CULTURE | 1/26/2010 12:00:00 AM
Cartagena: The place to be
The Classic Music Festival and the Hay Festival have transformed Cartagena into a hot spot where the intellectual elite, the high society and students gather throughout January.
What these festivals have in store
Days before the first Hay Festival in Cartagena, its organizers did not know what to expect. It was the first literary festival that happened in the colonial city, a place were literary interest was minimum, they were told, with unknown writers for the Colombian audience and in a complicated schedule, since the last week of January in Cartagena was worthless. Yet, according to Ana Maria Aponte, the chief of press, “that festival surpassed all expectations in attendance and media impact.” In the middle of January, the majority of the 7.000 tickets for the 40 conferences were already sold, college students were looking for ways to afford it and the Hay began making appearances in the main media outlets. The next year, the number of writers hit 72—a considerable number for the second edition— and three years later, in the 2009 edition, 106 writers answered the calls and more than 40.000 tickets were sold.
In less than five years, the Festival’s size has tripled, even more if considering assistance, and it has become one of the most important festivals in Latin America; an obligated stop for those who enjoy literature, good conversation and partying. Cartagena has been host to literary superstars like the nigerian Nobel Wole Zoyinka, the Indian Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureishi from England, the controversial Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, and key referents of the contemporaneous elite like historian Anthony Beevor and literary stars like Monica Ali and Anne Enright. Thanks to the festival, the Colombian audience has discovered little treasures like the works of indian autor Kiran Desai, Aminata Forna from Sierra Leone, the Bosnian Sasa Stanisik, and the poetry of Tishani Doshi. Important figures of the Iberoamerican World like Roberto Fontanarrosa, Joan Manuel Serrat, Joaquin Sabina, Miguel Bose and Junot Diaz have also stopped by. In short, the Hay Festival has managed to create a literary and cultural exchange between Europe (including names coming from The Middle East and Africa) and Latin America.
Even though the creation of the Classical Music Festival of Cartagena, what started as Julia Salvi’s dream, did not come as a result of the Hay’s success, it is clear that these two festivals share an ambiance, a scenery and an important international projection. In just four years, the Classical Musical Festival has become the most important of its type in Latin America. In fact, it is one of the few that exist in the continent. Thanks to dedication, professionalism and quality of the invited musicians and orchestras, this festival does not have to envy the world’s most prestigious classical music events, like Salzburg in Austria, Glyndebourne in the United Kingdom, Verona in Italy or Bayreuth in Germany. Its growth in the past few years has been notable. In 2007, more than 20.000 people attended, and it was estimated that more than 100.000 tickets would be sold for this year’s edition, which includes two new stages and concerts in marginal neighborhoods.
The demand has been so high for this last festival that few days after the tickets were up for sale in mid October it was already impossible to access privileged seating, which naturally had critics raging. It was easy to spot young people in line for tickets at six o clock for a concert that started at 10:30 p.m. This has made a once unimportant fact become relevant: there are few spaces for big audiences. The festival’s natural epicenter is the Heredia Theater, which can only seat 800 people, and this makes it necessary to use places like cloisters of Santa Teresa and Santa Clara—with excellent acoustics but little space and limited visibility— within the walled city. Yet, this is a reality for many festivals around the world. Bayreuth and Glyndebourne, for example, are held in small theaters where landing a seat is a miracle. However, the difficulty of it all is a part of their charm and aura.
The facts that Cartagena is one of the architectural and cultural treasures of the Caribbean and that most of the events in both festivals are carried out downtown are maybe the key for their success. Not only because the main stages -Adolfo Mejía theater, Claustro de Santo Domingo, San Pedro Claver square- are walking distance but because the city itself turns into a stage in the classical music festival and a perfect place for casual encounters between the public and the writers in the Hay. The Hay, in fact, inherited its format from the Hay-on-Wye that is carried out in a small city in Wales, with a population of no more than 1.600 people (but that thanks to the festival it has more than 41 bookstores), and that during four days receive 500 writers and 100.000 people. “Cartagena is a historic, cultural and human frame, with great beauty and great contrasts -says Cristina Fuentes, director of Cartagena’s Hay-. These is why it is a festival and not just a series of events”.
What she says is also true for the classical music festival. Other festivals in the world share some of its characteristics, and the main one is the place where they take place: small locations with exceptional historical and cultural background; like Cartagena, that it is not only beautiful, but it is unique in the continent because it has preserved its heritage and it is one of the few walled cities in the world. Because of that, and because it is a first class festival, this year you could see a lot of international press -mainly tourism magazines, but also some media specialized in music- and foreigners who heard about the festival by other travelers that discovered it by chance in the past years.
And although the public in both festivals is different (in past years, the tourists of the Christmas season stayed for the music festival, but every year is more difficult because the specialized assistants demand more tickets), it is clear that Cartagena’s environment attract people and foreign investment. It also keep sponsors’ trust, which is very important in these kind of massive festivals. Peter Florence, Hay director, says that “Colombia has a vibrant energy. It has an attractive mixture of good food, music and attitude. Our objective has been to make a Latin American festival. The rhythm, the spirit and the participation are due to the work of the artists and the public. We are still learning, but we know that we love the way Colombians party”. Because parties in the Hay Festival are huge and integrate culture and celebration.
Beyond the walls
As it was expected, both festivals have been criticized. Some say that they are elitist events which are not made for common Colombians. In the magazines you can always see the elite from Cartagena and Bogotá smiling beside famous writers, politicians and journalists. Meanwhile, the detractors say that in the poorest neighborhoods things are still the same, and media only show part of the city. That critique is in part valid. The festivals are elitist in some way because they are expensive. Is expensive to travel to Cartagena, it is expensive to stay in Cartagena and, although there are some cheap tickets, there is no room in the halls for everybody. But it is absurd to think that a festival can change an inherited social structure. In the other hand, one has to recognize there in an important social and cultural work being done in poor neighborhoods.
The truth is that the festivals gave Cartagena a tourist importance that did not have before. The mouth to mouth effect of tourists from all the world have a multiplying effect. And it is known that tourism is and will always be what promotes development in Cartagena.