Celebrations in Palenque: Festivals, Bullfights, and the “Lumbalú” Ritual
I traveled to Palenque de San Basilio, for the second time in June 2013, one month alter my initial trip. This time, I was traveling on this date to purposely see Palenque celebrating. It was Father’s Day in the rest of Colombia and Palenque was on its last day of the local celebrations and bullfights. During this celebration, “palenqueros” have processions on horseback and bullfights. Merly, Director of Tu Cultura and our guide had warned me this experience would be different. This time, we would not see the children dancing and the tour around the town would be shorter in order for us to be able to participate in the celebrations and have lunch at Ms. Isabel’s.
When we started the route from Getsemani, Merly, as usual, told the story of the journey the “palenqueros” had from Cartagena to Palenque, the history of Getsemaní and Cartagena’s independence. When we arrived to Palenque, Merly informed us there was a change of plans due to the passing of a famous “palenquero” movie actor, Mr. Evaristo Márquez. This great character was fortunate enough to act next to Marlon Brando, and he was going to be buried that day as his nine days of the lumbalú ritual began. Many of the people who would usually come with us on our tour, were no longer able to be with us, in order to keep their role within the lumbalú ritual for Mr. Márquez.
We were lucky to have Gabino as our tour guide again. The route began in the same place as the last trip, the statue of Benkos Biohó, the church, the stream, and the culture center. We also walked by Maestro Cassiani Cassiani’s home. We later met up with him on the street, playing chess with his friends, and waiting his turn to sing during the lumbalú ritual. We had a brief conversation with him and kept on our way. This day, the school was closed, so we were not able to see it, but did have a conversation with Gabino about the ethno-education programs taught in Palenque. In addition to that, our most extensive topic of conversation was the lumbalú ritual, especially after we went by Mr. Márquez’s home, where his widow was participating in the ritual and we were invited to come inside.
When a “palenquero” passes away, the body must detach itself of three souls. Each soul has a different farewell. The goodbye for the first soul as it detaches itself is with songs, dances, and games. All of these have a common theme: the reunion with the ancestors in another world. Palenqueros relive when they pass away, they will return to the highest part of their origin: the African continent. This is celebrated with the songs led by the drums.
People say goodbye to the second soul, on the last day of the nine-day veiling ceremony, at midnight, were the people within the “kuagro” (social circle) play a game. All of the person’s friends form two rows. The women fill a clay basin with rice and the men hold the stick with which the rice is usually stirred. Together, they carry these as they sing and dance around the places within the town where the deceased usually spent a lot of time. The last stop is the person’s grave at the cemetery.
The third soul is bid a farewell when a person of the community, usually 60 years of age or older, with knowledge of both the lumbalú prayers as well as Catholicism (which is represented in the town by the church, but not actively practiced) will sing and take apart the altar used during the vigil.
During the nine days of the vigil, the people of the “kuagro” prepare foods for all of the visitors to the vigil. During this celebration, they prepare pork, beef, and lots of fish. The members of the “kuagro” the deceased belonged to usually plan the entire vigil ceremony. During the nine days, the mourners do not sleep in bed, since the souls are circling around and they must be uninterrupted. Instead, they sleep on the four, until the vigil is finalized. In this moment, they place a lit candle with a glass of water next to the photo of the deceased in order for the soul to enjoy the water.
When we visited Mr. Márquez’s house, he had not been buried yet. His burial would be later that afternoon and that would give way to the nine days of celebration for his vigil. At that moment, his coffin was in the middle of the living rooms, surrounded by his family and members of his “kuagro,” all of who were singing, dancing and crying. Being able to participate in the celebration of the life of such an influential person within the town was better than watching the bullfights (in my opinion.)
When we left the house, we met Ms. Salgado, who was with a group of residents who were playing ludo and drinking beer. She was selling candy, but stopped to sing us some songs, including the anthem of Palenque with which I began my first tour of Palenque. She also came with us to Ms. Isabel’s restaurant. This time, I had a better opportunity to speak to Ms. Isabel who once again served us the traditional lunch: fish soup (sancocho de pescado), chicken, beef or fish with coconut rice and smashed, fried green plantains.
On this second trip, I realized that even though the small town of Palenque de San Basilio does not have very many sites, the culture is so rich, there are many experiences from which to learn. I knew, at that time, I would come back again. I returned a few months later, in October.