Twenty years ago, Jose Elias watched A Joyful Noise, a documentary about the life and music of experimental jazz great Sun Ra. The film made a significant impact on Elias at the
After viewing the film, Elias began organizing what is now a cultural institution in Miami, the Afro Roots World Music Festival. What started out as a Sun Ra tribute night at the sorely missed Tobacco Road is now a respected world music festival celebrating its 20th anniversary with a set of concerts spanning South Florida from Jupiter to Miami Beach to Key West through June. Bringing Elias' vision full circle, Afro Roots will host a performance by the Sun Ra Arkestra at the North Beach Bandshell on April 7.
From the beginning, Elias has viewed Afro Roots simultaneously as a festival and “a community outreach program that teaches people about culture through music.” He says one of the reasons the festival continues 20 years after its inception is that he and his Community Arts and Culture nonprofit organization have never lost track of Afro Roots' stated mission of bringing the music of the African diaspora to underserved areas.
The festival has gone through its share of growing pains. Elias says he had to fine-tune his model to take into account that though Miami is richly culturally diverse, Afro Roots is a niche festival in a city that isn't a live music mecca. Some of the artists he's booked in the past, he says, command audiences in the millions in Africa, but in
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"Ultimately, the biggest struggle is to get really, really big crowds out there, because I feel like world music — even though it is appreciated down here — it is still a very particular niche," Elias says. "We're not the kind of festival that’s making huge profits like Ultra. That’s not the point."
Nevertheless, Elias carries on with his mission as he has over the past two decades. He's expanded Afro Roots beyond Miami-Dade this year, including a weekend of performances in Jupiter featuring his own band Cortadito and Haitian roots artist Sanba Zao. In mid-May, Afro Roots will go on the road for a three-day festival in Key West. Shows in Key Largo and Islamorada will follow.
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Next up for Elias is producing a series of studio recordings, aptly called Afro Roots Recordings, as part of the festival's 20th-anniversary celebration. “Some of them are artists who have performed at the festival that I’ve produced, and really, in the end, most of these recordings are going to be cultural preservations,” he says.
Elias plans to release a compilation at first, followed by full-length studio recordings of the artists he's booked over the years. "I'm coming at it from the perspective of a fan and as a musician as well. For me, it's an honor and a privilege to be able to work with some of these artists."
The Road to Afro Roots World Music Festival. 4 p.m. Friday, January 26, and Saturday, January 27, at Guanabanas Island Restaurant & Bar, 960 N. Highway A1A, Jupiter; 561-747-8878; communityartsandculture.org. Admission is free.
Afro Roots World Music Festival With Sun Ra Arkestra. 7 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets are $25 to $30 via seetickets.us.