San Basilio de Palenque - Music, Food and Freedom

San Basilio de Palenque’s History and Influence on Colombian Music

San Basilio de Palenque is located in the Bolívar department of Colombia, about an hour and a half from Cartagena. It is recognized by UNESCO for its oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Music and traditional herbal medicine are integral to the collective identity of this town, which strives to preserve its traditions.

San Basilio de Palenque - Music, Food and Freedom

Historical Significance of Palenque

The word “Palenque” has multiple meanings. It refers to a fence or barrier used for defining a surface or for defense purposes, deriving from the Catalan language (palenc). Therefore, a palenque is a defined space where various activities occur. Of the several palenques that have existed, only San Basilio remains, making it a unique cultural location. San Basilio de Palenque was the first town in the Americas to be free of slavery, a monumental achievement in the history of the region.

This community was founded in the early 17th century by a group of escaped slaves led by Benkos Biohó. They sought refuge in the stockade on Colombia’s North coast around 1604. Today, San Basilio de Palenque has a population of about 3,500 people, organized into two main neighborhoods: the “upstairs neighborhood” and the “downstairs neighborhood.”​

Both neighborhoods are essential for their economic and social functions. One of the most significant sectors is known as “Batata,” considered a great dynasty of drummers and musicians, highlighting the importance of musical traditions in the area.

Dance Party with Sexteto Tabalá

The Importance of Musical Traditions

Due to processes of miscegenation, new cultural and folklore manifestations have emerged. Music in San Basilio de Palenque, as in other regions of Colombia, has evolved into a hybrid construction. The density of the rhythmic structure displayed by the percussion ensembles demonstrates the African influence on the region’s music.

San Basilio de Palenque has synthesized hybrid rhythms infused with an African background, which have been absorbed into various musical forms according to the region’s traditions. Everyday activities in Palenque, from recreational events to burial rites, are accompanied by music.

Categories of Palenque Music

The music of Palenque is classified into two main categories: traditional Palenquera music, which includes styles such as fullerene sentai (sitting fullerene), son Palenquero, and lumbal; and Creole champeta, a developing musical trend. Palenque’s social representations, experiences, and cultural institutions are well reflected in these musical performances. The farm, the crops, the meals, the games and rounds, the selling of traditional sweets, the hairstyles, and the dwellings, among other aspects of Palenque life, are all defined and influenced by music.

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The Palenque Language

The Palenque language, the only Creole language in the Americas combining Spanish vocabulary with Bantu grammatical traits, is a crucial component of the cultural space of Palenque de San Basilio. This shared language fosters social cohesion among community members​​.

The Rise of Champeta

Champeta is an indigenous musical style from Colombia’s Caribbean coast that emerged in the 1970s. It gained popularity in Cartagena’s districts during the 1980s when cassettes of African and Caribbean music started to arrive. The term “champeta,” originating from the Bantu word for knife or machete, was used derogatorily by Cartagena’s upper and middle classes to refer to Afro-descendants living in popular neighborhoods. This term was first used at the beginning of the 20th century​.

The champeta has become increasingly prominent in Colombian culture, partly due to films like “El Serrucho,” an ode to double entendre, and television series like “Bazurto,” with Kevin Flórez and Mr. Black as key figures. They have contributed to the “urban champeta,” a synthesis with rhythms similar to reggaeton.

Bullerengue: A Cultural Treasure

Bullerengue, a combination of Afro-descendant dance and singing preserved through oral tradition, is performed mainly by elder women. This form of music emerged in secret gatherings of unmarried pregnant women, created as a response to slave repression. The absence of men in these gatherings may have led to the development of exclusively female musical forms. The singer, a revered matriarch in “bullerenguera” culture, is knowledgeable about songs, stories, legends, traditional herbal remedies, and prayers. Influenced by African traditions, their melodies are often created by repeatedly and slightly altering an ostinato or brief musical cell​​.

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Preservation and Celebration

Despite its rich heritage, Palenque faces ongoing challenges. However, the spirit of Palenque remains unbroken, with continuous efforts to preserve and celebrate its unique cultural space. The community’s resilience and cultural pride are evident in its dedication to maintaining and sharing traditions with the world.

Experience the Rich Culture of San Basilio de Palenque with Us!

If this deep dive into the history and influence of San Basilio de Palenque has inspired you, why not experience it firsthand? Join us on our Petronio Alvarez Festival Tour, where you will visit this incredible village and learn about the music and cultural heritage that makes Colombia so unique. Our tour offers an unforgettable journey through the heart of Afro-Colombian traditions, with opportunities to meet local musicians, enjoy authentic performances, and participate in the lively festivities of the Petronio Alvarez Festival.

Don’t miss this chance to travel through music and history with us. Book your spot on the Petronio Alvarez Festival Tour today and be part of a truly enriching cultural adventure!

For more details and to reserve your place, visit our Petronio Alvarez Festival Tour page.

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