The Untold Afro-Colombian Stories of Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

by Ekua on November 11, 2013 in Colombia,race/culture/identity,songs for the road

City dreams

Walled City. Heroic City. Gold. Pirates of the Caribbean. Fortress. Battles. Victory.

This is essentially the summary of Cartagena’s history you receive as a tourist; not just when you’re there, but in guidebooks, articles, and blogs. The large presence and contributions of Afro-Colombians — if they are even mentioned at all — are only vaguely acknowledged or ignored altogether.

Colombia has one of the highest populations of people of African descent in all of Latin America, many of whom are based on the Caribbean Coast, but their history is largely hidden. Instead, the history of the area has been confined to an easily consumable story, something that unfolds like a Hollywood action film.

In a popular tourist stop that presents itself as a historic destination, a significant portion of the local history is not shared. Here are three often concealed stories of Cartagena and Colombia’s Caribbean Coast that deserve to be told:

Cartagena as a Major Slave Port

It’s a huge challenge to find any substantial information about the history of the slave trade in Cartagena even though it’s estimated that one million Africans were forcibly brought to Cartagena during the slave trade. Along with Veracruz, Mexico, it was one of just two authorized slave ports in the Spanish New World. Essentially, the history of many people of African descent in Central and South America has roots in Cartagena.

Just beyond the clock tower gate in Cartagena is the Plaza de los Coches, the site of Cartagena’s former slave market where humans were bought and sold. Today, this plaza is known for nighttime revelry and stands where sweets are sold. It’s likely that few visitors are aware of the site’s prior commercial history.

After slavery was abolished in 1851, attempts were made to assimilate Africans and indigenous peoples into the mainstream Colombian society which was controlled by people of Spanish descent. Former slaves who wanted to maintain their traditions were compelled to retreat into remote jungles. The results of forced assimilation are apparent in both the lack of Afro-Colombian culture in Cartagena today and the isolation of Afro-Colombian culture in Colombia in general.

The African Origins of Cumbia Music

When I think about Colombia’s greatest export, I don’t think about drugs. I think about cumbia, a style of music I’ve danced to up and down the Americas, from Bolivia to Mexico to California.

Given the pervasiveness and popularity of cumbia across the Americas, it would be easy to think that it originated in Mexico or Argentina or somewhere else, but it’s actually from Colombia. Like many styles of music from Latin America, cumbia has mixed origins and influences, but it began with sounds and movements of West Africa. The rhythmic foundation and shuffling dance style are derived from rhythms and dance moves found in various parts of West Africa.

The original West African cumbia drumming was mixed with instruments and styles of both the indigenous populations and the Spanish colonizers. One of the prominent elements you often hear in Colombian cumbia is the sound of the kuisi flute which comes from the local indigenous people of Caribbean Coast. Cumbia further morphed into what we think of it as today, perhaps most notably because of the addition of the bass guitar.

The sounds of cumbia left the villages and floated into Colombian cities and the rest of Latin America in the 1940s and 50s. Below is an example of roots cumbia where you’ll hear the complex West African rhythms, the offbeat vocal phrasing, and call and response singing — a pattern you’ll often hear echoed in today’s cumbia (and many other musical styles) through the use of backup singers, horns, and accordions.

The Other Walled Cities: Villages Founded by Escaped Slaves

During the slavery era in Colombia, many villages called palenques were established by escaped slaves. In these fortified communities, former slaves lived freely and carried out their African traditions and customs. Southeast of Cartagena, San Basilio de Palenque is the only surviving palenque in Colombia. It was also the first official palenque in the Americas, declared a free village in 1713 after the King of Spain abandoned efforts to attack the walled village and recapture the slaves.

Today in San Basilio de Palenque, people continue to speak their own unique language called Palenquero, a type of creole that combines Spanish and Bantu languages from West Central Africa. But as less than half of the village’s 3,000 people currently speak it, people fear that the language could disappear, and efforts are being made to preserve the language. Aside from the language, African heritage can be found in music, societal organization, funeral rituals, and many other aspects of San Basilio de Palenque’s culture.

Inside San Basilio de Palenque, the culture remains strong, but its residents face discrimination when they leave the village because of their African origins and unique language. Opportunities to advance are slim inside the village which is what leads them to places like Cartagena to seek out ways to make money. As I mentioned previously, there are sparks of San Basilio de Palenque being established as a tourist destination. Hopefully they can make it work in a way that will bring in revenue while maintaining the integrity of the culture.

