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Dutch woman with a trumpet takes Colombian salsa by storm

Dutch musician and trumpet player Maite Hontele performs on stage at Colon Theatre in Bogota. — AFP photos

A woman playing trumpet in a salsa band in traditionally macho South America is a rare thing. It’s rarer still when that woman is Dutch. Since arriving on Colombia’s salsa scene, Maite Hontele has been blasting her horn to full houses from Bogota to Seoul and has gradually won the respect of salsa’s greats. “I was born on the wrong continent,” says Hontele, a tall, blonde 37-year old from the central Netherlands. She insists she’s “Colombian at heart.”

Her love affair with the country began when she played Bogota’s Teatro Colon while visiting from the Netherlands in 2003 with the Rumbata Big Band. The audience loved her and the feeling was mutual. “I fell in love with Colombia, with its people, its cities, its energy, its diversity,” she says in an interview at her apartment in Bogota’s bohemian La Macarena quarter. Hontele followed her heart and her trumpet to Colombia, settling in Medellin for seven years and churning out record after record as well as touring with her own band.

Now she plays regularly with the greats of the genre-people like Panama’s Ruben Blades, Venezuela’s Oscar D’Leon and the Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba. In 2014, official recognition came when her album “Dejame asi” (Leave Me Like This) was nominated for Best Salsa Album at the Latin Grammys, and she shared the limelight with such stars as Marc Anthony and Tito Nieves.

She has just returned to Colombia from Havana, where she spent two months recording her fifth album, “Cuba linda” (Beautiful Cuba) with the Orquesta Aragon. Her latest single, “Casi Muero” (I nearly died), from the album of the same name, came out on November 3. That evening, Maite was back where it all started, at Bogota’s “big, beautiful” 800-seat Teatro Colon.

On their feet
The sell-out crowd was on its feet from the opening notes of the third song in her set, “Maria Cristina me quiere gobernar” (Maria Cristina wants to control me). From the stage right down to the cheap seats, fans danced between the red velvet seats while Hontele grooved on stage with her musicians. The crowd took up the chorus of some of her best known tunes, “Que bonito” (How Nice) and “Nonchecita.” Like many in the crowd that night, Jaime Ospino, 49, knew all the material. “This is a great concert,” he said.

In early October, Hontele was playing to another full house at the Cafe Libro, the Colombian capital’s top spot for tropical music. Long-time fan Angela Ramirez was there celebrating her 38th birthday. “I’ve always loved salsa. But the idea of a Dutch woman who plays the trumpet in Colombia gives me chills!” Ramirez said.

Salsa from the cradle
Hontele laughs about a certain irony in her life story: “I never chose the trumpet,” she says. The instrument chose her. She first held a trumpet as a nine-year old when playing in a local brass band in her home village of Haaften. She was immersed in Latin American music as a child, raised to the rhythms of her father’s collection of Caribbean vinyl records.

“I grew up with these sounds,” she says. “He would go to Paris to look for records, just off the presses. Celia Cruz, the Gran Combo of Puerto Rico, etc.” No surprise then that as a 14-year-old, she preferred to play Latin American music. She convinced the Rotterdam Conservatory to bring in a specialized Latin music teacher rather than be forced to go the usual route of classical or jazz training.

She began playing in Dutch nightclubs as a teenager, “until six in the morning-the only woman in a group of men, playing merengue, bachata, and Cuban salsa.” Looking back, getting out on the club scene was “the best education.” For her, the secret of rhythm lies “not only in the technique, but where the flavor is, and the flavor is in the street-that’s where you have to look for it.” These days, she finds that flavor in Bogota’s streets, which she moves through in true Dutch style-by bicycle.
She claims to be a vegan, listens to Cuban sounds as much as Bach or pop, and even as she prepares for a European tour, she says she just wants to be the “the neighbor who plays the trumpet.” “It doesn’t interest me to be famous, to ride in a limousine,” Hontele says. She’s already played with some of South America’s greats, but apart from Sting, her biggest dream is to play with Carlos Vives. “It would close the circle,” she says. As a kid, already steeped in the music but without a word of Spanish, she sang along to the Colombian singer’s hit at the time, “Pa’ Mayte” (For Mayte), reading into it a kind of musical destiny. “I thought it was about me,” she says. – AFP

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