San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rain and Music Aplenty at Rainforest Aid

AMAPOLA, OsaPeninsula – The people came to rock out for a cause. They came to rock the rain forest. And already they were talking about next year – next year it would be better, they said.

While the turnout was lower than expected for its first year, Rainforest Aid 2009, last weekend’s three-day music festival to promote rain forest conservation, was handled with the weighty importance the cause deserved, and the rainy weather and sparse audience were never permitted to dampen the mood.

Organizers were filled with enthusiasm, and the bands often played as if the soccer field they were playing on were dense with dancing fans shouting conservationist chants. The simple field was transformed into a tropical concert venue, with bamboo structures providing the feel of the jungle.

In keeping with the concert’s conservationist theme, organizers constructed compost toilets, served food on banana leaves and in bamboo bowls, and recycled every piece of recyclable trash.

While no one questioned the initiative of the event, it was not without technical difficulties. Just arriving at the concert site proved a logistical jungle that had to be tamed, with the venue situated 17 kilometers north of Puerto Jiménez, in the remote southwest corner of the country.

Some felt that the festival’s organizers bit off more than they could chew this first year, as the large site spread educational booths for environmental organizations away from the music and the crowd.

Rainforest Aid did manage to play a lot of music, however – for the most part, high-quality music, following a long tradition of music festivals held in support of beautiful ideals.

“And that is super tuanis,” noted emcee “Rasta Steve,” the aging voice of the festival, whose shoulder-length dreadlocks, thick beard and broken Spanish became representative of the weekend.

Each day, dozens of Gringo activists unfolded their lawn chairs in the normally quiet soccer field and rocked in support of the rain forest. However, few Ticos were present. Some attributed this to insufficient publicity in Spanish, while others said the entrance fees were too high.

“The information was bad,” said Alexander Retana, owner of Finca Köbö, a chocolate farm that lent property to the festival.

Almost no one from the tiny village of Amapola, where the event was held, attended the concerts because people felt the event was “by Gringos, for Gringos,” he said.

“Almost everything is in English. I understand that it’s the first year and there are going to be problems, but one of the most important things is to have more Spanish,” Retana added.

When classic rock rang out from an electric guitar, the Gringo-heavy crowd would get up, close their eyes and feel the music. The end results were torsos leaning slightly forward as heads shook, arms shot back and forth and hips gyrated.

Some made the walk to the other end of the field and looked at locally made jewelry or paid $5 to have someone else plant a tree. Many of those gathered saw the event as a nice social call, as retired expats came in from Puerto Jiménez and other Southern Zone towns such as Dominical and San Isidro de El General.

“It’s been mostly social for us,” said U.S. expat John Rockwell, who drove in from Dominical for the Sunday festivities.

The heat was stifling when it wasn’t raining, but rainless spells were few and far between. Some noted that hosting a festival in the rain forest during the rainy season might not have been the best idea. But whenever it rained, Rasta Steve calmly reminded everyone: “It’s called the rain forest for a reason.”

And no amount of rain could spoil some of the great performances that made their way to the remote site – all for free, in support of the rain forest.

For the Sunday finale, noted Tico musician Manuel Obregón and U.S. fiddler Nancy Buchan created a beautifully harmonized mixture of piano and violin, with a backdrop of video and sounds from the rain forest projected on the stage behind them. Lightning flashes outlined the canopy rising up behind the stage and dotted the crowd green and red when the light reflected off umbrellas.

A number of other great bands – both international and Tico – made their way to the concert, providing everything from heavy metal to reggae to U.S. Southern blues. This was the great redeemer, some said, for the price of admission, which ran from ¢10,000 ($17) per day for Costa Ricans and residents to $49 for foreign visitors.

“It’s a fine price for the event and all the bands that are playing,” said Juan Gabriel Rodríguez, a Tico who lives nearby and helped set up the site.

But most maintained that the price was on the high side, many using gradually degenerating language after drinking beers sold for three times the off-site price.

Though it was still unclear at press time how much the event raised, organizers said the proceeds will go toward building a sustainable landfill on the Osa Peninsula, constructing monkey bridges and organizing youth environmental education programs.

In spite of the organizational snags and low attendance, interest seemed high for Rainforest Aid 2010, and many were already noting ways the festival could be improved.

A simpler program and courting of the local population were two of the more popular ideas for the future.

“I told my friends I was going down to Osa for this festival, and no one believed me. No one knew about it,” said Esteban Arias, a Costa Rican artist from San Isidro de El General.

Start small and slowly grow year by year, Retana suggested.

“They brought these expectations to the local community that they’re not going to be able to deliver in the end,” he said. “The festival was for helping the rain forest. The community should be here, but there is no community … In the end, it was only for music and fun.” Maybe next year, they said.

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