The sandy stage of Formentera’s Blue Bar is crowded as the June light fades over the Mediterranean, and the R&B classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” is carried away into a global soul groove by a dozen artists — including flamenco jazz saxophonist Antonio Lizana, Cuban trumpet player Carlos Sarduy, India-raised (and Berklee-trained) vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy, and bass player Ekkehard Hoffmann, who offers summer electric guitar-building camps at his workshop on the island. Two dogs run around between the mics, and some toddlers bounce with their parents in the space in front of the stage, which at a different kind of concert would be the VIP section. A pile of shoes grows in the sand as glowing women in summer dresses start to dance.
Max Moya Wright, who is grinning as he plays a digital percussion pad, is the party-starter here at the Sunday night jam session, the closing event of the Formentera Jazz Festival. Wright also plays the cajón, and at one point jumps on a table to conduct an ecstatic call-and-response chorus with the crowd that fills every part of the outdoor bar, down to the beach.
Wright is a former member of the influential Barcelona band Ojos de Brujo, and now an administrator at his alma mater, Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain; he grew up in Formentera. The free festival’s main stage, in front of which Wright was frequently approached for a hug during the festivities, was in the church square of Sant Francesc, the island’s biggest town and a site of a convergence of locals and the visitors, who swell the population from a year-round 13,000 to about 45,000 in August, according to official figures.
Featured artists at the festival performed various fusions of progressive jazz, vocal standards, rock and pop and world urban music, Cuban rhythms, flamenco and electronic beats: a programming mix that can recall components of Ojos de Brujo’s innovative sound. The line-up this year, the festival’s third, includes artists who Wright met in Valencia — like the Lithuanian jazz singer Viktorija Pilatovic — as well as in Barcelona, and on his travels as an artist to international festivals. New York’s Nickodemus came in for a late-night DJ set.
The Formentera Jazz Festival is small – there were seven performers on the June 1-4 bill, not including the closing jam session — and has an obvious neighborhood feel. But to call it a “boutique festival” would put a contrived gloss on what Wright describes as “a coming together of great people in a beautiful place.”
Formentera, a half-hour by ferry from Ibiza, became known as a hippie paradise in the late 1960s and ’70s. Its landscape was immortalized in the King Crimson song “Formentera Lady,” an ode to the isle’s “houses iced in whitewash” and “pale shore-line cornered by the cactus and the pine” One of the island’s windmills also graces the trippy cover of Pink Floyd’s 1969 album More.
“Formentera was always just slightly cooler than Ibiza,” says Tony Gartell, a jazz trumpeter from Guernsey who has lived in Formentera for almost 50 years. Gartell and his brother Bruce, a drummer, played in the backup band for Los Mini Locos, a hop-hop group that Wright formed with friends when he was ten years old. (The Gartells can be found playing in a jazz band in front of the Sant Francesc church on Saturday nights this summer).
From the time he was a toddler, Wright lived in a tumble-down mansion called Can Marroig. In the 1980s, his mother, Dana Wright, converted the abandoned building into a cultural center and commune, known for full moon parties in which hundreds of people on the then less-populated island participated. “I relate my background on Formentera with music,” Wright says, explaining that he taught himself to play on instruments that were left in the house between happenings.
“Max was a hippie kid,” recalls Shelley Morris, who was playing bongos at the Jazz Festival jam. Morris shared her memories of the Blue Bar, where in those early days — when Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was among its visitors — she slept out back and swam naked in the sea. She watched from the ocean one day when Spain’s Franco-era Civil Guard arrived and rounded up the other paradise seekers living there for the summer, part of a government campaign to expel undesirables from the island. Today, Blue Bar remains an idyllic spot, now one with an upscale menu and a vibe that’s more hipster than hippie.
On Formentera, the local language, a dialect of Catalan, can still be heard, but Italian is the tongue of the majority of the summer people. One longtime visitor to the island recalled taking a bike ride back in the day with the members of Pink Floyd to show them Illetes beach, a place where “it felt like you could see fairies among the trees.” On a recent afternoon, there were so many yachts parked in front of the overbooked sand there that it looked the set of a reggaeton video.
But there’s no doubt that Formentera maintains its magic, at least at this time of year; its landscape has been protected by anti-development regulations and there are other beaches off the beaten path; its laid-back communal spirit and crystalline waters endure, and you can be awakened by the crow of a rooster in the morning.
“People who were there then come back and they think they’re going to hate it, but they don’t,” Tony Gartell comments.
Wright says that with the Formentera Jazz Festival, he wants “to give back to the island” that raised him. He’s done so by vitalizing live performance in a place where, as Gartell tells it, musicians have been overshadowed by DJs since the dawn of disco, and cobbled until recently by strict restrictions on playing live music in bars and restaurants. (The festival had to overcome its own particularly local challenges, like having to stop a sound check at the request of a priest who came out of the church to complain it was interrupting Mass.)
For the audience, the no-hype, no-brand signage, no-wristband festival offers the gift of spontaneity, a chance to stumble upon an artist who’ve you’ve never heard of performing. Wright’s “little help from my friends” (and some government and local commercial sponsors) event is a showcase for new, or at least not-widely-known talent — to name a few more: Nesrine Belmokh, Mel Semé, and the Norberto Rodriguez Band. Antonio Lizana, the Southern Spanish flamenco singer and saxophonist who appeared with his quartet, deserves mentioning again.
The seaside jam session, with its good vibes and captivated crowd, seemed like a nod to those parties at Wright’s old Formentera home (which has has since taken over by the government as part of a nature preserve.) The next morning, Wright, looking sleepy and holding his infant son in his arms, could be found seeing friends off at the ferry dock. He gave the concert his own seal of approval: “It was like 1969!”