Rebellion. Resistance. Redemption songs. These are some of the historical attributes that characterize the people of San Basilio de Palenque: a dusty hamlet nestled in the Bolívar department. Like its colonial counterweight, Palenque’s history is long, dating back some 500 years when the first slave ships arrived in Cartagena carrying human merchandise from East Africa. The slaves together with the local Indians created a musical beat called cumbia.
The slave ships alsobrought the ancestors of the Batata, the most important dynasty of drummers in San Basilio de Palenque as well as, the black maroons (runaway slaves) who would later rebel against their Spanish masters and create “palenques” – fortified free towns where they mapped a new musical direction for the coastal lowlands.
Cartagena was one of the most important Caribbean slave trading seaports for over 200 years and there were numerous slave rebellions during this period. Like many other Africans, in the sixteenth century, Benkos Bioho – a tribal king from East Africa – was brought as a slave to Cartagena to work in the building of the colonial city. More than 500,000 Africans, including Bantous, Yorubas, and Mandigas passed through this port.
Leading a hundred-strong group of black maroons, Benkos rose up against his white oppressors, fired shots at a Spanish garrison, was forced to flee and founded a tiny commune, San Basilio de Palenque, in the forest and swamps some 70 kilometers south of Cartagena. For a centuries this hemmed-in “palenque” remained isolated from the rest of Colombia. Today, it is the only town in the Americas that preserved its Afro-Hispanic language: Palenquero.
Coveting African traditions, San Basilio de Palenque, remains a sleepy town of a few hundred Palenquero – with its many Kikongo and Kimbundi words from the Congo/Angola basin – is still widely spoken. This community has also given Colombia more than world-class music: a vibrant boxing tradition that has been immortalized in champions “Kid Pambelé” and “Mochila” Herrera.
Colombia’s rhythms were born during the Spanish colonization, including cumbia, bullerengue, chalupa, chandé, currulao and chirimia. Sounds and rhythms that emerged from the contact between blacks, Indians, and mestizos. Music was indelibly linked to rituals of marriage, life, death and celebrations honoring patronsaints. Brass instruments such as trumpets, saxophones and tubas arrived from Europe in the 1920s and the accordion, so widely used in Vallenato, was brought in from Germany.
During the early 20th century Palenque began to emerge from its isolation. Palenqueros found work in the sugar mills and many immigrated to Cartagena. A city whose port was fundamental in modernizing a young Republic.
Colombian music producer Lucas Silva has been recording and mastering the sounds of the Colombian Caribbean for almost two decades and is the founder of Palenque Records. With 21 tracks, Palenque! Palenque! is a period piece of Afro-Colombian beats when in the early 1970s the coast faced a musical invasion from sound systems that were unloaded from boats sailing between ports such as Kingston and Port-au-Prince. A sound system culture began to impregnate poor neighbourhoods from Cartagena to Barranquilla.
Called “picós” (from ‘pick-up’ in English) the first were nothing more than turntables, since there was no amplified sound in those days and the majority of fiestas (parties) employed music. The arrival of electricity in the shanties changed this musical experience and the Picó loudspeakers began to play Antillean rhythms, salsa and Cuban són.
Meeting with the original masters of Palenque, Lucas Silva mixed the album. The result is a tribute to a sound movement that is as much African as it is grass roots Colombian. A blend of jazzy cumbia and Afro-funk beats as well as vibes from the costeño underworld: the Champeta Criolla; named after the knife-wielded working class of the tough black barrios of the Colombian costa.
Palenque! Palenque! is a treat to eyes and ears. In Europe, the album made headlines for Soundway Records and continues to receive reviews for its brilliant sound. DJs from London to Prague, Amsterdam to Ibiza spin the album in clubs and it rocketed up the charts. “The English love this album because its got a concept,” states Silva. “They appreciate foreign cultures and always look for music that isn’t commercially known.”
Between the rhythms and the lyrics, which described the harsh realities of coastal life, the psychedelic music of a hippie sub-culture penetrated champeta and Cartagena was home to yet more musical invasions. Groups such as Manuel Alvares and his Dangers, Estrellas del Caribe, Abelardo Carbonó, Aguilas Rojas, Lisandro Meza, Cumbia Siglo XX, Wganda Kenya represent the dizzying array of Colombia’s Afro-psychedelia.
In the 1980s the “picós” continued to play an important role in spreading this new sounds and the arrival of albums by the “Kings of African music,” as well as legends Jimi Hendrix and James Brown turned Colombia into the first Afrobeat nation, outside Africa.
Palenque! Palenque! is a masterwork that breaks the mold of commercial releases. Palenque Records continues to scout out old recordings from masters old and new. What was once “forgotten” music is now back on the turntable, followed by many and a very rare blend of tropical psychedelia which transcended the backwaters.
*Palenque! Palenque!: Champeta, Criolla & Afro Roots 1975-91 is available in specialized music stores as well as many of Palenque Records other releases.