In the seaside resort city of Viña, there were protests on the opening night of the festival, with groups burning cars and throwing tear gas in front of the historic O’Higgins Hotel, which is seen as a symbol of the festival and which for years hosted its VIP guests.
Damage from the protests led to the closure of the hotel, one of the many casualties of the current social unrest, including a drop in tourism and cancelation of concerts and festivals. But Viña, the longest-running and biggest Latin American music festival, forged on. All six days offered performances from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., and all were televised to a continent-wide audience of 250 million. At least three of those nights -- the first featuring Ricky Martin, the fifth with Maroon 5 and the last with Ozuna -- were sell-outs. Here are the highlights of the week.
The grand finale
Ozuna delivered a show big on hits and high on musical quality. Performing with a full band, the Puerto Rican star underscored, yet again, that he is not merely an urban act, but an outstanding singer with a versatile, nuanced voice up to par with the top pop stars. Ozuna has also upped his show, adding a group of dancers which were decidedly a cut above from most urban acts and which he used sparingly, another bonus point for him. Instead, he continues to impress us with the singing, the musicianship and the way he thoroughly dominates the stage.
If this is the future of urban music, it bodes well. As far as politics go, Ozuna was, as ever, diplomatic.
“Thank you God, thank you Chile,” he said at one point. "I know nothing of politics. But I do know you have to listen to the people. Chile, I'm with you. Everything can be done with peace. I love you."
The competition winners
The heart of Viña del Mar is its competition component, which has existed since the festival first launched six decades ago. This year, over 4,000 contestants from around the world submitted submissions for the folk and international categories. Six competed in each.
In the early hours of Saturday morning Argentina’s Nahuel Pennisi, a blind singer-songwriter who plays the guitar in a horizontal position and has an otherworldly voice, was the unanimously chosen winner for songwriter and performer in the folk category with the song “Avanzar,” a beautiful, haunting ballad. Pennisi is now signed to Sony Music.
The winning song in the international category was “Chillán,” an ode to a small Chilean city written and performed by Chilean singer/songwriter Vicente Cifuentes. The lilting bachata was fresh and distinctive. Ecuador’s Johann Vera, who also competed in La Banda on Univision, won best performance for his son “Perdón.” (Disclosure: the author of this article was a member of the jury at this year's Viña del Mar festival.)
Politics were an inescapable part of this year’s festival. On the one hand, there was a concerted effort by a small, but vocal group of protesters calling for the festival to be canceled. Security inside and outside the venue was beefed up and there was a noticeable presence of national police forces in the city. On opening night, sources say stones were thrown at one of the vans carrying Ricky Martin’s staff, and artists and festival jury were transported with security detail.
In the end, every night of the festival went off without a hitch, and the 15,000 people who went every night to Quinta Vergara were able to enjoy each evening without incident. But it was a very politically vocal crowd. On Day 2, in particular, when Mon Laferte performed, the night was full of anti-government slogans and chants. Political commentary and jokes also dominated the nightly stand-up comedy routines, a festival signature. And of course, there was Laferte’s performance, a political showdown on its own.
Beyond the headliners, typically the closing acts at Viña are rising stars who have already made an important mark and who will likely return to the festival as headliners in future years (as was the case with Laferte). This year, closing slots included Pedro Capó on opening night, who, in the midst of the success of his hit “Calma,” delivered a show full of good vibes and rich, tropical beats.
Argentina’s Luciano Pereyra, a fan favorite in Chile who plays a mix of pop and folk music, delivered a beautiful, emotional set to a huge ovation. The closing night went to Chilean rising star Denise Rosenthal, an actress, singer and composer with a very unique show and approach. Throughout the week, Rosenthal -- who was also part of the jury -- made female empowerment her rallying cry, wearing a t-shirt with the different face of a Chilean female icon every evening. On Friday, she performed with an all-female band and a group of all-female dancers, delivering the kind of coherent, excellent and empowering message we wish we could see more often in Latin music.