Santiago de Cali may be the world’s ‘salsa capital’ but each August the Afro-descendants of the Pacific coast come together in this Colombian city for the biggest celebration of Pacific culture. Zara Huband reports from the Petronio Álvarez festival.
Despite its racial diversity, Colombia is still divided with most Afro-descendants living on the coast. The Pacific coast lacks the infrastructure of other parts of the country and despite its beautiful landscapes it is much less-visited than the Caribbean. Thankfully its music brings it some of the recognition it deserves.
Cali is one of the more diverse cities in the country and at the time of the festival you can really see the extent of Colombia’s diversity. This year’s festival was dedicated to Pacific women- ‘un canto a la mujer pacífica’ . Their equal roles as both singers and musicians in the bands in which they perform is proof of their importance in Pacific music.
The marimba is central to Pacific music, it is instantly recognisable and is used just as much by the bigger names that perform as the lesser-known bands. This wooden percussive instrument resonated through every performance of the festival. On the Saturday Herencia de Timbiqui, an eleven-piece band fusing traditional Pacific folkloric music with a more contemporary sound, were the headliners. It was clear how popular they were when they closed on Saturday night to a crowd waving their white Petronio Álvarez Festival flags and singing along with each of their songs.
The last night of the festival ended with Chocquibtown, a Pacific hip-hop group, and Esteban Copete Y Su Kinteto Pacifico, a jazz and folklore fusion band- two very different groups who came together to celebrate their Pacific pride. The festival is so authentic in its desire to share Pacific culture, and the chance to see such big names for free really shows that it is a festival putting culture first.
While the nights were dedicated to music, the days were dedicated to food, art, fashion and all kinds of artisanal creations. As the festival has grown over its twenty-year existence so has the opportunity to share Pacific culture internationally. Even the drinks on offer were purely home-brewed Pacific alcohols with custom labels varying in strength: from the creamier arrechón to the tumba cutre, both of which are made with viche, a sugar cane alcohol which burns the insides and is also an aphrodisiac.
“El Petronio” is a good introduction to all that Cali has to offer. With the last band ending at midnight many of the performers go on to play in the many salsa bars. On my first night there I was lucky enough to see Esteban Copete in a much smaller environment at one of Cali’s biggest salsa bars, La Topa Tolondra. The public’s appreciation of the sudden change in atmosphere showed just how much music in Colombia can unite its people. Salsa and traditional Pacific music both combined, this was the biggest display of Colombian diversity. The next night at Tin Tin Deo –a salsa bar with a much more caleño clientele- there was a dance troupe, still head to toe in white Pacific dress, who performed traditional dances before inviting everyone to dance with them.
One festival may not be enough to celebrate such a rich culture and Colombia’s Afro-Descendant culture seems generally under-appreciated for the rest of the year but at Petronio Álvarez the Pacific takes over Cali displaying the richness and importance of its culture.