Casco Viejo: Jamming in the old town

But in the midst of the ancient houses and churches, Shannon J. Effinger discovers, an innovative music programme led by pianist Danilo Pérez

Genetal Tomás Herrera is  commemorated by a statue in the plaza that bears his name. Photograph by Tito HerreraLate afternoon in Plaza Herrera. Photograph by Tito HerreraPhotograph by Tito HerreraPhotograph by Tito HerreraSurrounded by historic buildings, Plaza Independencia is the ideal spot to pass an evening people-watchingThe Golden Altar of the Iglesia de San José. Photograph by Tito HerreraThe Palacio Municipal houses a history museum, while a neighbouring building awaits restoration. Photograph by Tito HerreraWhile parts of Casco Viejo become increasingly gentrified, the historic district are still an ordinary residential neighbourhood.  Photograph by Tito Herrera

My first impressions of Panama City’s Casco Viejo, or Old Town, are comforting. It’s odd how this unknown place — I’ve never visited Panama before — can seem so familiar.

Casa Góngora, for instance, one of the oldest houses in Casco Viejo, looks much like the colonial homes you find in the French Quarter of New Orleans. At the corner of Avenida Central and Calle 4, not far from Plaza Independencia, Casa Góngora was built around 1760 and named for a wealthy merchant of the time. Although the house was substantially restored in the late 1990s, you can appreciate that much of the original architecture — from the yellow trim surrounding the arched windows and second-storey balcony to the original woodwork detail itself — has been preserved. Today it serves as a gallery space for Panamanian artists to showcase exhibitions of their work.

A few blocks south and west, the pristine shimmer of the famous Altar de Oro, or Golden Altar, invites you inside the Iglesia de San José. The Baroque artifact, made of mahogany covered with gold leaf, is a masterpiece of Spanish colonial art. According to legend, when the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan attacked Panama City in 1671, the Altar de Oro was saved by a quick-thinking monk, who covered it with black paint to disguise its value. The ruined Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús, on the other hand, built around 1741, tells an entirely different story. In 1781, just forty years after it was completed, the church was destroyed by a fire, and further damaged by an earthquake in 1882. Currently undergoing reconstruction, the ruined structure’s beauty — the symmetry of the columns on the façade and the varying hues of brown stone and stucco — can still be appreciated.

Exploring the historic district around these monuments, I could believe I was roaming the streets of Rome, of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, or even Bo-Kaap, a multicultural historic neighborhood in Cape Town. But perhaps the place that most sets Casco Viejo apart from other historic cities around the globe — and the reason I’m visiting Panama — is the Antiguo Conservatorio, or Old Conservatory, home of the Fundaciòn Danilo Pérez, established by the celebrated jazz pianist and composer, one of the foremost jazz musicians of our time.

Long the home of Panama’s national music school, the Antiguo Conservatorio on Plaza Herrera is where Pérez — born in 1965 — started his formal music training, at the age of ten. But his musical education had begun years before at home, under the tutelage of his father Danilo, Sr, a professional bandleader and singer. In 1984, the talented youngster moved to the world-renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he developed a signature style blending Panamanian rhythms with the influences of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Before long, Pérez was playing and touring alongside some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz, including Gillespie himself and Wynton Marsalis. But Pérez’s deep roots at home kept tugging him back to Panama. “I had a challenging time developing after a certain point,” says Pérez. “For me to go out [to the United States] and study was a challenge. I wanted to provide some kind of help [to other Panamanian musicians] and be a vehicle for transformation in a way.” Throughout his years abroad, Pérez returned to Panama regularly to perform and work with local musicians. Finally, in 2003, all those informal lessons and jam sessions resulted in the creation of the weeklong Panama Jazz Festival, which Pérez founded together with Carmen Alemán Healy, director of Panama City’s Galería Arteconsult.

Over the past decade, the festival has featured some of the world’s most talented jazz musicians — the 2012 lineup included Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. But from the beginning, music education has been central to the programme. And the international musicians who go to the festival to lead its masterclass series also act as talentspotters and recruiters for leading music schools — like Berklee and the New England Conservatory — who audition prospective students and offer scholarships to the most promising.

Despite the success of the very first festival, its future was not guaranteed, as a lot more than emotional investment was at stake. “Basically, we did the first festival and after that it was pretty scary,” says Pérez. “My wife was pregnant [at the time] and we almost lost the down-payment for my place in Boston.” But Pérez wholeheartedly believed in his vision of a structured, year-round programme for young musicians. “I really wanted to create a platform that would create some continuity,” he says. He also felt it should all take place where it started for him as an aspiring musician, at the Antiguo Conservatorio in Casco Viejo. The result, established in 2005, was the Fundaciòn Danilo Pérez, which works to provide formal music instruction for underprivileged youth, supported by the annual festival.

