‘Las calles de Cartagena… aquella historia vivió…’ – Catching up with the Caribbean in the colonial capital

Torre de la Reloj en Cartagena’s old town
So last week my travels took me to Cartagena de Indias in the north coast of Colombia, one of the first ports the Spanish arrived at during the conquista, and boy do you know it!
The verisimilitude to Andalusia was uncanny –  white washed houses sprouting wisteria, shaded plazas with fountains, and streets so narrow you are practically having breakfast with the people in the hostel opposite you.
ImageThis could be Barrio de Santa Cruz in Seville…
I walked around the first morning feeling immensely happy because it reminded me SO much of my year abroad in Seville. But unfortunately I could not find a  real Café con Leche…. (Colombia may produce a lot of coffee, but finding a good cup of coffee here is a different story)
This is the first time I have really felt the presence of the Spanish conquista. Sure, I’ve seen ‘colonial architecture’ out and about in Latin America but as you reach the city walls here, it is a carbon copy of Cartagena in Murcia, Spain. So whilst this is a beautiful city, you have a constant reminder of just how thorough the conquista was.
Even in the main square, the museum there hosts a permanent exhibition about the inquisition: This is where the inaugural event for the ‘Mercado Cultural del Caribe’ was taking place – a four day event of music, talks and networking for artists, managers and enthusiasts of Caribbean music from all over the region. As the performers took to the stage the first night you had a strange juxtaposition of incredible music and then a ‘hanging platform’ where the locals were tortured during the Spanish inquisition!
The mercado was centered around ferias and festivals of Colombia and had representatives from about 50 different cultural events. There are so many festivals in this country and I feel I could live here for five years and still not cover them all!
I was thinking the other day that it would be really useful to have a cultural edition of the Lonely Planet because so many of the places I have visited are not only not mentioned in the guide but don’t even appear on the map!
(In some ways it’s been nice to discover new things that no-one else sees and it’s the fact that they are so unvisited that makes them so special… it’s always a fine line between getting people to experience a community and the community completely changing to support the tourism.)
But any mention of culture is limited to a couple of festivals at the back of a section, usually with wrong dates.
So at the Mercado Cultural I met a lovely girl, Catalina, who probably could have saved me a lot of time and googling on this trip! She has set up a website called COLOMBIAFESTIVA who help you plan your trip around all the cultural events. I have already asked if I could work for  her if and when they need a link in the UK. Check it out here.
In the four days I was introduced to a whole new wave of musical styles: Bullerengue, Puya, Cumbia, Tambor, Gaita…  – most are much faster than the pacific, accompanied by polyrhythmic drumbeats, rapid dance moves and usually a repetitive vocal call and response.  Many of these dances originate from the slave trade where slaves had to perform for their masters and you do experience and incredible energy as these musicians and dancers perform. And age is no barrier. Some of the best dancers and drummers were tiny – everyone learns to dance here.
Gaita: Humberto Pernett, renombrado Colombian gaita artista who performed at the festival on the last day.
The ‘gaita’ is one of the main traditional instruments of the Caribbean coast of Colombia and people go MAD for it. Now Gaita is the Spanish word for Bagpipes so I until now had steered pretty clear. I’d met a girl from Argentina who was raving about the ‘Festival de Gaitas’ and I couldn’t understand how people could stomach a whole weekend of that.
But here it doesn’t mean bagpipes (see photo above) – it is an instrument played like a clarinet or an oboe but sounds a bit like panpipes.
If you want to hear some gaita in action, check out ‘Mujeres de mi Tierra’ (above), a group who performed at the festival. I was so happy after all my research to see a group made up PURELY OF WOMEN! What an inspiration! And they are ace. Check them out here.
One of my happiest moments this weekend was seeing a group I interviewed in Cali, Grupo  Bahía, perform at this festival. There were loads of people from Cali in the crowd and they have a dance called ‘currulao’ which someone leads at the front and then everyone dances in unison. Having been in Cali and getting to know this music over the last few months, it was really special to experience it in a new setting; to sense that familiarity. It’s been a whistlestop tour, but this is definitely a style I have fallen in love with. When ‘te vengo a cantar‘  was played, everyone went crazy. I danced so much that my flipflop broke and I had to hobble back to my hostel to change my shoes. Those havaianas have been with me for a long time, but if they had to leave my feet, dancing to Pacific music with a bunch of Caleños in a beautiful plaza in Cartagena was a good way for them to go!
The head of the band is pretty famous and is interviewed all the time so I didn’t think he would remember me but he came and gave me a massive hug when he saw me! I dared to ask him if he had time to give me marimba lessons and he said he could fit a few in. How exciting!
These travels have really taken me all over the country and I was starting to feel a little bit overwhelmed by getting to know yet another musical genre! Every place I go opens a million new doors of new sounds, rhythms and traditions so it’s definitely time to stop and take stock of everything I have seen this far.
But you know me, I can’t say no and I couldn’t resist fitting in one more visit before I stop for Christmas. This time to the fascinating community of San Basilio de Palenque… watch this space…



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