You’ll pulse to the beat of island music fests

Puerto Rico moves to a beat; it’s in the air, and everywhere you turn. The island isn’t just a tropical paradise; it’s a sonic sensation.

By Peter Martin
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San Juan is the live music capital of the Caribbean, where great music is as constant as the sunshine. You can listen to a romantic bolero in an Old San Juan courtyard, bougainvillea resplendent against Spanish tile, or ride the brash rhythmic thrusts of a smoking salsa band or a percolating merengue performance poolside at an Isla Verde resort.

Listen to some American standards performed by a brilliant pianist on the ground floor bistro of the city’s most iconic art deco building, or catch a Latin big band performing in the cool lobby of an oceanfront hotel in Condado.


Puerto Rico’s capital city also has a dizzying array of larger music venues with its top site being the Puerto Rico Coliseum Jose Miguel Agrelot, which has attracted everyone from the Rolling Stones (who has the record for gross ticket sales in a single show) to Madonna to Metallica (who holds the greatest attendance record with over 17,000 visitors).

You can also hear a beautiful famous Russian soprano or a renowned symphony at the Luis A Ferre Arts Center, and cutting-edge jazz exponents from the island, across the region and the U.S. in monthly jazz concerts at an oceanfront park.

At the bayside Bahia Urbana, you can find anything from a Queen tribute band, to Spanish pop acts like Jarabe del Palo and Los Enanitos Verdes, local rock heroes La Secta All Stars, and famous reggae and reggaeton acts, among others. 

If you savor sweet sound, the island will fulfill any musical desire, whether you’re craving brazen salsa, cutting edge Latin jazz, flawless classical music, or various forms of live pop, from rock en español to the latest contagious rave rhythms from an amazing array of electronic music DJs. In every genre, there are local heroes and an endless stream of global stars touching down for performances throughout the year. Something that sounds sensational is flowing every evening, so check out who is playing at any of Puerto Rico’s many live music venues, including coliseums and stadiums, as well as well-known hotels, clubs, and restaurants.

The live music offerings are replicated across the island in coastal, mountain and urban performance venues, and popular clubs, and restaurants. Most of the 78 island towns celebrate patron saint festivals (fiestas patronales), with each town identified with its own saint. Music is part of the celebration; you’ll see top name local music acts for free in a laid back party but family-friendly environment, with food and drink kiosks. And there are club and concert venues across the island.

Wherever you go on this jumping 100 by 35 square mile island, you’ll find yourself in the sway of joyous rhythm.

To really immerse yourself in the sonic pleasures of Puerto Rico, there are a number of not to miss music festivals that attract locals and tourists alike.

The best thing about San Juan, Puerto Rico, is that even though you are in the tropics you can savor some of the more exquisite experiences of classical culture, which are more often associated with cities like Vienna or New York. You can embrace the anguished beauty of Bach Cello Suites played live or an electrifying symphony orchestra breathing life into a centuries-old masterpiece.

San Juan has sophisticated classical music throughout the year, but the city’s Casals Festival in late February and March is the best opportunity to savor classical music anywhere in the Caribbean. The festival spreads out in a series of concerts, recitals, and related events over a two-week period. Whether a sublime Baroque choir is your thing, or an exotic orchestra riveting through Tchaikovsky, this music festival is for you. For decades, this festival has been drawing world-class classical music talent from across the globe as well as providing a showcase for a deep repository of local talent since famed cellist Pablo Casals started the festival in 1957.

There is perhaps no more refined experience than luxuriating along palm fringe beaches by day, while experiencing in the evenings up close and personal soul-stirring classical music performances from inspired world talents. The Casals Festival is your best ticket for it.

You don’t know cool until you saunter through the Heineken Jazz Fest, a three-day festival from March 17-20, 2016; which brings you the world’s best exponents of Latin jazz, the most effervescent of this genre’s multiple veins. Fresh off its 25th birthday, the festival has been bringing an all-star lineup of insanity year after year. The biggest names have been saying present to this show for more than two decades, including David Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri, Mongo Santamaria, Miguel Zenon, Gato Barbieri, Alex Acuña, Paquito D’ Rivera and Giovanni Hidalgo. The festival also attracts more traditional jazz greats like George Benson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Steve Khan, as well as jazz fusion pioneers like Spyro Gyra and Chick Corea. 

