Estéreo Picnic

How Bogota’s Estéreo Picnic Festival Experienced Taylor Hawkins’ Passing

Photo by Mathew Valbuena.

Spirits were high for people coming to the 11th edition of Estéreo Picnic Festival, the three-day festival that has helped Bogota, Colombia, become a music hub, held from March 25 to 27. On the day doors opened, it was a crisp and mostly sunny day for people venturing out to the idyllic green outskirts of the city to catch international headliners like Doja Cat, Pabllo Vittar, ASAP Rocky, and local performers like Ela Minus, Margarita Siempre Viva, and Los Gaiteros. After the festival’s two-year pandemic absence, there was joy in people’s faces, eager to experience live music again. It was the big comeback for Colombia’s most important music festival, which, thanks to its diverse and forward-thinking lineups, draws people from all over the country and even the world.

Only after Estéreo Picnic was founded in 2010 did big caliber international acts begin performing in Colombia, sharing the stage with homegrown talent — something that’s not lost on festival-goers. Estéreo Picnic is still one of the few chances fans in Colombia get to be face-to-face with their favorite international artists. So this year, organizers went all out with a star-studded lineup promising a nonstop three-day party that would jumpstart Colombia’s music universe.

As soon as we got on the festival grounds, my photographer and I headed straight to see Nidia Góngora, the prolific traditional Afro-Pacific singer and storyteller. With her band, the Pacifican Power, and their marimba-infused melodies, they fired up the energy in the crowd. People who didn’t know each other started dancing together. A woman dancing next to us closed her eyes, swayed her hips, and entered some ancestral trance. People were hungry to let loose and enjoy live music again.  

But around sundown, unexpected news started circling that Foo Fighters, who were headlining that night, had to cancel their show at the very last minute because of a medical emergency. When my photographer and I walked to one of the main stages, one fan started shouting in disbelief while looking at his phone, telling his friend that Taylor Hawkins, the band’s drummer, had just died in Bogota. I was shocked. It couldn’t be Taylor Hawkins, the charismatic, protegé drummer I had just seen play a few years ago.

I asked the fan to show us the tweet, and there it was — Hawkins had passed, and their Estéreo Picnic show was canceled. My photographer and I hoped it was fake news since I hadn’t gotten any messages in the festival organizers’ WhatsApp group they use to update journalists covering the event. We didn’t think too much of it and went to catch the Black Pumas show.

Once we got to the stage, Black Pumas singer Eric Burton quietly walked up to the mic and broke the news that Hawkins had just passed away a few hours ago. A collective gasp echoed through the crowd, as did sounds of surprise and disbelief. Cell service wasn’t the best at the festival, so everyone had been in the dark about the news. Burton then asked for a moment of silence from the crowd of thousands in his memory. At that moment, a piercingly somber silence took over the crowd as the spotlight shined on Burton and guitarist Adrian Quesada. “Que descanse en paz Taylor Hawkins, muchas gracias Bogotá!,” Quesada shouted, leading the crowd to chant, “Hawkins! Hawkins! Hawkins!” 

La Ramona, a local pop and blues musician, was standing in that crowd when Black Pumas made the announcement. “At first I was confused and then it hit me. Tears flooded my eyes and I said to myself, ‘life is right now,’” she tells Remezcla, adding that she had come to Estéreo Picnic just to see Foo Fighters play that night. “Then I hugged my friends while collectively crying. I was thankful for his work and for the message he left with his passing.”

It was certainly terrible news for all Foo fans around the world, but even more so for their followers in Colombia, who were looking forward to seeing the band that evening. Carolina Henao had flown in that morning from Medellín just to see them. “This is so devastating, how is this going to happen just hours from performing?” she tells Remezcla. Carolina had missed the first time Foo Fighters played in Colombia a few years back and she was determined to see them this time. “I am obsessed with them, I listened to their songs nonstop for months waiting for this moment,” she says. “This is really a tragedy and I feel so sad for his relatives and friends.”

Black Pumas extended their show by 40 minutes to fill in the gap left by the Foo Fighters at the festival that night. The band delivered an exhilarating performance that felt more like a soulful ritual soothing teary fans, easing their mournful pain.

Hawkins, who was 50 years old, was found dead on the floor of his hotel room at Bogota’s Four Seasons earlier that afternoon. Though the official cause of death is still under investigation, early tests reportedly showed Hawkins had several substances in his system at his death, including opioids, marijuana, and benzodiazepines, according to the attorney general’s office of Colombia. Born in California,  Hawkins got his mainstream break playing for Alanis Morrisette. Then in 1990, then Nirvana’s drummer Dave Grohl met him at a radio station concert, and they were immediately drawn to each other. When Grohl formed Foo Fighters, he hit up Hawkins and asked him to join him. 

Hawkins’ sudden death prompted a sense of collective mourning; other artists playing at the festival made memorials for him on their shows. The festival then turned into a series of heartfelt tributes to Hawkins. There were moments of silence, fans in tears, and candle tributes on stage, to name a few. And even though the Foo Fighters’ performance was canceled, their music was present and played through the remainder of the festival.

On the last night of Festival Estéreo Picnic, Doja Cat stopped her show and asked everyone in the crowd to turn on their phone flashlights. She spoke about Hawkin’s passing and the fact that they had been on the same festival tour around South America together. Then, her drummer and guitarist played Foo Fighters’ song “Hero.” Moments later, Doja appeared draped in a Colombian flag around her shoulders and briefly played the drums. 

Walking past an empty stage, a huge projection of Hawkins’ face was displayed with the words “Hero” and “Taylor Hawkins Por Siempre,” as people stood around holding candles. Some were also holding each other, others were alone, pensive. An unusual scene for a festival that was meant to be a huge party. However, I thought of how cathartic it must be to have that space for fans and how mostly strangers could be brought together in a moment like this.

Although Hawkins’ death unexpectedly changed the festival’s ambiance, reminding everyone of how fragile life is, it made us all reflect on our mortality. There were huge Hollywood sign-like letters sticking out of the ground by one of the stages spelling “Aqui y Ahora.” And for me, and probably many others alike, that took on a whole new meaning. And so the show went on. In the end, what proved most effective in soothing such a big blow was music’s healing power and coming together, not only to enjoy but also to mourn and reflect on music in general and the effects it has on people.