There is something primordial in drum music that echoes to the deepest essence of being. The wind was howling through my ears. The mototaxi was passing by through the fields with many grazing cows. The road without paving was sandy and bumpy. I was on my way to Palenque village where the annual drum festival was about to take place – one of the biggest Afro-Colombian culture event of the year.
The unique village
There is something primordial in drum music that echoes to the deepest essence of being.
Statue of freedom in central square of San Basilio de Palenque
Situated a couple of hours from Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque was the first town of freed slaves in South America. The slave market was booming on the Caribbean coast and Cartagena was an important port supplying slaves to South America. The main artery for transporting slaves was the river Magdalena. However, on the way some slaves escaped and by helping others to escape formed an independent community in Palenque, not too far away from the river banks. My mototaxi driver explained that the main occupation in the village nowadays is agriculture – people are growing plantains, yucca, potatoes, cows, chicken.
The unique culture that this village preserved was announced as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The village has its own language, which is called palenquero. It is a mixture of African languages, Spanish and Portuguese, spoken by the slave traders. Also the village has strong music and dance traditions that reflect the Afro-Caribbean culture.
The mototaxi stopped close to the main square of the village. Shadowed by the small church, the square was half occupied by the huge stage, where the stage-workers were arranging the wires for the evening’s concert. Small one-storey houses were scattered along the muddy streets without pavement, where pigs and chicken were grazing freely. The church was the highest building in the village.
Before coming here, everyone was warning me that there is no place to stay in the village: no hotels (if that should scare me:) ) and I need to arrange accommodation with local people (if that should scare me even more…). And of course, it became obvious that they were right. The village seemed to be really rustic and unaffected much by tourism. Hurray!
Dancing like palenquero
I headed to the cultural center of the village where traditional dance class was about to start. The hall was full of people ready to learn dance moves. Apart from me, I saw more foreigners. There are two main dance styles – bullerengue and mapalé that are popular in Palenque. We were about to learn basic moves of both dances.
Bullerengue is a slow, very emotional dance which is danced to the music of the same name. It is a dance to express deep feelings, mainly sadness. Like in many African traditions, in Palenque, a childbirth is a sad occasion, when everyone mourns in sorrow and a funeral is a happy celebration. The movements of the bullerengue dance are gentle, suitable for pregnant women to perform it as well.
Mapalé dance is quite opposite – very fast, harsh and highly erotic. The hall was filled with laughter and the shouts of fascination when the dance teachers on the ground showed how to perform the “mating” moves. Very different from my own traditional dances where people barely touch each other.
However, the “mating” moves of mapalé dance were not shocking for me anymore. On the contrary, after seeing dancehall dances in Jamaica, this dance, accompanied by the harmonies of live drum music, seemed to be full of innocence and some kind of primordial energy.
Local degustations and the Eastern European energy
After the dance class, I dared to try a strong local alcoholic drink called “nieke” (no idea how it is spelled correctly). For this quest I hired a 9 year old boy. I paid off with a chocolate bar. Following the boy through narrow streets, I found the drink in one of the houses on the corner. A woman dressed in a colourful caribbean style dress sold two bottles of nieke for 6000 pesos (~2 EU).
I started my degustation with a couple of shots and ended up with a spinning head and urge to sit down. Funny thing, in the Lithuanian language nieke sounds very similar to the word “nieko”, which means “nothing”. And I really felt like soon I will remember “nothing”.
The statue for the freed slaves in the main square seemed to be a perfect place to take a rest. However, it was already occupied. Leaning towards the pedestal, there was a blond bare-chested hippy guy. His sunburnt face was full of peace and happiness.
“Can I sit down?”
“Sure. This is a statue that symbolizes the freedom, so why to ask?”
I poured a shot of nieke for my new friend. He drank it fastly.
“I never met anyone from Lithuania”, didn’t surprise me at all the hippy guy. “But I met some Czechs. So I can feel your Eastern European energy…”
Hmmm, was it the shot of vodka (oh, sorry – nieke) that had such a strong Eastern European energy? My new friend was from Ireland, but quite a reasonable time he spent in the jungles of Peru, experimenting with the Ayahuasca and other psychedelic herbs. Now he lives on the beach on the Caribbean coast, even though a couple of days before arriving to Palenque, police came and kindly asked him to leave, accusing him of the crime called “being a gipsy”.
After having life changing experiences in Peru, he is trying to introduce the tradition of psychedelic herbs to the coast – which primarily is the land of coca. Speaking of which, he had some. His hand went deep into his bag and pulled out a plastic bag full of green leaves.
“You take a bunch and put it into your mouth, behind the teeth. You have to hold it there for 30 minutes, until it becomes soft.”
He pulled out another bag with white powder.
“This is smashed sea shells. They activate the coca and you start tripping. Indians from Sierra Nevada use them for their meditation.”