There’s a lot of flavor in the music here, with salsa and other tropical rhythms thrown into the mix. Don’t miss outstanding local players like Humberto Ramirez, or that student band from the Berklee School of Music that plays every year. The setting is part of the dream, with the open-air Tito Puente Amphitheater, surrounded by lush tropical fields and glimmering ponds. 

You can get a taste of the late spring Heineken Jazz Festival every month at the Ventana al Jazz, also produced by Heineken, which takes place on the last Sunday of each month at the beachfront Ventana del Mar park in the heart of Condado. It’s a heavenly setting for a thrilling musical performance, a natural green plaza fronting palm and Caribbean pine trees and swath of precious beachfront.

The park is bordered exquisitely restored La Concha and Vanderbilt hotels, and surrounded by towering residential palaces and spectacular designer name emporiums. 

The luxuriant setting, which pulses on the fresh sea breeze and the gorgeous coast, only deepens the warm buzz of the infectious jazz played here. The fun crowd is comprised by local jazz aficionados, families, the young and beautiful, and tourists from everywhere. Like the Heineken Jazz Festival, the focus is Latin jazz, infused with the tropical rhythms of classic salsa and merengue, and harks back to samba, boogaloo, Bossa Nova, and mambo. Recent performances have included Jose Furito Diaz, Andy Montanez, and the Chembo Corniel Quintet, among many others. This has become one of San Juan’s most popular and prominent musical experiences, and it’s a must-see if you are in San Juan the last Sunday of any month.  Bring a beach chair and arrive early (show opens at 4:30 p.m.) if you want to sit back and groove during the show.

Not to be outdone, the Carolina International Jazz Festival (held in a public outdoor amphitheater forum right off Isla Verde’s ocean-side drive in August) is phenomenal, bringing a litany of international jazz greats to Puerto Rico from across styles and cultures. The eclectic event always surprises, and never disappoints. There’s been in your face U.S. swing, and homages to Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as roaring salsa and more basic, percussion driven Afro-Caribbean rhythms, complete with entranced chants. It’s eclectic (even having a Whitney Houston homage), but it’s a big event – always swinging for the fences and mostly connecting. There’s ample emphasis on nurturing local talent, but it also ensures the top stars it signs up will do something unique. The festival’s de facto house band – the Luis Perico Ortiz Big Band – has got it all, and delivers it all every year.

Puerto Rico is the birthplace of the World Salsa Congress, a days-long dancing competition held in July, with a swirl of activities surrounding the main event, including dance parties and workshops, with the original being held here in 1997.

While the salsa dance festivals have replicated across the Americas, Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, the island’s simmering show remains the piece de resistance in world salsa dancing.

You’ll see the finest salsa dancers in the world, a sensual movement accentuated by some of the finest clothing in any competitive arena. You don’t know what smooth and stylish means until you see this. And the music will have you sashaying your hips as you watch.

Also for Salsa Music lovers there’s the 33rd edition of National Salsa Day (Dia Nacional de la Salsa) to take place on March 13, 2016 at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. This musical event in Puerto Rico brings together some of the biggest Salsa music stars for an unforgettable day of hot music and dance. If you want to experience some live salsa then this is the place to be. Past performers have included Ismael Miranda, Pupi Cantor, El Gran Combo, La Sonora Ponceña, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, Frankie Ruiz Jr, among many others.

The iconic Caribe Hilton hotel in San Juan shares its heritage by means of the San Geronimo Festival, a dinner show held the first Sunday of every month. This festival is a cultural journey through the traditional rhythms and dances of Puerto Rico. It is combined with an extensive buffet of typical dishes served al fresco at the Atlantic Gardens overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the 17th century San Geronimo Fort as a backdrop.

There’s no doubt that Puerto Rico hosts a range of music festivals year round where you’ll get to meet plenty of happy, sun-kissed travelers, explorers and locals. The music will make anyone with a pulse dance.

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