´Yo me voy para Palenque tierra de la libertad´ – An African Adventure in San Basilio…

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Students waiting for rehearsal at the dance school

Palenquero and the people of Palenque

Back in 2004 when I studied Spanish Linguistics at University I learned about a creole language called ´Palenquero´ which was spoken by a very small community in northern Colombia, San Basilio de Palenque. It was a community of about 3000 people hidden away in the north of Colombia which is said to be the first and only remaining African civilisation formed by escaped slaves during the 17th century. Despite the passing of time, its inhabitants live exactly as they did many years ago, and have firmly kept their traditions and african rituals. Palenque has come to simbolise freedom, as everyone who came to live there was automatically free. Right from the moment I got my grant, this was one place I was fascinated to see.

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What is a creole?

A creole is formed when a group of people without a common language are thrown together. All their languages go into the mix and they manage to find a way to communicate with one another, but it will be very basic, and probably lack grammar. This is known as a pidgin. Then, the children of this community will hear the pidgin and interpret it as a proper language, adding their own grammar to it and creating a full language – a creole.

In the case of Palenquero, its lexicon is heavily borrowed from Spanish and Portuguese, the language of the slave traders who brought slaves over from Angola and the Congo and local African language Bantu languages, especially Kikongo.

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First impressions

I was fascinated about San Basilio de Palenque and when I met some musicians in Cartagena who were from there, I asked straight away if I could come and visit their music and dance school. Of course as always  I was very welcome!

I got a local bus which dropped me on the side of road and then motos were waiting to transport people to the community. It was a good 15 minute journey, going deeper and deeper into the countryside and the roads becoming muddier as we approached Palenque.

I was dropped off and saw loads of people milling about in the street and in shops. I felt more than ever that I stood out as a white gringa. I went to meet Andreu, who I had met in Cartagena. He introduced me to my host, Solbays, a lovely lady with five young daughters. Her husband owns the town soundsystems and they had been mounted outside her house for a massive party. The music was so loud that we had to take our chairs half way up the street to have a conversation. We had a chat about what I was doing there, she was really helpful and said I could ask her anything about the culture.

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On first impressions you may think that Palenque is poor, but it´s not. No-one is living on the streets, no-one is dying of hunger. But it is a very simple way of living. Showers are a bucket of cold water, all the daughters sleep in the same bed. The girls had already broken up for holidays and when I asked them what they do each day, they just shrugged their shoulders ´nothing´. They spend a lot of the day watching TV and people just wander into each others´ houses to say hi. It´s a very fluid community. Everyone seems to be related somehow, or be very good friends. It had a nice feel to it.

There were so many pigs on the street! Not police, I mean like animals. They were chilling out there, like they were dogs or cats. Just so casual.

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Batata Music and Dance school

To have ´batata´ in the caribbean is to have strength.

I was given a chaperone, Solbays´ 13 year old daughter (also called Solbays which confused me for a while) and she escorted me to the Music and Dance school who were having their daily rehearsal. THIS is what the children and young people do in Palenque – they play the drums and they dance! About fifiteen young boys raced into the room and starting shaking and dancing and drumming on the tables. It was like the start of most period 5 lessons at Uxbridge, except this time this was what they were supposed to do. Then the girls arrived, who all strutted in, made-up, very conscious of how they looked. It seems the girls grow up fast here.

I absolutely loved this rehearsal. It was one of the best things I have seen. There was just SUCH energy and letting go! I thought about so many of my students at Uxbridge and how much they would have benefited from something like this. (I particularly thought of Iain Gordon!)

Watch the video here and see if you can spot the smallest drummer in the world.

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I asked one of the students about what the music and dance can tell us about the culture and this is what he told me:

    • ImageThe dance comes from when the slaves used to dance for their masters and could show: love and desire, pain, non-conforming, and sometimes just making fun of the Spanish!
  • The ‘lumbalum’ is a religious dance where people dance around a dead body. The women rub their stomachs to show the pain they are feeling is similar to labour.
  • The Palenqueros believe in three worlds:
  1. The world we live in
  2. The ´más allá´ (the beyond) – when people are ill they believe that their deceased relatives visit them and tell them how to get better. People often wake up from dreams saying that a mother or an aunt has told them to eat a certain thing, Imageor to be in a certain place.
  3. The world of the ´mujana´ or the ´chimbunde´ – an imaginary creature who has  become a reality. He lives under the water and if children are naughty he takes them into the water…
  • ´Leko´ is the Palenquero way of crying. He explained to me that they don´t try to cover up their pain, they really let it out and vocalise it.
  • ´Mapalé´ is the dance which shows the male and female slaves in their moment of freedom where they had fun – these dance moves are quite sexual and explicit – slightly weird when it´s 11 year olds performing it!
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That night, coincidentally, a famous musician Humberto Pernett was performing in the village with two locals.They had moved the sound system to the main square and were filming it all for a documentary.

The next day, the documentary team were still there so I managed to sit in on the rehearsals and chat to the musicians. I even got a drum lesson by one of the lads! It was really hard! He kept laughing at me. He was telling me the rhythm but I just couldn´t understand it. See me doing a VERY simple beat, here.

I decided to stay another night and watch some more of the rehearsals, this time also getting to see ´Kombilesa Mi´, a youth hip hop group where I am also happy to see girls both playing instruments and rapping! LISTEN HERE and HERE

I left the next morning on a bus back to Cartagena. I felt I would like to have stayed longer there, but also felt I needed more of a structured purpose. It is quite a slow pace of life if you don´t have anything to do! I met some people doing really interesting work there like a community architect who was working with the locals to build a kindergarten. I would love to come back here and study the music properly – maybe another trip… (do I say this everywhere I go…?!)

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Humberto Pernett jamming with local musicians for the documentary

I´m now back in Cali and on my first day bumped into Andrés who is the guitarist for Herencia de Timbiqui. I asked him if he had ever visited Palenque and he said that funnily enough that day they were releasing a new single which was inspired by Palenque and written in Palenquero.

It´s called I a kele kandá – which means ´yo quiero cantar´ (I want to sing) LISTEN HERE! And feel the African rhythms run through your veins…

I have had a geeky go and trying to translate the Palenquero using a bilingual text I found on the internet! Any Palenqueros out there, please help me with it!

YO ME VOY PARA PALENKE TIERRA DE LA LIBERTAD
DONDE SE MANTIENE FUERTE LA CULTURA DE AFRICA
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI

(I´m going to Palenque – land of liberty where they strongly maintain the African culture. I want to sing, for my people)

I A KELE CHITIA CU BO LO KE BO KELE PRUNDA
CUNA DE BENKOS BIOHO PADRE DE LA LIBERTAD
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI

(I want to tell you what you want to know about Benkos Bioho, father of freedom (Benkos Bioho was the founder of Palenque)

GUEN LLEGAO A TIELA MI KE ASENDARI TABALA
ANE ANDA BO POSÁ Y ASENDA COMBILISÁ
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI

Posá – house              Combilisá – friends               Asenda – was           ane – they           tiela – land

BATA NOS ENSEÑO NUESTRO VALOR CULTURAL
CUIDEMOSLO CON AMOR QUE NO SE VALLA A ACABAR
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI
I A KELE KANDA PA MA GENDE MI

(Bata taught us the value of our culture, let´s look after it with love, so that it never ends)

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