He took a pinch of the white powder and poured into his mouth.
Coca leaves… I came to Colombia with many stereotypes in my head regarding this herb. However, after seeing a Bolivian film director explaining on the stage how her grandmother grows coca and how she gives coca leaves for her baby daughter when she has a toothache, I thought maybe it is not such a big deal after all.
I swallowed the weird looking sea shell powder and placed the coca leaves in my mouth. Soon all my numbness was wiped away. Some strange flow of energy filled my body and sharpened my vision. The dizzy effect of nieke was gone. Who needs coffee?
Combination of coca leaves and white shell powder is an important part of indigenous world in Sierra Nevada – it is used by Kogui indigenous tribes as the highest spiritual practice.
Thunderstorm, cosmic gates and hypnosis
As soon as the sun went down, the concerts started. There were around 5 bands in the line-up. But the misfortunate grey clouds were not promising a gentle evening breeze. Lightings shredded the clouds and the rain started showering the escaping audience.
Some most diligent dancers were continuing to stomp barefoot on the wet, sinking pavement, but the strong lightings scared away even the last ones. One more strong lighting cut off the electricity and all village was filled with darkness.
I was hiding under the roof of a small shop, squeezed with many other storm survivors.
“Doctor, buy a lemonade. Only 1000 pesos! All natural! Oranges”, was persisting an old drunk man in Spanish with a very strong African accent. In the darkness I couldn’t see his face clearly. A chubby woman next to him poured lemonade in my glass.
“Is he your husband?”
She nodded without enthusiasm.
“Are you long time married?”
“Ahhh..” she lifted her hands in the sky, like it was already the whole eternity. I looked again at the happy drunk guy. Who knows if it was the happy eternity…
Somewhere in the darkness of the storm I met again my hippy friend. With enthusiasm in his face he was explaining something about the drum music, lightings, dance of energies and opened cosmic gates of the universe. And apparently some old palenquero tried to hypnotise him in the bar by performing secret power dance.
“I knew what he was doing. I know these things, so I instantly understood what he was doing. I just said – dude, back off. But for a second I was gone.”
“What do you think he wanted to do with you after the hypnosis?”
“I don’t know. Maybe to rob me…”
Hmmm, interesting. In South America, even the magicians want to rob you… What’s the point of taking your soul, when they can take your wallet? 😉
Reaching the roots on the dancefloor
After a couple of hours the rain clouds were blown away, the electricity was restored and the audience started gathering again from their hideaways. Madding dancing crowd soon forgot the misfortunate storm. The dances were becoming wilder and wilder.
‘Where did you learn how to dance?” I asked a guy dancing beside me.
“I don’t know. Maybe it is in my blood”.
And for sure there was something magical about the drum music. Maybe it hasn’t opened any universal gates for me, as it did for my hippy friend, but it seemed to echo deeply in me.
As if my heartbeat itself was synchronized with the constant never ending drumbeat leading to shivers, catarsis and trance. After all, drum is the most archetypical instrument, that ancestral civilizations used for both sacral purposes and entertainment. So maybe the vibrations of the sounds found their way to the hidden, primordial parts of me.
But not everyone could survive the madness on the dancefloor. A barefoot, foreign-looking guy in a frenzy of excitement was either juggling, balancing his clubs on his nose or seducing girls for a dance in a Don Juan manner. But after a couple more bands performances he seemed to have got tired. He sat down, and while smiling towards invisible creatures somewhere in front of him, collapsed over his backpack drowning into a deep drunken sleep. Everyone continued to dance ignoring the sleeping guy.
However, the elderly women from Palenque noticed him. With smiling faces, full of laughter, the women surrounded the poor guy and started moving in a circle with plastic synchronized hand movements. I couldn’t believe it. They were dancing the traditional funeral dance. The women really had a good sense of humor.
Till the sunrise
The concert ended up at 2 am. The lights on the stage were turned off. But people were not fast to leave. A couple of guys brought drums and started playing them just on the street gathering a dancing crowd around them. Like in a shamanic ritual, the drum music and dancing didn’t stop until the first squawks of the roosters at 4.30 am.
Then the street music went silent. Something was about to happen. Many figures started gathering in still dark streets. The dancers in their Carribean dresses, drummers, old ladies with colourful turbans. Soon the music and the songs started.
Still in the darkness, this musical parade was wading through the muddy streets towards the hill to meet the sun. In the shadows of the dawn, the drums and dances looked somehow surreal. Like going back in time to the ancient times.
When the sun finally flooded the village with light, the parade returned to the main square. Someone was playing a drum on the street. Apparently, it was the same guy who played non-stop all night! Where did he get his energy from?
No one knows. I hadn’t any energy left. In the gentle light of the morning I suddenly understood that I hadn’t slept at all in the past 24 hours. It was time to go take a rest.
Cover photo by:
Mstyslav Chernov [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons