Pablo Mayor parked cars to pay his rent when he arrived in New York from Bogotá, Colombia, in 1999. It was a dramatic passage for the former university professor and jazz program director. “That makes you humble,” Mayor says softly.
His stint as a Long Island valet would be short-lived. Within a few years, Mayor embarked on a musical career and eventually became unofficial ambassador of Colombian music. He is so inventive and prolific, it’s difficult to describe his career without a handful of hyphens.
“Promoter, producer, artist, educator, connector, composer,” says Anna Povich de Mayor, his wife, manager, and flutist in his band. “If I had to distill it, I’d say he is the ‘go-to guy’ for Colombian music. Even the consulate calls him. If he can’t do it, he knows someone who can.”
But usually, he can do it—whatever the “it” may be. A brilliant pianist, Mayor founded Folklore Urbano Orchestra, a group that blends Colombian folk music with contemporary jazz. From a very modest start, the innovative 12-piece band went on to perform at nearly every major venue in New York City. Among his favorite gigs: Playing for “a packed house at SOB’s”—which stands for “Sounds of Brazil” and is one of Manhattan’s most popular Latin music clubs—“on Colombian Independence Day. Everyone was dancing to my music, crowded next to the stage.”
Like many musicians, Mayor long dreamed of living in New York. He was sure its vibrant musical culture and top-notch talent would provide an ideal base from which he could carry out his musical vision. Still, his path to this region was an unlikely one. Mayor was born in Cali, Colombia, to a lawyer father and a microbiologist mother, and his chosen career was widely looked down upon in his native country. “The connotation for a musician in Colombia was a partier,” he says.
Pablo Mayor at work arranging music
In the early 1990s, Mayor left Colombia to study English in Madison, Wisconsin, eventually making his way to the University of North Texas, where he earned a BA and an MA in jazz arranging.
He later returned home to teach at the Pontifica Universidad Javeriana in Botogá. After spending so many years studying jazz in the US, he began to develop a keen interest in reconnecting with his cultural roots. He became passionate about resurrecting long-forgotten Colombian folkloric melodies after meeting Marco Vinicio, son of Totó la Momposina, a legendary Colombian vocalist, famous for bringing alive the traditions of Colombia’s Caribbean coast through her powerful voice and acclaimed band. Mayor eventually collaborated with Totó for her album, Pacantó..
In 1999, it was Mayor’s wife who led him back to the United States, to Long Island, where she earned a doctor of musical arts degree in flute performance at Stonybrook. Within a year, the couple moved to Astoria, Queens, where Mayor founded Folklore Urbano. He began by peddling his CDs door-to-door to music stores, encouraging storeowners to add an array of Colombian artists to their catalogs. The music spoke for itself, and the band caught on; eventually, they played not just in the city, but toured throughout North America.
Mayor may be best known for creating the Colombian music festival Encuentro NYC, which began in 2003 with the idea of having two Colombian bands planning to play for one another—Folklore Urbano and Gaiteros de San Jacinto, a multi-generational Colombian folkloric group founded in the 1940s. Rather than just two Colombian bands, six or seven showed up. “With three days’ notice, there were 100 people,” he says. “We were like, ‘What? We need to continue doing this.’ There was a real reaction.” Last year, the festival featured 14 bands with more than 400 attendees, outgrowing its former venue in the West Village.
A few years after the festival debut, in 2007, Anna was pregnant with their son, Nico, and started searching for a new home with more space and an easy commute to the City. Mayor was sold on Tarrytown after his first visit, and they moved soon after. “I liked the energy of this place,” says Mayor, who also has a 1-year-old daughter, Maria Elizabeth. “It felt young.”
In addition to performing, Mayor is also the jazz and Colombian music coordinator at Harlem’s Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts. Anna teaches flute at the Turtle Bay Music School in Midtown. Together, they’ve brought Colombian music and dance to 1,000 New York City public-school students through what is now known as Folklore Urbano’s “Cumbia for Kids” program. (Cumbia is a popular style of Latin music and dance originally from Colombia.)
Mayor only recently began sharing his musical magic with Westchester residents, starting in Tarrytown. He is performing with the Cumbia program at the Transfiguration School, a Catholic elementary school, and at the John Paulding Pre-K school, which is attended by the now 6-year-old Nico. Mayor played at Tarrytown’s Warner Library last year and will perform at the Ossining Public Library in the fall. “It is a different dimension when you connect with people not only on a musical but also on a personal level,” he says. “And the audience here in Tarrytown is incredibly receptive to this music.”
“People have not stopped talking about him here since the show(s),” Anna says. “I’ve bumped into people at the YMCA, at Coffee Labs, all over town, who have said, ‘We are big fans of Pablo.’”
Backed by Rivertowns Artists Workshop (RAW), a Sleepy Hollow-based nonprofit that brings performances to local audiences, and in partnership with Daniel Fetecua’s Pajarillo Pinta’o dance troupe, he performed a sold-out show in January and an open-air concert in June at Sleepy Hollow’s Kingsland Point Park. “People were blown away,” says RAW co-founder Naomi Vladeck. “They said it was like being at a great jazz club in the City.”
Vladeck adds, “Presenting a local artist as recognizable as Pablo Mayor in a community that is [majority] Latino has the potential to connect the Latino community to other local artists, and to the diverse audiences who will come to see the work.”
Indeed, building bridges and challenging stereotypes about Colombia fuels Mayor’s passion to unite Colombian musicians and share their country’s traditional rhythms with audiences around the world. “When many people think of Colombia, they think of something bad,” like drug trafficking and violence, Mayor says. “I want to change that.”