My third trip to Palenque was meant to provide me the opportunity of submerging myself in the complete festive experience of Palenque and their customs. I traveled in October 2013, during the Drum Festival. Each year, the Festival honors a famous musician from Palenque. 2013 dedicated an amazing tribute to one of the musicians who put Palenque de San Basilio on the international map, and someone who became part of my Palenque family: maestro Rafael Cassiani Cassiani.
It was a typical day in Palenque: hot, humid, and everyone was celebrating. Every trip I made to Palenque, there has been a celebration. Just as in my previous trips, I was able to interact with the locals, who opened their spaces and homes to welcome hundreds of people who were visiting the small town during the four days of celebration. With a huge stage in the main plaza, next to the statue of Benkos Biojo, some of the locals were sitting around the stage drinking beer, while others were at their different locations where they were presenting the culture to the visitors.
Every presentation and class played homage to the palenquero traditions that are being preserved in order to maintain the status of UNESCO Oral Heritage Site. The first class we visited was a language class. The teacher taught us the difference between the palenquero language and Spanish and taught us a few words. In the meantime, in the back of the room, another local lady sold her traditional candy. That day, together with a very good friend of mine who traveled with me, we enjoyed some enyucado (cake made of yucca root, coconut, local cheese, and spices) as well as banana cocadas (candy made with grated coconut, unrefined sugar, coconut milk and bananas).
We then went to a drum class where a number of people were sitting in a circle learning to play African rhythms on different types of drums. Meanwhile, next door, a local palenquero healer spoke about different techniques of natural healing as he sold his botanical products. When we left the healer’s house, we walked around town, headed to the stream, which was still dry in the absence of rain that usually floods it. I never saw the stream with water due to the drought. At that point in the day, the heat began to get to us and led us towards the plaza in hopes to start enjoying the concerts. On our way there, we stopped by a house where they were teaching about the different types of palenquero hair styles. It was this trip, that I learned in more detail that each hair style has a meaning. There are styles that are used during times of mourning, while others signify celebration. This tradition is still very much embedded within the palenquero culture and is always remembered as the aspect that helped give the Afro Colombians their liberty.
When we arrived to the plaza, before finding a seat at the best table with the best view of the stage, it began to rain, as we purchased a beer. Both the rain and the beer provided great relief to the suffocating heat, allowing us to enjoy the party even more. During the different concerts, we were able to get up, walk around, dance, and enjoy other delicacies, such as corn bunuelos (corn fritters served on a stick, almost like the batter of a corn dog). Different musical groups were scheduled to play. Gabino, my friend and usual tour guide, was not touring today. Due to the festival, the town had many other people as tour guides taking the small groups around from place to place through the different classes and sites. Gabino had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy with us as he told us the party that night would end at 5am. It is four full days of partying. He invited us to join. Our celebration ended way before 5am, but gave us enough time to get a taste of the palenquero culture and celebration. The experience was an emotional one for me. As I said goodbye to Gabino, I told him I would be moving out of Colombia and assured him would return when I went back to Cartagena for a visit. At this time, I hold Palenque de San Basilio and all of the people very present, since they became part of my Palenque family, who I miss and hope to visit soon.
Contributing writer, Vivian Liberman is a hospitality and culinary expert. She is always expanding her knowledge of the industry through her extensive travels and enthusiasm to try new things.