Curaçao After Dark

The weekend’s best travel piece—by BAZ DREISINGER for The New York Times.

ON one of many late nights in Curaçao, I found myself in a musical tower of Babel. The setting: a sleek iron-and-glass nightclub, Tu Tu Tango, near Willemstad, the Caribbean island’s capital. The crowd: well-heeled local men in their 30s, high-heeled ladies in skintight get-ups, Dutch women in sundresses, 20-somethings wearing gold chains and Yankees caps. The soundtrack: a mix of English, Spanish, hip-hop argot, Jamaican patois, Portuguese — or was that Papiamentu, Curaçao’s native Creole? Beats evoked Puerto Rico, Holland, Brazil, the Jersey Shore. Just when I felt primed to classify, the rhythm morphed and the language veered off to another continent.

“I know what they want,” said D.J. Tico, a local radio personality and club D.J. “Merengue, salsa, some R&B and hip-hop. A little house, a little local music, a piece of European music. One or two bachata, maybe some Jamaican dancehall.” D.J. Tico smiled at me, the nonplussed tourist. “Then you pretty much get everybody.”

A few hours later — after a short drive past snack trucks besieged by crowds wolfing down chicken doused in peanut sauce — I landed at Club Façade, where the musical muddle intensified. In a vast, basementlike space with peeling walls, speakers blared some variety of techno music: familiar enough. Within minutes, though, a man in his 40s wearing a baby-blue guayabera weaved through the crowd, took the stage with a six-piece band and transformed the scene from fist-pumping to grown-and-sexy. The cadence was slow, the dance intimate — a beguiling groove reminiscent of Haitian zouk.

All these tempos, on one small island, in a single night? Never mind a hangover; I had a severe case of aural vertigo.

Attribute it to Curaçao — a dazzlingly diverse country 44 miles off the Venezuelan coast, a multicultural mélange of the Netherlands, the Caribbean and South America. As a Dutch colony, Curaçao, 171 square miles of desertlike terrain surrounded by cerulean waters, was a salt producer and slave port; during the 17th century, Jews from Spain and Portugal took up residence there; in the early 1900s an oil refinery lured more foreigners. Today, the island of about 150,000 is home to some 50 nationalities. Most locals speak four languages: Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamentu, which fuses the first three languages with Portuguese and African dialects.

The island is technically a new country, having became autonomous within the Kingdom of the Netherlands just over a year ago. It’s also an emerging destination: arrivals shot up 16 percent in early 2011, and new direct routes on Continental, Air Canada and InselAir have made it easier to reach. Gleaming brand-name hotels have opened in recent years — a Renaissance in 2009, a lavish Hyatt in 2010. But Curaçao is not really a chain-hotel kind of place; it lures the traveler who knows that there is history and culture to explore in the Caribbean, one that extends beyond the beaches.

That culture is most exuberantly manifested in Curaçao’s music scene. The soundtrack of the island is both vividly varied — there are an estimated 30 to 40 radio stations — and distinctly live: more popular than D.J.’s are bands playing local music that is, like everything else in Curaçao, utterly hybrid. All music is fundamentally fusion — especially the music of postcolonial cultures — but in Curaçao that hybrid feels particularly alive, as if you can feel the culture Creolizing by the minute.

SURE, there is plenty to do on the island: beaches lined with bars and restaurants, top-notch diving, intriguing museums — including the most extensive slave museum in the Caribbean — and a picture-perfect capital city, Willemstad, a Unesco World Heritage site. Punda, Willemstad’s historical epicenter, is filled with 17th-century buildings resembling multihued gingerbread cookies. Visitors can stroll the cobblestone interior of Fort Amsterdam, erected in 1635 to defend Peter Stuyvesant’s new colony, and the 18th-century Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.

But Curaçao after dark beckons with possibilities. In neighborhoods and beachfront areas encircling Willemstad, modish nightclubs and outdoor live-music venues serve up sundry soundtracks. The newly gentrified Pietermaai section of the city, where quaint colonial buildings have been transformed into trendy bars and restaurants, is teeming with Dutch students and locals roaming the cobblestone streets and puffing on cigarettes at places like Mundo Bizarro, a funky hangout with bric-a-brac décor, delicious mojitos and a soul-food-inspired menu.

