2 p.m.-until Sat.-Sun., Oct. 9-10
Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, 1380 Port of New Orleans Place
Tickets $20 in advance, $25 at the door, $35 weekend pass
Historians say Latin sounds first became a major ingredient in New Orleans music in 1884, when the 80-piece concert band of the 8th Mexican Cavalry — which included musicians from all over the Caribbean and Latin America — began a half-year residency at the "World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition" in Audubon Park. Now, more than a century later in post-Katrina New Orleans, the size of the local Latino population has finally begun to match that of its cultural influence. Recent studies have singled out the Hispanic community as the fastest growing ethnic group across Louisiana. So has the time finally come for a major festival of Latin culture in New Orleans, one that may someday rival the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for international appeal to culture-loving tourists?
The organizers of Carnaval Latino (Oct. 9-10) believe the annual celebration is poised for a major breakthrough. "We don't want to do just another neighborhood festival," says Carnaval Latino co-founder Romualdo "Romi" Rodriguez. "To help the city and to help our local Latino musicians, you've got to have this kind of large-scale festival. But it's a year-round project to sell this. It's not easy."
Carnaval Latino began in 1989 and ran until 1995, when a number of new festivals were introduced across the region and sponsorship money became scarce. It was revived in 2007, in part because of the influx of Hispanics to the area. Now a presentation of the nonprofit Hispanic-American Musicians and Artists Cultural Association, Carnaval Latino finds its purpose in musical and culinary offerings that put a spotlight on the great variety of Latin cultures while appealing to both Hispanic and nonHispanic audiences. Headliners for this year's festival include chart-toppers Los Lonely Boys, which blends Texas rock and blues with Tejano music, and most significantly, Omara Portuondo, perhaps the most well-known living exponent of traditional Cuban music across the globe, thanks in part to her participation in the 1997 documentary film and album Buena Vista Social Club.
Portuondo last appeared in New Orleans more than a decade ago with a concert at the Saenger Theatre. But her long absence was not by choice. "After George W. Bush came into power, all musical exchanges with Cuba were stopped," Rodriguez says. "Obama has relaxed these rules. In 1959, Havana was the number one trading partner for the city of New Orleans. Some have suggested that when they slammed that embargo on Cuba, they also slammed it on us. There's a real change in the air, and we're excited to be a part of it."
Carnaval Latino presents 16 Latin bands on two stages. Local favorites include Latin dance bands Rumba Buena and Fredy Omar con Su Banda, and Afro-Cuban jazz purveyors Otra. Each day will feature a leading band from Honduras: Los Silver Star on Saturday, and Casabe on Sunday. Ten food vendors will be on hand throughout the weekend, offering tastes of Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, and other countries. An amusement park has been added to this year's festivities.