The spoils of conquest, buried with the cannons and wood beams of the San José galleon resurfaced last month and sparked the imaginations of Colombians and Spaniards. This once invincible ship rests in shallow waters near Cartagena.

While Colombia claims its gold and emeralds, Spain insists the loot from its Royal Ship should return to its intended home. The debate has gone transoceanic with the Atlantic, that watery bridge between the Old World and the New, serving as a protagonist once more.

While South America surrendered its riches, Spain coveted Cartagena. Music, like the Inquisition, became a symbol of supremacy.

Much has changed in Cartagena since the defeat of Spanish, but the chants that arrived with slaves live on. The port city remains a bastion of song.

The origins of the Cartagena International Music Festival go back a decade to the holidays of one Colombian family, the Salvi. Living between Paris and London, Julia and her husband, Victor, began formulating a return.

Julia Salvi
Julia Salvi participates in a previous edition of the Cartagena International Music Festival (Provided).

Victor, an Italian-American harp player, had followed in the family line of instrument-making with his famous Salvi harps. Based in Piasco, Italy, the business was expanding rapidly as Salvi Harps had acquired a large stake of Lyon & Healy, the American harp makers of Chicago, back in 1987.

Increasingly, husband and wife were spending more time stateside and, as the image of Colombia was undergoing a transformation, the Salvis turned to Cartagena.

“The country was opening up,” said Julia on the eve of the 10th edition of the Music Festival. “One could start thinking of doing things.”

The marriage of Victor and Julia was complementary as they both shared a love of classical music. Julia, an aspiring economist, accompanied Victor on his many travels, helping to grow the business while he instructed other instrument makers to modernize the ancient harp.

According to the New York Times, “Salvi harps are played today by many of the finest soloists and orchestral musicians in the world.” Prince Charles received one of Victor’s gilded machines in 2006 and it is known as the “Prince of Wales harp.”

After 30 years of marriage, the idea of starting a music festival in Cartagena began to take shape. But the couple needed financial support and sponsors with a finely tuned ear for ambitious undertakings.

“Things happen in our lives when they have to,” said Julia of the fated events surrounding the launch of one of the most important festivals in Colombia. The colonial squares and cobblestone streets of the colonial city also reminded Julia of small town Italy, home to many classical music festivals.

Cartagena embraced Salvi’s proposition.

The founders called upon Charles Wadsworth to become their first artistic director. Wadsworth was the founding director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the organizer behind the Spoleto U.S.A. Festival chamber concert series in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charles, Victor and Julia would go on to make chamber music history. Orchestras, ensembles and world-renowned soloists began to schedule for Cartagena. In January 2006, when expecting 500 visitors, the Cartagena International Music Festival saw more than 5,000 turn up, taking their seats under balmy Caribbean nights and in the city’s emblematic Plaza San Pedro Claver.

The Cartagena International Music Festival celebrated its 10th year this month with a special program dedicated to the “two souls” of the festival: the Americas and Europe.

Some of the performers representing the Old World include Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI La Capella Reial de Catalunya and soloists from the Concerto Italiano. Venues within the walled city include the Santa Clara Chapel, San Pedro Claver Plaza and Adolfo Mejía Theatre.

The New World artists are represented by the Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bogotá Philharmonic Youth Choir, Alexis Cárdenas Quartet, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Hugo Candelario, big band Banda Mantiquiera, and Colectivo Colombia ensemble, among others.

“It’s an emblematic celebration,” states Julia of a festival that has grown to receive 20,000 visitors each January and which the New York Times ranked as a “must do” destination.

While churches, plazas and an ornate Adolfo Mejía Theatre are a testament to virtuosity, the festival is home to master classes where students of music meet to talk everything under the tropical sun and present their compositions. This year’s classes are divided into national and local categories.

The national-level classes are individual instrument classes designed for youth from all over the country. The local-level ones are aimed at the foundation’s on-the-ground Cartagena orchestras and bands.

In order to raise the bar with classical music and Cartagena’s youth, the Salvi Foundation has been expanding involvement in youth orchestra movements, especially those in vulnerable neighborhoods, so that “youngsters can grow with music.”

It’s a 10-year plan and one that Julia envisions giving the port city a talented youth orchestra to represent the city on world stages. “Cartagena is so much more than champeta,” states the founder, referring to the sound of this barrio-based music.

The theme of this year’s festival, ‘Hacia Tierra Firme’ (Towards the Mainland), is a direct reference to time-tested cultural exchanges, which have been taking place between Europe and South America and with Cartagena as the epicenter.

In the words of festival Director Antonio Miscenà, “It’s a journey that Christopher Columbus took for the first time in the 15th century and has determined throughout the years the integration of our customs, beliefs and lifestyles.”

To celebrate the festival’s milestone, Colombian artist Olga Amaral elaborated a gold-threaded tapestry.

Ten years of managing the music festival has converted Julia Salvi into an ambassador of Colombian culture. Having started small with the baton and creative input of Charles Wadsworth, the festival has evolved by staying true to its original mission of inviting select artists.

Sadly, one of the guiding lights of the venture, Victor Salvi, “harp maker of the world” as he was fondly known, passed away in May 2015.

For Julia, Cartagena became an opportunity to recognize her husband’s contribution to the world of music and his inspiration to a generation of young harpists. “Victor loved Cartagena and this is his way of saying, ‘Thank You,’” states Julia.

At the helm of the festival, one which takes a full year of planning, the 10th edition of the Cartagena International Music Festival brings out the luminaries of classical music while reflecting on all that has come before.

Colombian magazine Cromos will exhibit photographs taken during the last decade of the festival and El Espectador newspaper will present its entire news clippings.

If Victor Salvi breathed new life into harp strings, Julia has championed Cartagena as a place of music. If you are one of the fortunate attendees to a future edition of the Cartagena International Music Festival, listening in on the music as it rises triumphantly towards the spires and painted domes of the Old City, remember the not-so-imaginary journey of slaves and clavichords.

The arrival of Baroque in the land of African-infused bullerengue. And the syncretism of sounds, between the Old World and the New, best represented in the repertoire of a Stravinsky “Tango” or Shostakovich piano concerto.

While Cartagena charts its musical destiny within earshot of another great of cultural engagement, the galleon San José, Julia Salvi continues with her commitment to classical music. In a land once conquered by cannons and counterpoint, her foundation and vision have given voice to our diversity, which every January resonates around the world.