Petronio Alvarez Music Festival Is Colombia's Big Event Of Summer : Code Switch The Petronio Alvarez festival is the big event of the summer — five days of music and food and fashion. More than 100,000 people travel to celebrate Afro-Colombian culture.
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Colombia's Big Summer Music Festival Is All About Blackness

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Colombia's Big Summer Music Festival Is All About Blackness

Colombia's Big Summer Music Festival Is All About Blackness

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In western Colombia, a big event of the summer - five days of music, food and fashion - is the Petronio Alvarez Festival. More than 300,000 people in the city of Cali all celebrate the culture of the country's Pacific region. Maria Paz Gutierrez from NPR's Code Switch podcast was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIA PAZ GUTIERREZ, BYLINE: It's not just Colombians. People from all over the world are here under Cali's sweltering heat to hear bombos, chirimias and, of course, marimbas - lots of marimbas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAZ GUTIERREZ: The whole thing is a huge party. And if you ask any Afro-Colombian how parties in the Pacific get started, they'll say one word.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Viche (ph).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Viche.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

MICHAEL BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: Basically a kind of white rum. And viche means sort of not yet ripe.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: That's Michael Birenbaum Quintero, an ethnomusicologist at Boston University. He studies the music of Colombia's Pacific coast region.

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: Viche is very important because, obviously, you can drink it and get drunk. But it's also used for different kinds of herbal preparations, different kinds of medicine.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: So I'm about to drink the viche curao (ph). Here we go. Oh, my God.

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: (Laughter, speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Suddenly, across from the viche stands, a couple dozen Afro-Colombian dancers and musicians start to perform.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: So right now we're seeing a bunch of young people - I'm guessing that their high school students - in these very beautiful, very bright-colored uniforms. And they're doing folkloric dance in these lines with each other. I think this is a kind of dance from Choco, the northern part of the Pacific coast.

(CHEERING)

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Behind them, rows of stand selling traditional Afro-Colombian seafood dishes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: So I have a bowl of muchilla, which is like a big crayfish. It's got, like, the eyeballs and the whole setup. Oh, it's all on my face. I could feel it.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: It's all in my teeth. I can taste it.

With food in my teeth and all, we get a little serious. Michael tells me this festival is about more than just viche and seafood and really great music.

BIRENBAUM QUINTERO: A national identity isn't something which just happens. One of the reasons why the Colombian state is invested in this is because it's teaching Colombians about themselves.

PAZ GUTIERREZ: The Pacific region is a couple hours east of Cali, and it's home to a large Afro-Colombian population. This festival celebrates their rich African roots. It's also a space where people can talk openly about the region's problems. Many have been displaced to this city because of the high levels of violence and poverty in the Pacific region.

ELENA HINESTROSA: (Singing in Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: For the love of the earth, the people demand a solution, sings Elena Hinestrosa. She's a proud black poet and a (speaking Spanish) or singer. And she leads Integracion Pacifica, a 10-member ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTEGRACION PACIFICA PERFORMANCE)

INTEGRACION PACIFICA: (Singing in Spanish).

HINESTROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: She's glad to put the Petronio Festival exists because, she says, after being forced to leave your hometown, if you don't hear your music, then you've lost your culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTEGRACION PACIFICA PERFORMANCE)

INTEGRACION PACIFICA: (Singing in Spanish).

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

PAZ GUTIERREZ: At the Petronio, that culture is everywhere between live music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAZ GUTIERREZ: ...The endless delicious snacks from the Pacific Coast...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: ...And the young black people who proudly wear Afrocentric styles.

EVELYN BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Evelyn Bonilla (ph) is a 23-year-old from the Pacific who looks beautiful with her hair in long braids.

BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: This event helped me take ownership of my customs and culture, she says...

BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: ...Like wearing head wraps and colorful skirts, that's what I like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAZ GUTIERREZ: In a city where black people sometimes say they feel invisible, the Petronio is a place where they feel a sense of belonging, where activists, musicians and friends can shout we Afro-Colombians are here, and we're Colombian, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

PAZ GUTIERREZ: Maria Paz Gutierrez, NPR News, Cali, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

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