What is Sinfonia Latina?
The short answer: A celebration of music, sound, culture and art in one place for all people.
The background: What happens when boundaries between class structures, political parties and art genres are blurred? People come together and recognize what connects us all, a love for life and an appreciation for diversity and the talents inherent in every person.
No one would have thought this sentiment outright back in 1976 when Roberto McCausland Dieppa, 16, took merged his classical piano training with street musicians playing rock, jazz, salsa, reggae and other styles. Roberto, himself, had no preconceived notions about what he was doing. He was a kid from an affluent family who’d spent his early years hanging out with his grandfather, Carlos Dieppa, a successful industrialist whose shops assembled appliance parts for several large companies including General Electric, Westinghouse and the Ford Motor Company. An extremely disciplined planner and worker, Carlos took his grandson to work in the factories where Roberto was exposed to a completely different world.
“I had no set ideas about what was appropriate music or not,” Roberto says. “I took a liking to the piano, and my grandfather recognized that I would benefit from a good instructor. So, I started learning the classics like Beethoven and Ravel and Mozart. But then, I’d go to work with my grandfather, and his workers were listening to the Beatles, Motown, and jazz. Little did I know, I was synthesizing all these styles and starting to incorporate them into something new. Sinfonia Latina turned into the natural extension of that.”
Without ever having to be formally taught, Roberto learned about art, poetry, music and the importance of having a solid work ethic. Carlos was Roberto’s main influence, and he got used to poets and artists visiting his grandfather every evening. He ate dinner with Nobel Prize winners, and took a liking to Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez who wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude.” This artistic background became the backdrop of Roberto’s childhood. He was tucked in bed when the musicians would begin playing classical music on the grand piano in Carlos’ foyer. “I’d fall asleep listening to classical guitar, violins and the piano, of course,” Roberto recalls. “I thought that’s the way life was for everyone. I thought that everyone had a grandfather who worked hard, made a good life and appreciated culture. It wasn’t until I left Barranquilla at a teen that I realized how lucky I had been.”
Outside of the Dieppa home in the village of Colombia’s Barranquilla, a beautiful theatre sat, half restored, waiting to be summoned to life. The Municipal Theatre, was a project that politicians and business leaders had promised to restore in the early 1970s, but by 1976, after work had halted for years, artists, performers and audiences had lost faith that the project would ever finish.
Until Roberto got an idea to form a band.
“I had a friend who was really into original music,” he says. “He was a little older and knew other musicians. He had a friend who could get us equipment. Plus, we knew we had a theater that no one else was using at the time. It would be a perfect venue. So, we started working.”
Without a formal game plan, Roberto assembled a core group of 16 musicians from all walks of life and various styles of musicianship. All of a sudden, classical people were rubbing elbows with jazz players and street musicians. They were sharing licks and ideas. People who played in the style of Carlos Santana or Emerson, Lake & Palmer were hearing Beethoven and recognizing similar motifs. These musicians found a second tier of about 15 more musicians to enhance their sound, and the repertoire grew. Then, they brought in a Spanish choir. And dancers.
“We were writing with the intensity of a Beethoven, and bringing Latin influences into the big picture,” Roberto says. “Then, when the choir joined in, the whole project took on a new dimension.”
This was all organized in an era before the Internet and cell phones. These teens and young adults got together three-four times per week for nine months to practice before the show was performed. None of the performers had any expectations. They just knew that they loved what they were doing and they hoped a good crowd would appreciate their effort.
On the day of May 7, 1976, more than 3,000 people crammed themselves into a standing-room theater. Some perched on interior scaffolding. An additional 5,000 stood outside, just to be able to hear this new musical style. And, for the first time in many of their lives, high-society people stood alongside of shopkeepers, waiters, bartenders and maids. And, the music delivered something to all of them.
The performance had a classical structure, lots of rhythm and the choir sang in the native tongue of the audience. Everyone could understand them, which was a refreshing change of pace. The event Sinfonia Latina drew more than 8,000 people who experienced unity through art and music.
“This is the power of music,” Roberto says. “Everyone was equal. I’ll never forget how surprised the musicians and I were at the avalanche of attention it got. Yes, we wanted a good crowd, but when we saw what came because of the broad appeal of various genres, we knew we had created something special.”
Music and art critics agreed. The event was dubbed the first of its kind and was called “culturally persistent music for everyone.” People heard pop, rock, classical, jazz, salsa, bebop and other genres they’d never heard of. Electric guitars screamed Jimi Hendrix riffs during transitions encompassing Bach and Tchaikovsky. Dancers took the stage and mesmerized audiences with a blend of ballet and cabaret. One young lady wearing nothing but body paint and feathers shocked not only the audience but the band as well.
What did Roberto’s mom and dad think?
“They were stunned,” he laughs. “My mom thought I was crazy, but she couldn’t deny the effect we had. She came to the show expecting to hear a traditional classical performance. She got more than she bargained for.”
Sinfonia Latina, the 1976 project that synthesized class structures and music genres into an event that celebrated life, became the catalyst that jumpstarted the theater’s restoration. It was finished in 1983.
“I look back at what we did, and I still shake my head,” Roberto says. “This is truly what art is capable of. Art and music force us to tap into both our creative and organizational talents. Artists need to work together, cast aside differences and put on a show. Eight thousand people experienced unity within diversity. Eight thousand people all appreciated music, laughter, rhythm, dance and the best skills that only disciplined practice can produce.”
It’s about to happen again. In a world of cultural discord, the time to look to music to unite has never been more necessary.
Roberto has been working with a troupe of musicians on blending classical, popular, jazz, Latin, rock and other genres. Their work will be performed in Washington DC in the fall of 2019 and then again in Roberto’s beloved Municipal Theatre in Barranquilla in the spring of 2020. Other shows are being planned.
Dates and times will be announced this summer. My team and I are excited to share this musical adventure with the world. Our entire schedule and upcoming plans will be announced on the website and in social media. Stay tuned!