Cali’s Petronio Álvarez empowers Afro heritage and peacemakers

The six-day Petronio Álvarez Festival celebrated Pacific foods, and traditions such as braid-making. Photo: Gaia Neiman
The six-day Petronio Álvarez Festival celebrated Pacific foods, and traditions such as braid-making. Photo: Gaia Neiman

Braid-making, face paint, endless food stands showcasing ancestral foods, laughter, and music coming from all sides – these are just a few among the multitude of colorful scenes present at Latin America’s arguably most important Afro festival, Cali’s Petronio Álvarez.

Originally, it began merely as a rustic competition among bands of Pacific music styles, with its protagonist Currulao. Reaching edition 27, the festival stands among the most anticipated events in Cali’s cultural agenda. It offers a precious window into one of the most impoverished yet vibrant areas of Colombia, and is a celebration of Afro-descendant pride.

Spanning from Wednesday, August 16 to Monday 21, this six-day festival provided a platform for wonderful music and culture that hardly finds a space on the continent’s stage. The main performances felt like an incessant rotation of brilliant acts, which were followed by dances and instruments known specifically to Colombia’s Pacific Cauca region, such as the marimba and cunuños – hand-crafted wooden drums with a resonating echo. The violin also played a significant role, unexpectedly intersecting European and Afro-Colombian influences. The main stage hosted the renowned Salsa band, Grupo Niche, for the first time.

The weekdays featured subdued excitement among the audience, culminating noticeably in the weekend. By Friday, there was no room to stand, with contagious dancing and scarves being twirled about by colorful hands, throughout the days and nights. The enthusiasm was equally palpable on the smaller stages, featuring more lively variations of the Pacific music styles, offering relief from the dense numbers crowding the main stage.

Away from the crowds, space was set aside for learning. The amphitheater at the center of the festival structure hosted conferences and discussions on the importance of various traditions and issues overlooked by mainstream media. A particularly moving area displayed portraits of victims lost to the violent conflicts occurring in the Cauca area, aiming to foster solidarity for a mistreated, poorly-resourced, and isolated community. The addition of testimonies and panels enriching understanding on an array of unreported issues made it possible to enjoy the celebration of Afro-Colombians while gaining perspective on why they should be celebrated.

Tragically, the trend of violence was not confined to the coastal areas during this festival. Besides rampant pick-pocketing throughout the event, resulting in countless missing phones, the location of the infamous Petronio after-parties took a tragic turn on Sunday morning.

The popular Pacific ancestral neighborhood of Ciudad Cordoba, whose homes hosted music and dancing after festival hours, experienced a blackout due to the heavy rain that marked the weekend of the festival. During the blackout, a fight broke out, which Lizandro Vallecilla Riascos attempted to break up. In his efforts to restore peace, the percussionist from the group Canalón de Timbiquí lost his life. The Mayoralty of Cali described the musician as an “example of commitment, passion, and dedication to the music and culture of the Colombian Pacific. Throughout a decade, he accompanied Maestra Nidia Góngora and the group on international tours, bringing the music and traditions of the Pacific to stages all around the world.”

Lizandro Vallecilla, percussionist of the band Canalón de Timbiquí was killed during the Petronio Álvarez music festival in Cali. Photo: Alcaldia de Cali.
Lizandro Vallecilla, percussionist of the band Canalón de Timbiquí was killed during the Petronio Álvarez music festival in Cali. Photo: Alcaldia de Cali.

In response to this distressing mid-festival news, the Ministry of Culture emphasized the importance of promoting peace through the arts: “He was killed trying to prevent a conflict. That paradox haunts thousands of artistic and cultural leaders in Colombia: the more they oppose violence, the more viciously it targets them.” This message resonated among those trying to raise awareness about an overlooked segment of Colombian society through a peaceful festival – even art cannot halt the violence perpetuating their lives.

The festival continued in a somber atmosphere until the final act. The poetry tent, intermittently present, encapsulated the mood with tales of marginalization and feelings of inadequacy. However, the beauty stands selling vibrantly patterned clothing traditional of Cauca, the makeup artists and braid-makers welcoming all, served as symbols of empowerment for the beauty of Afro-Colombians, celebrating their divergence from Westernized standards of beauty.

The array of food decorating the myriad of stands provided insight into the Pacifico diet through abundant seafoods. Patacones, shrimps, coconut rice, and of course, the viche liquor that Caucanos hold in high regard for its medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. Witnessing the widespread appreciation for this marginalized cuisine during Petronio Álvarez would bring as much joy as those cooking.

The infectious elation spread by the Pacific peoples was visibly demonstrated through the artisanal market, showcasing colorful jewelry, headscarves, and more. Many Petronio participants departed with enduring memories of their time amid dances and laughter, ensuring they would always remember their forgotten compatriots.