Unidad Deportiva Alberto Galindo, a sports complex in Cali, Colombia, is home to what is affectionately called “El Petronio”. Over the past 27 years, hundreds of thousands of people have traveled to the city to celebrate Afro-Colombian food, fashion, arts and crafts, a local drink, and most importantly, music.
The party space looks like a huge street party, with people waving white handkerchiefs, drinking vichy and lots of water. Everyone dances in small or large groups to the cheerful, rhythmic and catchy music that plays marimba, drums, percussion and the voices of Afro-Colombian women and men from the Pacific coast.
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“What this festival has done over the past 27 years is tell Colombia and the world that we are a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country,” he says. Anna Copetti. She has been running the festival since 2020. “We, as Afro-Colombians, have shaped the identity of this country; we have built this country, together with others. We deserve the dignity of our culture, not only as folklore but also as a way of life.”
The festival has become the largest source of income for musicians, cooks, artisans, and vendors. Nydia JongoraA world-famous singer-songwriter from the small town of Tempeque, Colombia, says dozens of small businesses, hotels and restaurants around town are taking advantage of Petronio. This year, the festival generated nearly a million dollars. “The positive impact generated by cultural activities, such as this festival, should be seen as fundamental to building peace and growth in every community,” says Gongora.
But the festival also has its critics. Ado Obed Boso, 67, is a musical instrument maker who makes marimba, drums and other traditional instruments in the region. Bosso claims that the festival has become political, and that the organizers now include large performances that have nothing to do with musical culture, such as the popular salsa band The specialized group.
“It takes money from a black musician, who comes from the deep reaches of the Pacific coast, to perform traditional music and be in the spotlight during the festival,” he says. “For example, with the amount of money they pay Grupo Niche, they can double the wages of each of the groups that come from the four participating regions.”
Remolenos de Oviegas is one of 44 participating groups that came to Petronio from the remote town of La Toma, deep in the state of Cauca. It is an area plagued by violence caused by gangs and paramilitary groups. (The group won second place in the music category “Violin from Cauca.”) One of the songs that the group performed at the festival is called Farm historyA farmer’s story.
“The lyrics tell the story of a man displaced by guerrillas,” says singer Carmen Lucumi. “He was a farmer, he had a family and he had to move to another place because the armed groups killed his wife and children and burned his house. He wrote a song based on what happened to him and he gave it to us. We put music to it so everyone can hear his story.”
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Despite facing racism, inequality, and violence, the Afro-Colombian people of the Pacific Coast have remained resilient and creative, keeping their culture strong and vibrant.
“Part of the history of this region has been violent and brutal,” says Manuel Sevilla, a professor of cultural heritage at Stanford University. Javeriana University of Cali. “And originally, if we go back to the days of the slave trade, these are the people who came here against their will and had to endure many hardships. I think you can look at Petronio Alvarez from both sides: one, he’s a symbol of resilience, he’s a symbol of resistance: ‘despite They tried to deprive us of everything, here we are and this is what we have.”
Seville says the festival is proof that the music and culture of Afro-Colombians has been thriving for centuries, and the Petronio Festival shows how creativity and hope continue to flourish here.