18 years ago, Jose Elias, a self professed “world music nerd,” thought to put together a one-off tribute to the iconic artist Sun Ra at Tobacco Road. His curation of the event called attention to what he quickly realized was a hunger for African-derived music in Miami.
“There were a lot of things going on there that weren't commonly happening in Miami as far as music,” he recalls.
“What led me to decide to continue was just the gratitude that I received from everyone that was there that night. The whole idea was to celebrate African culture in our community through music.”
After spending three years at Tobacco Road, Elias wanted to take the festival to different neighborhoods and communities in Miami. The festival continued at the St. John’s on the Lake Church in Miami Beach. Annual follow-ups to that initial tribute night eventually became known as the Afro Roots World Music Festival, which will celebrate its 18th installment this Saturday at the North Beach Bandshell.
While at the St. John’s location, Elias founded the Community Arts and Culture nonprofit, which in 2014 was awarded a $40,000 grant by the Knight Foundation. The organization is now the official host of the Afro Roots Festival, and continues the original goal of spreading knowledge and awareness of African culture’s important role in Miami.
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When compiling a lineup, Elias draws upon countries whose immigrant populations are strongly represented in South Florida — Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Colombia, and Jamaica. “All these countries were colonized at one point or another, but yet look at all the evolutions that took place musically. I work with a lot of African artists and they love working with Cuban artists, Haitian artists, and Brazilian artists, because in a way, we took what was given to us through the cultures that came to the New World by way of the slave trade and we did something with it."
At around the same time Elias was starting the festival, Baritone sax player Garrick Smith of the music ensemble Chicago Afrobeat Project — which will play a set at Saturday’s event — was turned on to the music of Fela Kuti, the founder of the Afrobeat genre, by a friend. “I got into it wholeheartedly. Loved everything about it from the grooves to the message and the entire story behind Fela and how larger than life he was. Flash forward to today, it's a good platform for us to be able to bring up things that are going on in today's culture and society, and addressing it a little bit through music, trying to get people of all cultures up and dancing and having a good time with one another.”
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One of those people who will undoubtedly be having a good time on Saturday is Aurelio Martinez. The singer/songwriter, who will be performing at the Afro Roots Festival, is recognized all over the world as a representative of the Garifuna people, who are the descendants of Carib, Central African, and West African peoples and live mostly in Central America.
“The Garifuna people are a great example of survival and resistance by a culture,” says Martinez. “Today I continue to sing in the Garifuna language, but I am a representative of the entire journey of the Garifuna people. I was born with two mother tongues: Spanish and Garifuna. I don't only represent Honduras.”
In speaking for his culture he echoes the mission statement of the Afro Roots Festival, adding, “I always speak about the Garifuna Nation when I speak about my culture because countries and flags have divided the world and its people, and through my music I aim for the coexistence and unity of people rather than allegiance to one flag.”
Aurelio. 18th Annual Afro Roots World Music Festival. 5 p.m. Saturday, September 3, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; NorthBeachBandshell.com. Tickets cost $15 via brownpapertickets.com.