Colombia's Big Summer Music Festival Is All About Blackness

Sep 5, 2019
Originally published on September 7, 2019 11:42 am

In western Colombia, the Petronio Alvarez festival is the big event of the summer — five days of music and food and fashion. More than 100,000 people travel from all over the world to the city of Cali, where they celebrate the culture of the country's Afro-Colombian Pacific region. It's a huge party.

Over the past 23 years, the festival has become one of Colombia's largest cultural events. For Afro-Colombians, it has opened a local economy and a space where they can celebrate their culture. And according to Michael Birenbaum Quintero, it's "one of the places where Colombia started to reckon with its own blackness, and with the importance of black culture."

Quintero attended his first Petronio fest in 2002, and he's been to half a dozen since. He also happens to be an ethnomusicologist at Boston University who has spent almost two decades researching the musical practices of Colombia's Pacific coast. He's the author of Rites, Rights & Rhythms: A Genealogy of Musical Meaning in Colombia's Black Pacific.

Quintero graciously agreed to be my guide at this year's Petronio. For four days, we milled around the event eating delicious food, checking out academic panels, and jamming out to some excellent music.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The theme of this festival is race, right? How did that come to be?

The Petronio Alvarez is set up to be about the Colombian Pacific, a region where 85% of the population is black. All of the music that showcased is Afro-descendant music. By opening the door to the question of region, it absolutely opened the door to the question of race. So today, the Petronio festival is absolutely about blackness.

Is there a central moment at the event?

The most important part is the announcement of the winners on that final night — Sunday. The Petronio is set up as a competition, so it's kind of like a reality show. You have the three top bands from each of the musical categories [Violín Caucano, Marimba y Cantos Tradicionales, Chirimía, and Libre] perform, and then the judges retire to their chamber to decide. It's almost like when they name a new pope and they send the smoke signals from the Vatican.

When the announcer comes up onstage and [says] who won, everyone freaks out. Social media starts buzzing, "This person won, that person won!" And the controversy begins: "Oh, how could they name that person? How could they not not name the other person?" That's actually one of the most entertaining things about the Petronio festival.

Although, of course, there's real money that's on the line. Musicians are not paid to come here, so winning a prize is sort of what's going to make it work economically for musicians. A lot of people come from pretty poor backgrounds and pretty distant parts of the country in order to be here.

Why is a festival about Afro-Colombian identity set in a city like Cali — which isn't technically in the Pacific region?

Cali is a black city. It has one of the largest black populations in the Americas, and it has grown with populations migrating from the Colombian Pacific. A large percentage of the city is of African descent, so it makes a lot of political sense for the local government to explicitly name blackness. It's very important for people here in Cali to understand their connection with black culture.


The story of the Pacific is the story of people setting up, in many ways, an autonomous black and indigenous society on the outskirts of modernity. ... The Pacific was outside of the mainstream and was totally invisible to the rest of the country for most of Colombia's history. Before the Petronio Alvarez Festival, people didn't know about this music that had existed for hundreds of years in Colombia. ...

The Petronio festival opens up a kind of mainstream visibility for people from the Pacific, but also for Afro-Colombian culture in general. Even though it's just the Pacific that's being celebrated at the Petronio festival, the idea of having black culture in the spotlight is important for Afro descendant people throughout Colombia. And I would say throughout Latin America.

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In western Colombia, a big event of the summer - five days of music, food and fashion - is the Petronio Alvarez Festival. More than 300,000 people in the city of Cali all celebrate the culture of the country's Pacific region. Maria Paz Gutierrez from NPR's Code Switch podcast was there.


MARIA PAZ GUTIERREZ, BYLINE: It's not just Colombians. People from all over the world are here under Cali's sweltering heat to hear bombos, chirimias and, of course, marimbas - lots of marimbas.


PAZ GUTIERREZ: The whole thing is a huge party. And if you ask any Afro-Colombian how parties in the Pacific get started, they'll say one word.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

MICHAEL BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: Basically a kind of white rum. And viche means sort of not yet ripe.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: That's Michael Birenbaum Quintero, an ethnomusicologist at Boston University. He studies the music of Colombia's Pacific coast region.

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: Viche is very important because, obviously, you can drink it and get drunk. But it's also used for different kinds of herbal preparations, different kinds of medicine.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: So I'm about to drink the viche curao (ph). Here we go. Oh, my God.

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: (Laughter, speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Suddenly, across from the viche stands, a couple dozen Afro-Colombian dancers and musicians start to perform.


BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: So right now we're seeing a bunch of young people - I'm guessing that their high school students - in these very beautiful, very bright-colored uniforms. And they're doing folkloric dance in these lines with each other. I think this is a kind of dance from Choco, the northern part of the Pacific coast.


PAZ GUTIERREZ: Behind them, rows of stand selling traditional Afro-Colombian seafood dishes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: So I have a bowl of muchilla, which is like a big crayfish. It's got, like, the eyeballs and the whole setup. Oh, it's all on my face. I could feel it.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: It's all in my teeth. I can taste it.

With food in my teeth and all, we get a little serious. Michael tells me this festival is about more than just viche and seafood and really great music.

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: A national identity isn't something which just happens. One of the reasons why the Colombian state is invested in this is because it's teaching Colombians about themselves.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: The Pacific region is a couple hours east of Cali, and it's home to a large Afro-Colombian population. This festival celebrates their rich African roots. It's also a space where people can talk openly about the region's problems. Many have been displaced to this city because of the high levels of violence and poverty in the Pacific region.

ELENA HINESTROSA: (Singing in Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: For the love of the earth, the people demand a solution, sings Elena Hinestrosa. She's a proud black poet and a (speaking Spanish) or singer. And she leads Integracion Pacifica, a 10-member ensemble.


INTEGRACION PACIFICA: (Singing in Spanish).

HINESTROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: She's glad to put the Petronio Festival exists because, she says, after being forced to leave your hometown, if you don't hear your music, then you've lost your culture.


INTEGRACION PACIFICA: (Singing in Spanish).


PAZ GUTIERREZ: At the Petronio, that culture is everywhere between live music...


PAZ GUTIERREZ: ...The endless delicious snacks from the Pacific Coast...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: ...And the young black people who proudly wear Afrocentric styles.

EVELYN BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Evelyn Bonilla (ph) is a 23-year-old from the Pacific who looks beautiful with her hair in long braids.

BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: This event helped me take ownership of my customs and culture, she says...

BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: ...Like wearing head wraps and colorful skirts, that's what I like.


PAZ GUTIERREZ: In a city where black people sometimes say they feel invisible, the Petronio is a place where they feel a sense of belonging, where activists, musicians and friends can shout we Afro-Colombians are here, and we're Colombian, too.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Maria Paz Gutierrez, NPR News, Cali, Colombia.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.