Dressed in a long multicoloured dress with intricate patterns, adorned with symbols of Africa, Marino Martinez waves a white handkerchief in the air. She performs a dance unique to Colombia’s pacific coast, seemingly with unlimited energy. Together with nearly fifty-thousand people, crammed into Cali’s football stadium, she joins in as Mexican waves travel around the crowds, and people sing along to their favourite songs.
“This is the best festival in the world, everyone should know about it,” she tells The City Paper as sweat drips off her forehead from the baking heat. She is referring to Petronio Alvarez, the biggest Afro-Latino music festival in the world, and which originated in the southern departmental capital, Cali. With thirty members of her community she travelled seventeen hours by boat from a remote Afro-Colombian community to reach the festival. “We would never miss this festival, it is a celebration of our culture.”
For five straight days, the stadium was rocked, as attendees watched over sixty groups, from across Colombia compete for the winning prizes. From above, the crowd looked like a sea of colourful ants swaying and jumping in time to pacific rhythms. The atmosphere was electric, and the crowd, full of smiles. Strangers danced together, laughed together and share bottles of local brew as if they had known each other forever. At night, everyone regrouped at the ‘Street of Sin’ where people danced to pounding pacific beats till sunrise.
In the 16 years its been operating, the festival has never had one problem. For this reason, Luis Alberto Seviliano, the festival director, explains the festival is all about peace and having a good time. “All these people coming here is a symbol of peace, they come for fun and love, that is why the energy is so amazing,” says Seviliano sitting in the production headquarters. “Few events in the world match it.”
Despite the festival being primarily attended by Afro-Colombian communities, there is a growing number of Colombians, and foreign tourists attending the event. Taking a break from dancing with a group of Afro-Colombians, Sean Turner a twenty-five year old Australian tourist says that it is one of the best festivals he has ever been to. “It does not matter where you are from, everyone is welcome,” he says intermittently joining in with a well-known chorus he recently learned. “All the people taught me dance moves and treated me like one of their own. This has to be one of the best festivals in the world.”
According to Juana Alvarez, whose father the festival was named after, the event was created to be enjoyed by all people. “The festival is a natural cultural heritage, something the Afros are proud of but the festival is also very multicultural,” says Alvarez standing outside the festival. “Everyone who comes assumes themselves to be Afro-Colombian as if it were their own culture. So I say it is the most important multicultural space in Colombia, there are no other places where people can meet, hug and see each other as equals.”
Despite the emphasis on enjoyment, the festival does have a serious objective. In 1993 a law was introduced which encouraged Afro-Colombians to start the recovery of their cultural identity. This was a major factor for the creation of the festival. While music is a major emphasis, many of the musicians and attendees come to the festival in order to preserve and promote their culture.
Alongside the festival, conferences are held, teaching and discussing their traditional ways, which make for interesting things to do during the day before the festival starts. Another welcome break from the festival is the gastronomic market outside, where Afro-Colombian chefs hire stalls and cook traditional food. The food is very unique to the region and includes a delicious array of cheap food based on fish, coconut and plantain. Perfect to soak up the local brews such a viche consumed while watching the artists perform.
For many of the bands that come to compete at the festival it is a big chance for them show their music to the world. Noency Mosfuera Martinez, lead singer of the band Bongo De Bojaya, travelled two days by boat to reach the festival. “If it was not for the festival, no one would know about our town and our music,” she says. “The festival has given us the chance to meet other people and be ambitious about taking our music to other places.”
With radio and television coverage- a real achievement considering Afro-Colombia music is rarely played even on local radios – the festival had just 4,000 attendees when it launched in 1997 and in 2012 reached some 50,000. As the festival continues to grow, many expect that the festival will attract people from all over the world for its colour, vibrancy and welcoming atmosphere.
The 2013 version of Petronio Alvarez festival of the Pacific, will be held in Cali from the 18th to the 22nd of September. President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed he will inaugurate this unique cultural event.