I spent my first evening in Pietermaai, at Blues, a bar and restaurant sprawled across a pier at the Avila, an 18th-century Dutch mansion turned chic hotel. It is ground zero for Curaçao’s jazz and blues scene, and has the cozy ambience of a tree house: planks for walls, unadorned wooden floors, a jam-packed bar. A waiter made the rounds, bearing a heaping tray of fried Dutch bitterballen (savory meatballs). From a loft space hanging over the bar, a five-piece jazz band doled out tunes to a 35-and-up crowd that packs the place every Thursday for live jazz.

“If you stay in one style too long, people get bored,” the band’s drummer, Marlon Conradus, told me before taking the stage. “We have to funk it up.” Funk it up they did. A guest singer, Shirma Rouse, a Curaçaoan who lives in Amsterdam, began with Gershwin and ended with Stevie Wonder. “My drummer said to tell you I’m from right here, because people always think I’m from the States,” Ms. Rouse announced as she led us into a call-and-response rendition of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.”

After the set I sat at the smoke-filled bar and had a Bacardi Gold with Eric Calmes, a bass player who had just moved back to the island from the Netherlands after a decades-long career in music. He told me I must return in September for the island’s annual North Sea Jazz Festival, which has hosted the likes of Ruben Blades and Branford Marsalis. “The guys I’m playing with tonight, they’re top-notch musicians,“ he said. “I mean, Grammys and gigs around the world. I won’t be bored back here.”

The next morning, I woke up in Stevie Wonder’s bed. His onetime bed, anyway; when Mr. Wonder headlined the jazz festival, he stayed in my heavenly villa at the newest and most luxurious property on the island, Baoase. A collection of cottages strewn across a private beach, Baoase is swathed in Asian influences: omnipresent Buddhas and waterfalls, winding free-form pools and a chic, futuristic feel.

Dragging myself away took grand effort, but I had plans to visit the island’s more rural end, an area that would have delighted Georgia O’Keeffe. Electric-yellow houses dot desertlike stretches, and cactuses along the dusty roads resemble grand pipe cleaners. I spent the afternoon strolling the grounds at Christoffel National Park, a dead ringer for New Mexico that’s home to 20 miles of trails, three former plantation homes and Mount Christoffel, at 1,239 feet the island’s highest point. The lookouts there offer ominously striking views: limestone cliffs, waves crashing furiously on black-sand beaches, hawks circling above.

That night, back in the Willemstad area, I ran into Eric and Marlon again. They were at Zanzibar, a beachfront complex of drinking dens and restaurants set beneath palm trees and crammed with Dutch tourists and expatriates. I dodged the omnipresent cigarette smoke, slid into a booth facing the sea and ordered an olive pizza. Two slices and three Mount Gay rums later, I made my way to the outdoor stage area to watch Eric and Marlon, this time backing a popular local act, Junior Tecla. Performing covers along with original material that’s part rock, part reggae, part jazzy pop, Junior — his dreadlocks amassed atop his head — danced barefoot across the stage. An inebriated crowd of fans followed his lead, losing rhythm and balance with every sip.

“I’m developing something I call Cura-Pop,” Junior explained after the show. I sat with him and his band mates on a day bed beside the water. “The idea is to package Curaçaoan music the way Chris Blackwell packaged Bob Marley — combine pop music with our local sounds and export it to the world.”

Gedion Chandler, a keyboard player, invited me to check out his solo show the next night. “What kind of music is it?” I asked, adding that my agenda was, alas, already full. “Well, sort of hip-hop,” he began, “but really R&B, kind of, with jazz and hip-hop influences.”

