Panama has the fastest growing economy in Latin America, but it is also split by class conflicts between rich and poor. Jazz pianist Danilo Perez tries to heal some of those conflicts through free music education.
Nineteen-year-old Isai Henriquez sits down quietly to play an improvised jazz composition at a grand piano. Henriquez, who comes from a working class family, could never afford to buy such a magnificent instrument. His parents couldn't even afford high-quality music lessons.
So Henriquez made his way to the Danilo Perez Foundation, located in the poor Santa Fe neighborhood of Panama City. Created by jazz pianist Danilo Perez in 2005, the Foundation encourages free music education.
"Everything at the Foundation is free for all students," Henriquez told Deutsche Welle. "Classes like this would be very expensive with teachers like Danilo Perez and others."
Henriquez and other students volunteer by answering phones and cleaning floors at the Foundation in lieu of paying fees. But it's still hard for students from poor backgrounds.
"It takes me more or less two hours each way by bus to get to the Foundation. But it doesn't seem far because I do it every day," he said.
The Foundation also sponsors the annual Panama Jazz Festival. Danilo Perez is particularly proud of students like Henriquez who come from the working class and may end up performing professionally at the festival.
"Jazz is becoming relevant to the new generation in Panama," Perez told Deutsche Welle in an exclusive interview. "The festival has a positive impact. Someone from (the poor barrio of) El Chorrillo doesn't normally interact with someone from the Union Club. We have broken all those barriers. I can show you parents who have no jobs and some who own a big factory. And they are both here working as volunteers."
Perez strongly believes that music can help many people, even those who don't become professional musicians
"Music makes visible things that are invisible," he said. "For example, if you have insecurities, music brings it out. Through music, you can work out. I like the therapy of music."
That music therapy can also apply to the sometimes conflicted relationship between the US and Panama. The US has a long history of military domination here, including the 1989 invasion that overthrew former military governor General Manuel Noriega. Beginning in 1904, the US also imposed racial segregation on the country. This lasted into the 1960s and was based on the Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation in public places in southern US states from 1876 until 1965.
Panamanian saxophonist Carlos Garnett grew up in separate housing and attended segregated schools. His father, a dark skinned Panamanian, worked for the Canal Zone as a supervisor. His father "did the same job as the white Americans but received lower pay," Garnett said.
But, he continued, the Americans also brought jobs, clean water and some positive culture to Panama. For example, Garnett learned jazz from the American soldiers based here.
"I grew up a very naïve man," said Garnett. "I was in an idyllic state. Even though prejudice surrounded me it never affected my thoughts or what I wanted to do. In retrospect, the US forces in Panama contributed a lot to the economics of the country."
Over time, Panamanians combined the influences of Africa, Spain, the US and the country's indigenous people into a unique musical culture.
Ricuarte Villarreal teaches and performs folkloric music. He notes that during Spanish colonial rule, slaves came mostly from the Congo. They brought unique drum rhythms.
"Here we see the African influences in the folkloric music," he said.
Getting in the swing
In recent years, Panamanians have combined those folkloric traditions with jazz. Danilo Perez explains that he uses a traditional beat in his latest album, Providencia.
"Galactica Panama is based on a rhythm called tambor norte," he said. "It's not the traditional Cuban clave rhythm that underlies much of Latin jazz. We have a whole different rhythm because of the rolling motion of the drums."
Perez says he teaches his students that good music is more than just good technique. Each song must tell a story, he says.
"I have chosen to tell a story of hope and optimism. I would like the music to be a healing factor for those historical moments we lived through, using the past as a flashlight for the future."
Author: Reese Erlich, Panama City
Editor: Rob Turner/ Rob Mudge