By Christina Fernandez-Morrow

The sun shone bright in Des Moines as volunteers spent the morning and afternoon setting up for the Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival, the only festival in Iowa dedicated entirely to Latin music, which was hosting legendary accordionist, Celso Piña y Su Ronda Bogotá. Tents went up, a stage was constructed, holding hundreds of light bulbs in anticipation of the bands that would rock the stage throughout the day. The smell of grilled meats wafted through the air as food vendors prepared the dishes they would serve and everyone moved excitedly and quickly to prepare everything before the festival opened. Guests streamed in at four in the evening as Cuidad de Monjes, a local rock band opened the festival. Children jumped in the bounce houses and put their colorful marks on a mural created especially for the event by local artists.

As the festival went on, guests learned dance moves from Latin dance instructors while others buzzed around the various vendors getting their fortunes told, having tattoos painted on their arms, eating pupusas, tacos and mofongo and cooling off with cheladas. About an hour and a half into the festivities the skies darkened and the wind picked up. Officer Yanira Scarlett alerted festival organizers of an oncoming storm with winds projected at fifty miles per hour.

“The canopy over the Brenton Plaza is only safe for up to fifty-five mile an hour winds. If the storm hits Des Moines, we’ll have to evacuate,” she explained.

Rain came down while Parranderos Latin Combo performed and guests continued to party as the rain became heavier. Suddenly, strong winds ripped through downtown and that’s when the Des Moines police officers, volunteers and festival organizers began helping guests and vendors move to the safety of a nearby parking garage.

As the rain pelted the city, organizers got to work devising a Plan B. A rain location had not been secured because after weeks of tracking the weather, a storm had not appeared on the radar. Calls were made and plans set in motion. Minutes later the party was re-routed to Xcaret Night Club, the location that had promoted an after-party for festival guests who wanted to keep dancing beyond the end of the festival. However, the club was preparing for a late opening and it was hours before they would be ready.

“There were so many different areas/people and logistics happening at the same time –  Ryan [percussionist with Parranderos Latin Combo] using his own equipment and setting up instruments to keep the music going; trying to find bartenders and a music engineer to get drinks and music ready; organizing the new band schedule and arranging their transportation to the new venue; updating social media and responding to messages and comments; helping vendors tear down; cleaning up at Brenton Plaza; figuring out ticketing options for the new venue; directing volunteers at both venues simultaneously; dealing with power and Internet outages; crowd control as guests waited at Xcaret,” said Goizane Esain Mullin, festival organizer. “Literally I can list a million other details we had to think about as we moved from our original location to the new one.”

While the storm delayed the festivities and caused some guests to change their plans, the organizers never contemplated canceling. Instead, the Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival organizers mobilized to ensure the artists performed and guests got to see them. Volunteers jumped in and went above and beyond to help make it happen.

As guests waited patiently in the lobby, volunteers and organizers got to work. Friends and family pitched in and an hour later performers were on stage and guests were dancing.

“I am so proud of all our volunteers,” said Michaela Devaney, festival organizer and volunteer coordinator. “I saw them holding down bonce houses in the rain, walking guests to the shelter and then they darted over to Xcaret and helped in all areas from unloading equipment and instruments, to slinging beers at the bars. They did it all with smiles on their faces and patience. They really made it possible for us to keep the festival going.”

Celso Piña y Su Ronda Bogotá had never performed in Iowa and the Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival had been saving, negotiating and planning to bring him since 2017.

“Celso is a legend,” said Amner Martinez, festival organizer. “He’d been to many cities in the Midwest but not to Iowa. We wanted to bring him because aside from his phenomenal skill with the accordion, he represents several generations of classic Cumbia. Since July twentieth was also Colombian Independence Day, it made sense to honor the day with an artist who spread Colombian Cumbia throughout the world.”

Sadly, on August twenty-first, Celso Piña died in Monterrey, Mexico of a heart attack. He was in the midst of his North American tour, having just come off a show in Milwaukee. Globally dubbed, “El Rebelde del Acordeón (The Accordion Rebel),” Piña began his career in the 1970’s and became an international sensation when award-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez was filmed dancing to Piña’s music at a museum in Mexico. His career rose from there and his music impacted people across Latin America.

“It was an honor to meet him and bring his music to Des Moines,” said Laura Rodriguez, festival organizer. “He was a legend and his passing is a shock. The music world lost a beloved talent.”

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Aside from being a master accordionist, he was a composer and arranger. Piña made a name for himself and his band and went on to be nominated for a Grammy, collaborate with many popular artists including Lila Downs, Julieta Venegas, Cafe Tacvba, and Gloria Trevi, infusing traditional Colombian cumbia with elements of Regional Mexican, ska, hip-hop, reggae, R&B, and more. He took a break from his tour to rest at home before shows scheduled in Texas and Georgia. Piña was 66 years old.

Since his death, festival guests and volunteers have been visiting the Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival’s Facebook page to pay their respects, express their shock at his passing and say how grateful they are that they got an opportunity to meet him and see him perform before his untimely death. The festival organizers share the sentiments of everyone who commented and are thankful they got to meet him and work with such a kind, humble musician whose passion for music and his fans was felt throughout his performance.

Christina Fernandez-Morrow with the Legend Celso Piña at the Festival

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