Simple questions about genre clearly don’t yield one-word answers on an island whose signature local music, born in the early 1980s, is called ritmo kombina — literally, “combined rhythms” in Papiamentu. It’s the reason crowds flock to Bananas Nightclub in Salina, a shopping district outside Willemstad. Every Wednesday, the 13-member band Dreams plays ritmo to a chockablock crowd that was distinctly different from what I found in the upscale club scene. Ritmo is very much Afro-Curaçaoan music, sometimes disturbingly derided as the music of the lower classes. As the band — three singers, two horn players, a drummer, a timbalero and piano, sax, bass and conga players — jammed, the audience paired up to dance in a manner that involved precious little footwork but plenty of precise pelvic grinding.

Later, Axel Pikero, the lead singer and founder of Dreams, tried to explain ritmo: “Ritmo is like a mix of merengue, of salsa and soca — a mix of Caribbean stuff and Latin stuff.” We were having a late-night snack — chicken satay and fried funchi, Curaçao’s version of polenta — at a barbecue joint beside Bananas. “The piano has a salsa sound, the bass player plays a reggae style, or sometimes a Colombian style. The intro is like a compas or zouk, and then the sera part — the improvisation — is pure ritmo. It’s like Curaçao, like the people. We are a small island but we use influences from around the world.”

Over the weekend, I caught Dreams performing again. This time, though, they were in Carnival mode. Curaçao’s Carnival, which takes place just before Ash Wednesday, is all about tumba music, a descendant of tambu — the drum-based music of Curaçaoan slaves — but inflected with merengue and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

I MADE my way to Willemstad for one of the many tumba Festivals that — along with “jump-ups,” raucous outdoor parties — dot Curaçao’s calendar weeks before Carnival. I crossed the Queen Emma Bridge into Punda. The walkway to the outdoor venue was lined with coolers; locals had turned the sidewalks into a fete, where performances can be heard loud, clear — and free. It was a tumba competition for the children, hoping to win one of the annual Carnival “king” and “queen” titles.

Onstage, backed by a band that included a full horn section and a conga drummer, was the winner: a teenage girl sporting an electric orange cape, dazzling smile and rhinestone-encrusted crown. The site was encircled by bars and food trucks. The euphoric crowd gyrated to the pulsating beat.

“Tumba is a rhythm you dance with your hips, not your shoulders,” said Elia Isenia, three-time Tumba Queen and the first Curaçaoan woman to earn that title. I asked her to define the sound of tumba. She clapped: one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three, one-two. “That is the tumba,” she said, adding that its lyrics, like those of Trinidadian calypso songs, often serve up social commentary and humor in equal measure. “You criticize a person, an organization, a village. It’s a way to give compliments, too.”

Curaçao’s most popular bands took the stage: Dreams and Gio Fuertisimo. Both are best known as ritmo acts — the lead singer of Gio is celebrated as the originator of the genre — but during Carnival season, they perform tumba as well. The two homegrown musical forms have altogether different styles. Where ritmo is sexy and smooth, tumba is gaudy, even operatic: long notes, grand gestures, glitzy costumes, as deliciously over-the-top as Carnival itself. The band played, and the crowd held their hands in the air, their hips trembling vigorously, oblivious to all but rhythm.

The next morning, I gave myself a beach-day detox. Curaçao’s 35 beaches are diverse: white-, black- and gold-sand specimens, some clogged with cruise ship passengers, others deserted save a few fishermen. I opted for something local and right down the road, a beach called Marie Pompoem, the antithesis of the Beaches Hotel right next to it — no waiters or beach chairs, same lustrous sea, so clear I could make out the tiny silver fish darting between my legs. Lunch came from the unnamed restaurant on the sand, a hefty serving of grilled grouper and tangy conch stew. I doused it in pika, the local pepper sauce, and chased it with a Bacardi, then watched neighborhood children play soccer as the sun took its leave.

I spent my last night in Bermuda: a cavernous night-life wonderland built from the remains of an 18th-century building in the heart of Punda. Three D.J.’s manned distinct dance floors. The young, local crowd — women decked out in midriff-bearing shirts, tattooed teenagers sporting Armani muscle shirts — was the sort that doesn’t listen to ritmo and merely tolerates tumba; they come here for their kind of local music, which to my ears sounds a lot like a Curaçao version of reggaetón but is referred to locally as, simply, “urban music.”

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