The foundation’s success is quantified in the many students who have been able to rise above their circumstances and excel. (By one estimate, as many as ten thousand music students have benefited from its programmes over the years.) Saxophonist Carlos Agrazal, for example, was the winner of the foundation’s instrument scholarship, and went on to study at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. Tenor saxophonist Jahaziel Arrocha was awarded a presidential scholarship to pursue his studies at Berklee. Agrazal, Arrocha, and many other young musicians who came out of the foundation have since returned to work as young professors with the potential next crop of talent. The programme’s success was recognised last November, when Pérez was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace, for his philanthropic efforts.

As I enter the Antiguo Conservatorio building, it too feels very familiar, like walking into someone’s living-room you’ve known for a long time. Actually, it feels like being in a traditional brownstone building in New York City, with high ceilings and polished hardwood floors. But perhaps the most inviting thing is the music itself, as the students of various ages greet us with their rendition of “Cantaloupe Island”, to welcome guest of honour Herbie Hancock.

A living jazz legend, Hancock has just been presented with the keys to the city by Panama City Mayor Roxana Méndez. Now he and Wayne Shorter — accompanied by a group of writers, photographers, and radio personalities from all over the world — are visiting the Antiguo Conservatorio to learn more about its groundbreaking work.

Luis Carlos Pérez, saxophonist and co-ordinator of the foundation’s department of education, welcomes us with an introduction to some possible future jazz stars. “These kids are kids from the neighbourhood, which is a pretty sketchy neighborhood,” he says. Most of them come from impoverished circumstances, and have been given little to no guidance along the way. “They have been with us for four years now, and they all play an instrument.” This is partly due to the foundation’s “sharing” model, in which a young professor is partnered with an even younger student. It not only provides for one-on-one instruction, it also gives the young person a mentor to look up to during their early stages of development.

“Spreading the good word and good feeling — sometimes, it’s not with words,” says Hancock, speaking to the young performers. “But it’s with your behaviour, the way you act and the way that you are, because that expresses a lot, which is most important.” Clearly moved by the children’s playing, Hancock can’t contain his own excitement. He jumps right in tandem, turning the experience into an old fashioned jam-session.

Panama’s Casco Viejo may be full of ancient buildings, but here the future of jazz sounds shiny and new.

History lessons

Founded in 1519, Panama City was the first permanent Spanish settlement on the Americas’ Pacific coast. The very oldest part of the city, known today as Panama Viejo, was sacked and mostly destroyed in 1671 by an English militia led by the pirate Henry Morgan. When the city was rebuilt soon after, Spanish authorities chose a new site to the east, which could be protected by fortified walls. This area — known variously as San Felipe, Casco Viejo, and Casco Antiguo — is today the main historic district of Panama City, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.

At the heart of Casco Viejo is tree-shaded Plaza Independencia, where Panamanian patriots declared independence from Spain in 1821 and from Colombia in 1903. On its west side is the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, the city’s main church, dating back to 1688, and famous for its towers, decorated with mother-of-pearl. Also on the plaza is the former archbishop’s palace and the Palacio Municipal, now home to Panama’s national museum of history

Nearby Plaza Bolívar features a statue of the Venezuelan liberator, and is a popular evening hangout. On one side of the square is the Iglesia de San Francisco — built in 1678, destroyed twice by fires in the eighteenth century, and rebuilt in the early twentieth — and on the other is the Iglesia de San Felipe Neri, also restored a century ago. Like the cathedral, it boasts towers encrusted with mother-of-pearl. South-east of Plaza Bolívar, near Casco Viejo’s waterfront, are the Palacio Presidencial — former home of Panama’s colonial governors — and the Teatro Nacional, established by the first president of independent Panama. The theatre’s façade is decorated with sculptures of the muses and effigies of famous writers. It opened in 1908 with a performance of Verdi’s opera Aida and was restored in the 1970s after decades of neglect.

At Casco Viejo’s western end, the Iglesia de la Merced preserves a fragment of older Panama Viejo — its baroque stone façade was salvaged from the sacked city and re-erected here in 1680, flanked by whitewashed belltowers. Plaza Herrera, once the centre of a fashionable residential area, marks the limit of the restored and gentrified portion of the historic city. Here you’ll find old mansions, picturesquely crumbling, an equestrian statue of Panamanian hero General Tomás Herrera, and, to the west, a surviving portion of the old city walls.