Palenque Rhythms

A Photoessay by Steve Cagan

                                             Photo by Steve Cagan.

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San Basilio Palenque, not far from Colombia’s prime tourist destination of Cartagena, is the only surviving example of places that once existed throughout the country—communities founded by escaped slaves. It is also the home of what has been described as the only surviving Spanish-based creole language, which had declined in use but seems to be becoming strong again.

In a country rich in traditional, folk and popular music forms and genres, Palenque is well known for the band music called champeta and for drumming, showcased in the annual Festival de Tambores. A few years back, I was happy to be invited to spend that period with a palenquero family, a particularly welcome invitation because of the community’s reputation for reticence with outsiders.

The Colombian Ministry of Culture decided to support the festival. UNESCO had already included the culture of Palenque in the non-material heritage of humanity. Unfortunately, the hand of the ministry often produces a homogenization of cultural expression, and what had been essentially a family-based and artisanal expression of an indigenous local culture now had a sadly different character—performances on a huge stage in the town square by groups that all shared the quality of being Afro-Colombian, but not necessarily from Palenque or even from the Caribbean coast. It had become, in good Colombian Spanish, “la misma vaina de siempre.” Some leading local groups actually left town during the festivals.

Still, music sounded from some houses and the porches of small stores, where the commitment to participating in music-making can be seen in the use of non-formal instruments—beer bottles and stools. And there was irrepressible dancing in front of the stage as well as in the streets and alleys. The joy was contagious, reaching virtually ecstatic levels in the dance. I hope I was able to capture some of the joy and the commitment to the traditions in these images….

Steve Cagan is an independent documentary photographer who has lately focused on environmental issues and grassroots daily life on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. He can be reached at