They are the songs of elders, chanted at funeral rituals and during the religious festivals which are celebrated across the Chocó department between September and October and known as the Fiestas de San Francisco de Asís. In Quibdó, capital of Chocó, the Fiesta “San Pacho” is a revelry which brings out the barrios and locals in a joyful celebration of color, dance and sounds. This year the “San Pacho” kicked-off Sept 19th, lasted two full weeks and coincided with the start of the United Nation’s International Decade for People of African Descent.
The Colombian Ministry of Culture has drafted an official resolution to include in the UN’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage the chants of the Colombian Pacific region – handed down from generation to generation – and which are sung in a variety of genres: such as lullabies, rhymes and ballads. Even though the chants are indelibly linked to the mourning ritual among Afro-Colombians, a cocorobé is one chant which begins with life: with a child growing in the womb and is meant to accompany a woman throughout her pregnancy. The alabao is a song which touches on the journey of life, and even though it evokes pain, it’s a melody of hope. The gualíes are songs for the end of life and the preparation of the body for the life eternal. Across the Pacific litoral, children are taught to know their alabaos from their gualíes. Mothers and grandmothers have kept these sacred chants going, ever since their ancestors came to this continent as slaves.
The Ministry of Culture has supported this cultural process on several fronts receiving support from the UN’s Intangible Heritage working group, as well as the community of San Juan, in the Chocó, where chants are an integral part of daily life.
Colombia’s cultural patrimony is defined by the 1997 Law of Culture in which communities can request protection from the government to preserve a specific identity, history or way of life.
Currently eight Colombian cultural assets are included in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage: the Carnival of Barranquilla, the Cultural Space of Palenque de San Basilio, the Blacks and Whites’ Carnival, the Easter procession of Popayan, the Wayúu oral tradition, Marimba music and the traditional songs of the Pacific’s southern region, the traditional knowledge of the Jaguars of the Yuruparí community along the Pira Parana River and the “San Pacho” festival.
The chants of the Pacific have their roots in the conversion of the Pacific litoral by Christian missionaries in the 17th century. As churches and missions were erected along the Río San Juan and Atrato, Gregorian chants amalgamated with African rhythms, creating a unique musical mix, and one the Colombian Government wants to world to hear more clearly.