San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

International Guitar Festival Celebrates Strings

The 17th Costa Rican International Guitar Festival is set to bring guitarists from around the world to San José’s National Theater next week.

Luis Zumbado, the festival’s founder and organizer, is a man with such love for the guitar and the music it inspires that he can hardly keep himself from constantly humming the melodies of his favorite guitar concertos. It is this level of passion that created Costa Rica’s first and longest-running international music festival, drawing praise and attention from all over the world.

The Costa Rican International Guitar Festival has hosted acts like Spanish classical guitar virtuoso Pepe Romero and Andy Summers, guitarist of famed ’80s rock band The Police. This year, respected musicians and guitar-driven groups from Cuba, Ecuador, Spain, France, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States will perform Sept. 29 through Oct. 3 in the National Theater, the cultural jewel of the capital.

The idea for a guitar festival in Costa Rica spawned and evolved in Zumbado’s brain while he was studying in Spain for several years. Living in a country where guitar is king, he made it a point to attend as many guitar festivals as he could. Although he plays classical guitar himself, he grew bored of seeing only classical performances and imagined a multi-day festival in which listeners could hear diverse styles of playing. By 1982 he was back in Costa Rica, and, five years later, he successfully organized his ideas and gave birth to the Costa Rican International Guitar Festival.

“Since the beginning (of the festival) I always tried to show the guitar within different genres of music,” Zumbado told The Tico Times. “It always absorbs the personality, the roots, the essence of the communities in which it lives.”

This year’s festival will be no different. Guitar aficionados will hear styles ranging from classical to Cuban and everything in between. There will be solo and group performances, including guitar orchestras from Costa Rica and the United States.

U.S. guitarist Bob Culbertson with his 12-string “stick.”

U.S. guitarist Bob Culbertson with his 12-string “stick.”

“The instrument is the same. What is different are the kinds of music that can be played with it. I want to show people the diversity of music that can be made with the guitar,” Zumbado said.

Bob Culbertson, a professional guitarist from San José, California, who toured through Australia and North America this year, plays a style of music that is uniquely his own. He calls it “world fusion.” The genre incorporates elements of jazz, classical, Middle Eastern and Celtic music, among other influences.

What makes Culbertson’s music really stand apart, however, is the instrument on which it is played: an electric 12-string bass-guitar hybrid called “the stick.” Instead of playing with traditional strumming and picking methods, the stick requires the musician to adopt an intricate tapping technique, a skill Culbertson has cultivated over the past 33 years. 

“Each hand plays an independent part,” Culberson said. “The left hand plays bass and chords, and the right hand plays chords and melody.”

Culbertson will perform the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 2, following Santos y Zurdo, a Costa Rican and Argentine duo that uses sitar and synthesizers in addition to guitars.

The festival is more than just concerts, Zumbado said. It is an opportunity for musical and cultural education. Every year, the festival holds a contest in which students from every Costa Rican musical institute compete in two categories, intermediate and advanced. Competitors play pieces of their choice as well as required pieces written by Costa Rican composers and chosen by Zumbado. Thirty-five students entered the competition this year.

Zumbado sees the competition not only as a way to motivate Costa Rican guitarists and composers, but also as a vehicle for sharing Costa Rica’s important musical heritage.

“This is how Costa Rica becomes culturally richer,” he said.

The winners of both categories will share the stage with all the week’s performers during the festival’s closing concert Sunday, Oct. 3. They also will receive guitars made by internationally renowned luthiers from Costa Rica and Mexico.

For the festival program, see the Calendar pages or visit Tickets are available at the National Theater box office and range in price from ₡8,000 to ₡15,000 ($16 to $30) for all events except the closing concert, which costs ₡10,000 to ₡17,500 ($20 to $35). Those who pay with a Banco Nacional card receive a 15 percent discount; students and senior citizens get a 10 percent discount. The box office is open Monday to Saturday from 9 to 4 p.m. and can be reached at 2221-5341.

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