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Claudia Marcela Chála Cordoba
Claudia Marcela Chála CordobaPhotography Kurt Hollander

At this Latin American fiesta, Afro-Colombian culture thrives

The Fiestas de San Pacho showcases Colombia’s joyous afropolis community, with one of ‘the most packed, pumping, and hot dance parties on the planet’

Over the past seven years, Cali’s Petronio festival and Pacific festival have grown from local celebrations of regional culture into major events. Now with a giant stage, professional sound and lighting design, huge screens live-streaming the dancing, dozens and dozens of booths for food and drink, tight police control at the entrances, mainstream media covering the events, and the support of international organisations like USAID, they are two of the largest celebrations of Afro-Colombian culture in Latin America.

The oldest and largest celebration of Afro-Colombian culture on the continent, however, is the annual Fiestas de San Pacho in Quibdó, one of the least-known festivals in Latin America (and even within Colombia). In part because of its unspoiled nature as a local celebration, in part because it usually consists of two weeks of constant dancing and drinking, and in part because of the history, social situation, and demographics of the city, it is definitely the most intense, and one which best highlights the cultural contradictions of Colombia.

The pandemic stopped the Fiestas de San Pacho from happening last year, and this year it was greatly reduced in size and intensity. The opening ceremony for the Fiestas was a religious service held in the early hours of the morning at Quibdó cathedral, with flags of each of the city’s central, Franciscan barrios (neighbourhoods) waved in the air by the barrio presidents and accompanied by a local brass band, and followed by a sermon by the Archbishop of Quibdó.

In the afternoon, the party began. The site chosen for the kick-off ceremony was an undecorated vacant lot next to a sports stadium. The region’s sole alcohol brand (LicoChocó) had six young women in white hot pants and the company’s green shirt pose for the half-dozen official and local press photographers, then walk around handing out free shots of aguardiente (a liquor made from sugar cane and anise) to the people in the sparse crowd. The MC was Licochocó’s regional manager, a middle-aged white guy with a rotund belly, who animated the crowd by barking into a microphone.

Bands playing chirimía (music that sounds like a cross between a New Orleans brass band and Jewish Klezmer) and dancers decked out in bright, traditional Afro-Colombian dress, smiling and twirling around, weaved their way through the city, with spectators lining the streets – although they weren’t allowed to participate. 

At one point, right next to a gas station in the centre of the city, just as it seemed the crowd was breaking up to go back to their daily lives, the band struck up a tune which everyone immediately recognised. Kids and young adults came racing back and started a tightly-packed bundé (a lively street celebration). Although the MC had constantly reminded everyone that there would be no bundé this year, young men began pogo-ing into the air like Maasai warriors during their coming-of-age celebrations, gyrating their pelvises and dry humping girls bent over shaking their bodies. After just a few minutes, however, the barrio president halted the band and the bundé was broken up. It is precisely this kind of African-based celebration – which the Church considers pagan and which it and the state have tried to suppress over the past centuries – that makes the Fiestas de San Pacho one of the most packed, pumping, and hot dance parties on the continent. 

Not everything’s a party here in Quibdó, however. The vast Chocó region is ensconced in the middle of an immense rainforest and with hundreds of miles of Pacific coastline, it consistently ranks last in Colombia in terms of education and health. Meanwhile it leads in first place in terms of poverty, undernourished infants, illiteracy, forced displacements, and violence. This situation comes in part from being geographically isolated, but even more so because it is, in large part, racially and culturally separate.

Quibdó, the capital of Chocó and located on the mighty Atrato River, has a population around 140,000 people. While Colombians with European ancestry make up almost 90 per cent of the country’s population, over 90 per cent of the people in Quibdó are of African descent. Quibdó is one of the most important afropolises in Latin America, the closest you can get to an African metropolis in the Americas. Being a Black colony within a mostly white, racist country, however, has meant constant struggle.

In addition to a brutal economic and political repression that Quibdó is subjected to from the central government, with police and military sieges taking place during protests for basic services and human rights, there have always been campaigns to suppress Afro-Colombian culture in the region. Even though more and more of the local culture, including the Fiestas de San Pacho, has recently been designated Colombian patrimony, culture wars still rage on in Chocó.

One example of cultural resistance within the city is La Cumbancha, a bar located in what is the poorest and most violent neighborhood (not just in Quibdó but in all of Latin America) which hosts a dance party on Sunday night, in a direct middle finger to the social control of the Catholic Church and the capitalist five-day work week. It’s in places like this humble drinking hole, where a motley, inclusive cast of social outcasts, cultural leaders, and enlightened souls come to drink viche, listen to the pumping beats of chirimía, and dance the night away, where the true spirit of Afro-Colombian culture lives on. 

Viche (or biche) is, like rum or aguardiente (the two most popular alcohols in Colombia), an alcohol distilled from sugar cane, but it is radically different from them in most every other way. Rum and aguardiente are industrially-made consumer products with brand names and marketing budgets, while viche is distilled by hand, with herbs and other plants added, by thousands of people in their homes, mostly sold without any marketing other than social networks. The plants used to cure viche represent the sum of African and indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants, but they also represent the incredible natural diversity of the Chocó rainforest. 

Viche is present in the lives of everyone in Chocó’s African-descendant communities, administered by midwives before, during, and after childbirth; prescribed by local herb doctors to treat dozens of illnesses (including COVID); and shared at all celebrations and funeral services. Viche also represents an important source of self-sustaining, autonomous income for individual and communities. 

