Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

La Candela Viva

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

La Candela Viva

Article excerpt

THE DRUM BEAT IS THE PULSE OF PALENQUE DE SAN BASILIO; it is central to birth, death, marriage and other celebrations. In this Colombian town, drumming is about communion and connection: with the ancestors, spiritenergies, dancers and singers. Rafael Cassiani Cassiani, one of the town's most legendary musicians, affirms this strong connection. He is in the patio of his home, sitting atop his marímbula, a rectangular box instrument with metal keys that he explains came to Palenque from Cuba. Smiling, he eagerly awaits guests to whom he will explain the significance of music in his life and the living history that he embodies.

I am one such guest, part of a tourist group of professors and scholars of Latin America who are taking an organized tour of Palenque (also called San Basilio de Palenque), said to be the oldest surviving free community established by runaway slaves in the Americas. It was founded in the early 17th century by enslaved peoples who fled from Cartagena de Indias, one of the largest slave entrepots in Spanish America. Our tour, like many tours here, is organized with the close cooperation of community members. One of them met us in Cartagena, sharing the history of Palenque with us en route to the town. By the time we arrived, we had learned of the social structures, local agriculture, religion, the Bantú-derived Palenquero language and the importance of musical heritage.

We stepped down from our tour bus into the central plaza of the town, dominated by a tall statue of Benkos Bioho, the runaway slave warrior who founded the community. The statue is a reminder of the long history of black resistance in Colombia and the liberation achieved by Bioho. His power and strength are evident in his posture and expression, rising out of the column that lifts the statue into the air far above human height. His hands, the right lifting beyond his body, show where chains were around the wrists. Bioho, known as Domingo in the Americas, was said to be an African king who came from the Bioho region of what is today GuineaBissau. He fled Spanish colonial slavery with his family, and established Palenque. As Colombian anthropologist Nina S. de Friedemann asserted in one of the first cultural studies of Palenque, Ma Ngombe: guerreros y ganaderos in Palenque (1979), the name Benkos Bioho has come to symbolize the spirit of rebellion.

Due to its maroon community heritage, Palenque has traditionally been portrayed in terms of its relative isolation and insularity. Its separation from mainstream Colombian culture and preservation of long-held traditions are celebrated locally, nationally, and more recently, internationally. UNESCO named the town a site of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Yet Palenqueros have long contributed to Colombian society more broadly; music-as well as sports (it is the birthplace of three world champion boxers)-has been an essential conduit of connection. In the following three examples, Palenque's musical engagement in a wider, African diasporic community is visible. I follow the lead of historian Kim Butler, who claims that the unique relationships forged between members of the African diaspora and their communities, including across generations, are a fundamental aspect of the diasporic experience and process. The first is an example of outsiders coming in, the last two represent moments of Palenqueros reaching out, bringing their music to wider national and international audiences.

Ha llegado el habanero, Ha llegado el palenquero

-from "Chí Chí Maní," Totó la momposina

The Sexteto Tabalá celebrated ninety years of creating music this year. Members have come and gone from the group, but Rafael Cassiani has been one of the most consistent across the decades. He joined the group as a child in the 1930s. When he spoke to our tour group about the Sexteto's history, he repeatedly emphasized how influential Cuban culture has been to the group. This is surprising, given that Palenque is understood to have a rich musical tradition that has been relatively untouched, untainted, and more "African" than other musical styles. …

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