early, if you are planning to take in BJBF.
Where to Eat
Expat owned restaurants will give you a tasty, familiar meal. But if you want to try traditional Panamanian food, eat where the locals eat. You’ll get a generous plateful for less than $5. Ask the locals. They won’t steer you wrong.
What to Bring
Remember, it’s summer. Pack lightweight clothing, a light jacket or sweater for cooler evenings and plenty of sunscreen.
The website has up-to-date information on the Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival. You can also sign up for their newsletter for updates on future festivals.
All photographs accompanying this article were taken by Simon Lock.