Viche y Tambores: Welcome to Palenque de San Basilio
When I was a child, we used to have a huge event in my hometown every summer called the ‘Roots’ festival. Centered around the teachings of Nguzu Saba (7 principles of Kwanzaa) each day would have it’s own theme and related events. Education, family, community and spirituality were always encouraged and it provided me with an opportunity to learn about a heritage that I otherwise never may have, namely, the concept of ‘Sankofa’. Sankofa is an West African concept, usually depicted symbolically as a bird facing forward, while looking in reverse to symbolize the importance of one’s past in giving he/she direction. I may not have realized it then, mostly because I was too busy trying to win cash at the academic competitions, but I was developing what would eventually become the desire to see the world, as well as the perspective by which I would view it. This journey took on a whole new meaning when I ventured with a good friend of mine to a village in Colombia’s Bolivar region called San Basilio de Palenque for their annual ‘Festival de los Tambores’ (Festival of drums). 5 days of music, food, singing, dancing, communion and cultural history in what could essentially be described as Colombia’s version of Eatonville, Florida.
After 15 hours of catching buses and riding 3-deep (bags and all) on a motorcycle through open pastures and rolling hills, we made the pilgrimage from Bucaramanga to Northern Bolivar. Dirt roads, pigs, cows, colorful hairstyles and and music coming from almost every corner we walked past. Quick history on Palenque: it was a settlement for ‘los cimarrones’ (translated roughly as wild animals) or liberated Africans who fled the haciendas in Cartagena and surrounding areas during the 17th century by Binkos Bioho’. Though there were more of them at one point or another, San Basilio is the only one has managed to sustain itself and it’s language, a blend of Kikongo dialects, Portuguese and ‘Castellano’ (common Spanish) called ‘Palenquera’. Known for drummers, dancers and producing some of Colombia’s greatest boxers it is above all renowned for retaining such a rich heritage-UNESCO recently declared ‘Palenquera’ a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, considered the first free town in America. According to the New York Times, the local language is thought to be the only Spanish-based creole still in existence. You can read more about it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/world/americas/18colombia.html
The days were broken up into sequences of workshops during the daytime and live performances at night. Topics ranged from Drum sessions and dance, to culinary classes and Yoruba cosmology. There was even a session on the history and importance of hairstyles. Historically, braids were used as roadmaps for aspiring escapees to follow to reach palenque in a way reminiscent of the Underground Railroad. Though our accommodations were pretty spartan, it was a much needed change from the stagnancy of Bucaramanga (sorry, Buca, I know it seems like I always rag on you). We were only there for 3 days, but I can confidently say that I hadn’t done so much dancing since I arrived here. I felt like I was back at Miami Carnival, except with cheaper lodging and bootleg cane liquor. I should also mention that Miami Carnival was happening the very same weekend, so it was good to scratch that itch. The drum ceremony at 4am on Sunday morning definitely brought back memories of my first J’ouvert, and that night’s festivities played to the soundtrack of Lingala and Champeta. Needless to say, I felt more at home here than in the city in which I currently live. It felt very much as though a lost breadcrumb had been picked up after a very long trip. Did that have anything to do with the fact that more people in San Basilio look like me? Absolutely. However, after an entire lifetime of being the odd man out in just almost every professional setting I’ve ever worked in, I could really care less.