Day and night, the hypnotic beat of the African drum echoes throughout the small town of San Basilio de Palenque. Music sets the pace of life here in the skirts of the hills, one hour inland from the postcard perfect city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
The vibrant colours and flavours of the town bring the dusty streets alive. Vivacious Palenquera women in their traditional dress sell their coconut sweets in the town’s main square during the heat of the day.
The Palenqueros are the decedents of a generation of martyrs called cimarrones. These were the enslaved people of African descent who escaped from Cartagena, under the leadership of Benkos Bioho. They established the first free town in the Americas, which is today a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Music is central to the heart of the community and it is something that the Palenqueros cannot live without. “If there was no music in our lives we wouldn’t feel anything, we would be nothing,” says Diover, a local guide.
Witnessing a performance of the traditional dances opens a gateway into their culture. Everybody, from toddlers to the elderly, enjoy shaking their hips to the rhythms of mapalé, pulla and cumbia. El Pavo y La Pava, is another interesting artistic imitation of the courting habits of turkeys.
During October, the town turns to full party mode for the Festival de Tambores, or the Drums Festival, when many international and local acts are invited to play at this popular folkloric musical event.
Local artists include veteran musicians of Caribbean sounds, such as Estrellas del Caribe and Sexteto Tabalá. Theses artists are delighted to share their experiences while lounging outside on their porches, watching the comings and goings of their proud community.
Kombilesa Mi, meaning “my friends” in the Palenquero language, is a talented young folkloric hip hop group from Palenque. They represent their culture on a national level.
Sunday in Palenque is a day of rest. The men gather around small tables outside the local bar, drinking beer and playing dominos. The game can get heated. As local Alberto says, “When you lose, you argue and when you win, you also argue.” Really, it seems they just like to make a fuss!
Palenque was seen as a place of refuge for many people throughout history. Until the 1960s, the town was practically cut off from the rest of society. In recent years it has become home to the people of the Bonga community, who were expelled from their lands by the violent groups of the armed conflict in Colombia. The Palenqueros accepted these people with open arms and a new community was formed within the town.
Palenque has much to offer as a cultural destination and it is truly inspiring to learn about the history of the brave cimarrones and the identity and tradition that has been conserved, to this day.