Meet Jose Elias: Musician, Consultant, Visionary Music Festival Producer
If an award were given for Multitasker of the Month, South Florida musicianturned- arts entrepreneur Jose Elias likely would win hands down. Besides regularly fronting either of his two groups, Nag Champayons and Cortadito, Elias occasionally lends guitar and tres support to Conjunto Progreso and the Spam Allstars, among others. As well, when not performing, the versatile dynamo somehow finds time to preside over producing activities at his Afro Roots Recordings studio and put in work as executive and artistic director of Community Arts & Culture, the non-profit entity through which he produces the long-running Afro Roots World Music Festival.
But it is the latter that is the primary focus of Elias’ efforts. Since its inception 20-plus years ago, Afro Roots has emerged as a world-class extravaganza that has featured artists from Africa and the Americas, among them Malian superstar Salif Keita; Boukman Experyans, from Haiti, and Moroccan Gnawa musician Hassan Hakmoun. Equally significant, the event attracts attendees from across the U.S. and abroad to its anchor venue, the North Beach Bandshell, and to scaled-down versions of the event at a number of satellite locations in Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of social distancing and masking requirements intended to lessen exposure to the virus, Elias has been forced to reconfigure Afro Roots, if not permanently then at least for the short term. For example, the 2020 Afro Roots Festival was co-produced with the Rhythm Foundation and took place as scheduled. Unlike in the past, however, it was all-virtual, with performances being live-streamed from the North Beach Bandshell.
What follows is a conversation Elias and I had, prepandemic, in which he traced Afro Roots’ evolution from its modest beginning in the parking lot of Tobacco Road, a now-defunct night club/bar in downtown Miami.
The Afro Roots Festival has moved around quite a bit since its inception at Tobacco Road, hasn’t it?
Jose Elias: Yeah. We spent three years at Tobacco Road; then we moved it to St. John’s on the Lake Church, on Miami Beach, where we did another three years. After that, I believe, we went to IO – a downtown Miami venue that no longer exists and that used to be called the Vagabond. From there, I think we went to the North Beach Bandshell. And then, the Bandshell underwent renovation, so we moved it from there to the Moksha/7th Circuit space in Little Haiti, where we stayed for a couple of years. And then, from Moksha we went to the Little Haiti Cultural Center, across the street from Moksha, for a while. From there we brought it back to the Bandshell.
Talk to me about your choice of Afro Roots as the name for the festival. I know you were born in the Dominican Republic to Cuban parents, and that African-derived cultures figure prominently in Cuba. Does that partly explain it?
JE: Well, yes – to an extent. We chose the name because the whole purpose behind the festival was to celebrate the evolution of African culture in our community, which is something that I don’t think has ever really been celebrated in its totality. Of course, it’s celebrated within each of the area’s communities, but not in an inclusive way. So, really, Afro Roots is a trans-community celebration, one that includes all of the various communities in South Florida. So you’re talking about Cuba; you’re talking about Jamaica; you’re talking about Haiti; you’re talking about Brazil; you’re talking about African-based culture in the U.S.; you’re talking about the Garifuna of Central America. So, really, the artists that we present tend to be representative of various manifestations of continental and diaspora Africanity, but the percentage, or degree, can vary. In fact, we’ve gone a little bit more towards a global direction, beyond a strictly Afrocentric perspective.
What was the reason for your presenting Afro Roots at various locations in the four southeast Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe, and Palm Beach?
JE: My whole thing is to bring the arts to underserved communities, and in doing so I hope it helps to dissolve the fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar. When people are introduced to new things, their horizons tend to broaden. Really, though, I’ve always been about sharing – about turning people on to new music and stuff. Take our concert here at the Seminole, for example. I was told that, here in Homestead, Reggae, Blues, and Country do really well. So, if we start to focus on doing those kinds of shows – offering things that serve as the anchor, or hook – then, by drawing people to the festival using those kinds of acts, we’ll be able to intersperse a little African spice, something different. That might be perceived as being off the beaten path, but not really; it’s just a reflection of a higher level of consciousness. Our hope is that people will realize that what they’re experiencing is valid. Everyone perceives things differently. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes there are cases when people might get offended because they don’t have – or don’t want to have – the ability to embrace and to appreciate something new. So, again, we’re going to do what we do to help remove the fear of the unknown.
So how do you go about determining which performers to book for Afro Roots?
JE: I just kind of let the Universe decide. I work with other curators in co-presenting. Miami-Dade College’s Live Arts is a co-presenting partner, and the Rhythm Foundation is a co-producer for our North Beach Bandshell shows. And then, down in Key West, we have the Studio of Key West and the Green Parrot. We also work with several co-presenters in Islamorada: the Morada Way Arts and Culture District. ICE (Islamorada Community Entertainment), and the Florida Keys Brewing Company. Up in Palm Beach County, we do the Road to Afro Roots, the kick-off to the main festival, at Guabanas. They’re our community partner up there. And next year we’re expanding to Doral, where we’re going to partner up with Doral Yard, a venue whose name is taken from midtown Miami’s now-defunct Wynwood Yard.
Where do you envision Afro Roots being in, say, 20 years?
JE: Our long-term goal is to take it outside of the state. One of our goals is to take it to the four-corner states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah because there’s much more of an appreciation there. Today, one of the biggest obstacles to success in South Florida is that there’s not enough appreciation of music that has a global orientation. I wouldn’t necessarily call it World Music because it’s music, first and foremost! It’s called World Music because they, the merchandisers, have to have a category to put the music in.
So, in a place like Colorado or New Mexico, it’s possible to do things where the outcome would be more impactful than in Miami, which is a multicultural microcosm of the world; yet, ironically, there’s a lack of appreciation, of embracing….For example, when we brought Salif Keita (a well-known artist from Mali) to the Bandshell about two years ago, only about 500 to 600 people turned out for the concert. That’s because there’s a relatively small immigrant African community in the area, a community where people would know who he is and who understand his trajectory and his value.
To shift gears, so to speak, I believe that Afro Roots Recordings, which you launched in the mid-2000s or so, was an outgrowth of the festival. Am I correct?
JE: Well, yes. Actually, though, the recording venture is kind of like an archival project through which we’re able to showcase a lot of the artists that are performing at the festival. Basically, it’s intended to help both us and the artists because we can raise money by selling their CDs at the festival’s main event and at our satellite shows and then sharing the proceeds with the artists – even if they’re not around.
One of the first artists we recorded was Ibrahima Dioubate, a xylophone player, from Guinea, who lived in Miami for a while. I have an album of his that I never released because he moved, and we never kept in contact. I’ve got some really cool treasures there, man! That was a project that was, like, really hard to make happen, but, finally, we made it happen, and it was great! I’ve also recorded Morikeba Kouyate, a kora player from Senegal; and I’m working on a release by Sanba Zao, a percussionist/vocalist from Haiti. I’m really looking forward to finishing this project, which is going to be something else!
Of your accomplishments to date, is there any one that you could say you’re most proud of?
JE: Well, that we’ve been able to sustain the event. Here we are 21 years later, and it’s still evolving. Then there’s the fact that Afro Roots is a traveling festival; that, to me, is really cool!
I hear you! With that, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your vision for the event.