Just to be clear, Luis Hidalgo had no intention of starting a festival. All he wanted was advertising for his plumbing business.
The Brooklyn transplant was looking to boost the visibility of his company, Masters & Son Plumbing, when he walked into WCLM 1450 AM. But the contract he left with was for a radio show, not the 60-second commercials he'd gone in to buy. When he and his wife realized what he'd done, she insisted he do the radio show based on what he knew. He thought she meant plumbing when she really meant music.
Hidalgo, a Puerto-Rican American, is a percussionist and lifelong music fan who wasted no time creating "The Latin Jazz and Salsa Show" with Sweet Lou Hidalgo. When the station's owner, Preston Brown, bought WHAP in Hopewell, Hidalgo started a show there and quickly gained a following with his use of Spanglish and thoughtfully selected music.
"The Puerto Ricans were bringing herbs like cilantro, along with sandwiches and food to the station for me," Hidalgo says, laughing. To repay their warm welcome, he told his boss he wanted to do an outdoor show in the parking lot and give away hot dogs and hamburgers. His boss did him one better by deciding to give away school supplies.
The first Latin Jazz and Salsa festival attracted 150 people.
The next year, determined to do more, Hidalgo moved the festival to the field where WHAP's tower stands.
"We had pigs and goats, Preston brought in a reptile exhibit and 500 people showed up," he recalls. "We got a little worried when the cops came, but they just stayed for the food."
Brown sold the station before the next year, so the festival was moved to 32nd and Hull streets, where Hidalgo arranged for Jose Lorenzo to perform for the diverse crowd of more than a thousand people.
"I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, so those were my people," he says of the crowds digging the music, food and vibe. "We were serving pernil [garlic-marinated roasted pork shoulder] — the best pork in Puerto Rico- and if the music didn't grab them, the smell of pork did. By the end, it was just a love fest!"
But it only was after a friend took him to Dogwood Dell that Hidalgo saw the full potential of the festival. He knew he couldn't afford it, but he also realized that the Dell's amphitheater was exactly where the event should happen, a place large enough that he could bring in major acts. A technician sitting at the sound board gave him with a contact number for the Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.
The fourth annual festival debuted at the Dell and was the first with financial support from the city.
"For the first time, we could get top acts like Frankie Morales and Frankie Vasquez," he says. "Van Lester came from Puerto Rico to perform here."
By the festival's ninth year, Hidalgo was feeling the pressure of running his plumbing business and mounting a major festival alone. Fearing a breakdown, he decided not to plan a 10th event, but his fans weren't having it. Regular attendees Evelyn Lopez and Gloria Billings Torres got together and contacted Hidalgo, offering to do the legwork to round up sponsors, volunteers and do whatever was needed to ensure the festival continued, a feat they accomplished in two months.
"If you want to get something done, ask a woman," Hidalgo says, marveling that they got a donation from Dominion Energy. "Without these two, there wouldn't be a festival because you can't pay for the kind of passion and dedication they give."
Last year, Hidalgo made the event a nonprofit, brought in food trucks and did a book drive for Sacred Heart Church. One thing that's never changed is that the festival is free.
The 12th annual festival weekend kicks off with a new ticketed event, the first Latin Jazz and Salsa Show Gala at the Hippodrome. With live music by La Banda Ramirez and music curated by Washington's DJ Renzo, the gala is a dress-up and bring your dancing shoes kind of evening.
The next afternoon, the festival itself unfolds at the Dell. Headlining is Tito Puente Jr., son of legendary percussionist of the same name, and a veteran of symphony halls and jazz festivals worldwide. Hidalgo tapped him because of his continuing efforts to keep alive the legacy of his father, the Mambo King, and his high voltage performance.
One of Puente's frequent collaborators, Melina Almodóvar, a Puerto Rican salsa singer, dancer and songwriter, will also play. Salsa all-star group Rafael Ortiz Y Su El Tumbao Urbano Orquestra, Wanda Lopez, the first woman and non-Mexican to win Mexico's "A Star Is Born" contest, percussionist and educator of Afro-Cuban music Melena Valdes and local artist Friday Love round out the bill.
The program includes a tribute to veterans and first responders.
"I love music and I love my culture," Hidalgo says. "If we treated each other the way we treat music, it would be a better world."
The 12th annual Latin Jazz and Salsa Festival is held Saturday, Aug. 24, from 1-8 p.m. at Dogwood Dell in Byrd Park, 1300 Blanton Ave. Free.