Festival Viña Del Mar 2009: The Magic and Mystery of Latin American Music

Below modern apartment buildings that jut into the clouds like a miniature Miami, cars crawled towards the center of Chile’s coastal vacation town Viña del Mar, at a speed barely faster than the people walking alongside the road.

vinafest-gh-01.jpg Leonardo Farkas at Viña del Mar Song Festival. Photo courtesy Gardner Hamilton

It was February 23, the first night of the 50th annual Viña del Mar Festival, and those who could afford the pricey tickets were already on their way to the Quinta Vergara Amphitheater. Just outside the venue vendors gathered to sell completos, churros, foam hands, popcorn, pasteles and concert souvenirs.

vinafest-gh-02.jpg Santana at Viña del Mar Song Festival Photo courtesy Gardner Hamilton

Within the gates of Quinta Vergara, nearly 15,000 fans crowded into the open-air arena for every night of the sold-out event. Oscar Meripangui Calderon, a vendor at the stadium for 45 years, smiled as he looked at the crowded grounds. “It makes me happy to see all the people," he said. "Before, there wasn’t even a stage. Everyone just sat up on the hill with blankets. It is without a doubt the greatest festival in all the world.”

Since its modest trappings in 1949, the event is a unique hybrid: part musical festival, part Starsearch, and part Academy Awards. After a performance, be it a massive act like Daddy Yankee or a local folk singer, the crowd votes with cheers (or jeers) to award the artists with the Silver Torch, Gold Torch, or the highest honor--the Silver Seagull. On the other hand, the ruthless jeers of an unpleased crowd have earned it the nickname, the monster.

vinafest-kc2.jpg KC and the Sunshine Band at Viña del Mar Song Festival. Photo courtesy Omar León Torres

The six-day festival brings some of the hottest international musical acts of today, and often, yesterday. Many Chileans tune in to watch the rich and famous who attend the festival, including this year's lineup of Spanish singer Joan Manual Serrat, Colombian singer and guitarist Juanes, KC and the Sunshine band, Daddy Yankee and Marc Anthony, among others. This year, beloved Chilean businessman Leonardo Farkas made headlines when he bought sandwiches for the entire monster.

But the real draw is the music. With so many performances, the artists have to try hard to impress. And despite the monster’s reputation, they all succeeded.

Mexican trio Camila left the crowd (that night exceptionally full of teenage girls) screaming for more of their catchy pop songs, which presenter Soledad Onetto described as “music to spoon to.”

vinafest-juanes2.jpg Juanes at Viña del Mar Song Festival. Photo courtesy Omar León Torres

Juanes stood out in the festival not only for his musicianship, which earned him the Silver Seagull, but for his inspiring words. Known as a peace activist in his native Colombia, Juanes stressed the importance of unity across Latin America, calling the barriers that separate countries “ridiculous.” Before going into his song “Una Bandera” (One Flag), Juanes called on the audience to “raise those flags” as Colombian, Venezuelan, Chilean and flags of other nations splashed bright colors above the crowd's heads.

In a peculiar follow-up to Juanes’ politically conscious performance, KC and the Sunshine Band took to the stage in front of a boisterous and enthusiastic crowd. After close to two hours of '70s disco hits and KC maneuvering his aging bulk through jumps and spins, the crowd awarded the band with a Silver Seagull.

Carlos Santana performed Wednesday and, unlike his Caucasian counterparts, still embodied what it means to be “cool.” Stylishly dressed, Santana performed his most famous songs, including “Oye como va” and “Smooth,” while casually directing the rest of his band and thrilling the audience, who played air guitar and tapped their feet.

vinafest-marcanthony.jpg Marc Anthony at Viña del Mar Song Festival. Photo courtesy Jorge Villa Moreno

For the Saturday night finale, an extra-long performance by Puerto Rican singer Marc Anthony showcased his perfect salsa singing with suave dance moves and bursts of emotion. While Anthony had the crowd up and dancing, he somehow seemed surprised when he was thunderously cheered by the euphoric crowd.

In the 50 years that Viña has held this festival, hundreds of bands have passed through the Quinta Vergara Stadium. Millions of people have come to watch them, first on blankets atop the steep grassy hillside and now in rows of gleaming metal seats below a massive TV screen. While the festival’s image has changed, the magic of the Festival de la Cancion is still as alluring as it was those many years ago.

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