Afro-Colombian culture resists, not letting itself be converted into a merely exotic or folkloric culture of dance and music that hides the desperate situation in the region behind a smiling face

Viche, and those that produce it, were persecuted for centuries as part of a vicious campaign to end all African-inherited culture and businesses. Viche was just declared Colombian cultural patrimony, but it still suffers from unfair competition from Licochocó, which enjoys a massive advertising budget, and sponsors Afro-Colombian events such as the Fiestas de San Pacho (the company’s banners are the only decoration on the stages of the celebrations, its products constantly promoted during the celebration). 

Afro-Colombian culture, however, is not about any single product or musical style, but about collective, community activity, including communal rights to the land, environmental and social activism, general strikes, and cultural celebrations. Despite the Church’s effort to keep the Fiestas within the ‘decent’ Franciscan barrios and to have all the activities and funding funneled through the church, the state, and the region’s industrial-alcohol complex, Afro-Colombian culture resists, not letting itself be converted into a merely exotic or folkloric culture of dance and music that hides the desperate situation in the region behind a smiling face.

POLA, SINGER

I call my music ‘Afro diaspora music’ because it’s a journey through all the sounds of Black culture over time. The cantos I sing are ancestral – they are life itself, and they are about everything that happens to us, even the most secret things. Music and song are the ways we protect ourselves and our culture. For me, there is no real distinction between folkloric music and ‘authentic’ Afro-Colombian music, it all depends on the person who sings or plays it and the place where they perform. San Pacho might not bring together all of the culture from Chocó and from Quibdó, but it does show many of its most unique features.

MIRIÁN NATALÍ LOZANO TORRES, LAWYER

The biggest problems in Quibdó are poor public health services and education, as well as a lack of opportunities. People here have to survive on their own. Two years ago I started a small business selling popochos, cakes with flour made from maduro bananas, a local delicacy with a long Afro-Colombian tradition in the Chocó region. My business is a small effort to maintain and preserve traditional cooking. In our society, there is still a great lack of knowledge and of understanding of other cultures. I believe that through one’s experience and through love we learn more about the world and learn to respect and understand ourselves and others.

WILLHER PINO CÓRDOBA: BLACK EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMME COORDINATOR 

The organisers of the Fiestas de San Pacho invite the LGBTQ+ community to participate in only one day of the celebrations, just so that they can say that they’re being inclusive and so tourists can take pictures of us, but they never really give us credit for all that we’ve contributed throughout the history of the celebrations.

The government doesn’t really take gender or sexual issues seriously, which is why we created the Mareia Foundation, to speak openly about issues regarding gender and sexual diversity. Casa Wontanara, which we began a few years ago, is a social space open to all people, and it’s all about creating dialogues and a community to empower alternative lifestyles, to help them deal with the problems and to help create social leaders. We see ourselves as Black people living within an ethnic and culturally diverse region, and we are dedicated to deconstructing and decolonising the patriarchy in order to construct a more open society and community.

CLAUDIA MARCELA CHÁLA CORDOBA, POET, PERFORMANCE ARTIST, INFLUENCER

I am a people’s poet and performance artist, both of which helped me when I decided to become an influencer. That role began when I started to publicly denounce problems in the city through social media, and it evolved when I began to get public support for people in need. Being that the government doesn’t attend to the needs of the people here, I decided to put into contact those in need with those who can help. My project as an influencer is called This Life of Mine Has to Change, and it has become quite famous within the city. I shoot videos in which I present people and interview them about the problems they’re facing. I help collect food and other necessities for these people. I also advertise local businesses and promote people who are trying to make a living on their own, especially those working within traditional Afro-Colombian or indigenous culture.

YILSON ARIAS, RESEARCH ANTHROPOLOGIST

These days, there is greater self-recognition of our African identity, though not necessarily more control over this identity. Much of the resources for events related to Afro-Colombian culture are funnelled through the local government or international organisations. Although official events, such as the Fiestas de San Pacho, help people forget about their problems for a while, they also tend to exacerbate social problems, as can be seen during the celebration when there tends to be an increase in violence within the city. 

The violence in Quibdó comes from very extreme social inequality, from forced displacements of people who seek refuge within the city, and from an almost complete abandonment on the part of the federal government. Unemployment is much higher here than elsewhere in the country and basic needs are not being met, which has led a large part of the youth population to engage in armed violence as a means of subsistence. 

By giving people, especially young people, a decent education and employment opportunities, much of violence could be avoided and much of the psychological trauma caused by the violence could be healed. Dance and theatre, for example, especially that created by young people here in Quibdó, have been focal points in the preservation of Afro-Colombian culture and offer alternatives and resistance to the violence that surrounds us.

WALTER ECCEHOMO MARTINEZ MENA, MUSICIAN, TEACHER

Chirimía is music from the Pacific Coast of Colombia made with clarinet, drums, cymbals, bombardino (a small tuba) and, recently, saxophones. I learned how to play drums when I was eight years-old and at school I learned how to play clarinet and tenor sax. My father and his father and uncles were all musicians, and there is a real culture of music within my family stretching way back. 

It’s hard to make a living working as a musician here in Quibdó, there’s no government support for music, so to survive I teach music and make instruments. For Afro-Colombians, music represents freedom, an escape from slavery, a breaking of chains. When I play or when I listen to music, especially chirimía, it fills me with joy.

Kurt Hollander is a writer and fine art-documentary photographer, originally from New York City and currently based in Cali, Colombia