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When we tell historical stories, we are not just telling the stories of people who’ve passed on, but those of their descendants who may still be living their pain in the present. These stories need to be told not just so that the people who’ve died can be remembered, but so that people who live today can be empowered by their culture. These stories need to be told because figuring out how to move forward requires a deeper look at the mistakes of the past. These stories need to be told so that people who are right in front of us do not disappear.

For more insight into Afro-Colombian issues:
Dueling Beauty Pageants Put Income Gap on View
The Greatest Disparities In Wealth In Cartagena

The quote by Teju Cole at the beginning of this post was found in this article:
How We Tell Stories About Cities

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomi November 13, 2013 at 5:14 am

History is always told from the perspective if the victors/predominant race, and there is often so much more that is never told. Thankyou for exposing the rich history beyond the mainstream cultural story. I’ve too have experienced this when travelling and talking to local people that there is often many other stories never told.

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Ekua November 14, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Yes, true about who writes mainstream history. It’s pretty wild how the history told in Cartagena is not only biased, but it leaves out huge parts of what happened. It’s good that there are places like San Basilio de Palenque where stories and culture get passed down over generations. I’d really love to speak with locals there.

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Rebecca November 15, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Thanks for sharing this! It’s nice to get a whole new lesson outside of what the guidebooks tell you. This is what I love most about this part of the world – the intriguing mix of cultures that has meshed into this unique culture which shows itself through its music and dance. I couldn’t view the videos on your page but will go check out some cumbia music online 🙂

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Ekua November 16, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Ah, too bad you couldn’t see the videos. What country are you in? It’s striking to see just how African Colombia can be. If you’re looking for cumbia music online and are interested in hearing the progression of the music, look for cumbia from San Basilio de Palenque, then Colombian cumbia from the 1950s or so, then modern cumbia from various parts of Latin America. I linked to one NPR segment somewhere in this post, but this is a longer more in depth NPR show on cumbia: http://www.npr.org/blogs/altlatino/2013/09/30/227834004/cumbia-the-musical-backbone-of-latin-america

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Rasta-Lion November 16, 2013 at 7:04 am

Thanks for a brilliant and very worthwhile project.

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Ekua November 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Thank you for reading!

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Carolina November 17, 2013 at 5:00 am

Hey! I really hope you are still in Cartagena and I can connect you to my friend who created http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTUgm14NTcM

She also made a movie about South Africa’s Goema. http://youtu.be/6EW25TdbbN8
It looks like you two would have a lot to share!

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Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans November 27, 2013 at 9:51 pm

I’m always so intrigued by the African diaspora – especially in Latin America. I think the most fascinating thing is that we all hold on to remnants of our African cultures whether consciously or subconsciously. You can see it in the way we dance, in our hairstyles, in our music, etc. I’m planning a trip to Colombia in 2015, and I’d love to visit San Basilio de Palenque. Adding it to my list. Thanks for sharing!

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Bryanna Plog January 10, 2014 at 4:51 pm

I also enjoyed this post — again I wish more visitors to Cartagena, Colombia and Latin America in general realized the contributions and history of Africans on the continent. Thanks for writing about this — I am also trying to spread the word about Colombia’s diversity and need to find a balance to remembering the bad parts of their history and opening their doors to tourists.

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Larry Dorsey Jr. April 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm

I appreciate you spreading this knowledge. I am Afro-Indigenous Colombian but I grew up in California so I do not know too much about my roots. Although the US has more opportunities, I feel that I am experiencing the same thing that they are out here but on a different level. Keep up the beautiful writing. One Love

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Ekua August 14, 2015 at 10:00 pm

Thanks for your note of appreciation, Larry. I think it’s so important for all stories to be heard in order for the world to move forward in more positive ways!

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Yamile Yemoonyah May 13, 2016 at 5:59 am

Hi Larry,
I’m also Afro-Indigenous Colombian but I grew up in Europe. Would love to talk to you a bit more about our roots!

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Larry Dorsey Jr. June 16, 2016 at 9:24 pm

I just messaged you on Facebook and liked your artist page. Let’s talk. Thanks

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Ti Yung March 12, 2016 at 4:33 am

This was a great article. As I study the system of White Supremacy, I find the same themes as I travel internationally. I find that the African Diaspora is a major threat to the system. I love how people like yourself are providing us with our ancestors contributions. I plan to visit Cartagena in a few weeks with my daughter and am very anxious to see my fellow Victims of Racism and hope to fellowship with them. We are one.

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