Colombian Music Festival Keeps Afro-Colombian Culture Alive

Due to the mainstream media neglecting Afro-Colombia music, there has for some time been little interest in their culture. According to festival director, Alberto Seviliano, Afro-Colombian music is never played on the radio, even in Cali where most the people are Afro-Colombian. This, he says, the festival wants to change. 

Cali, Colombia – At six-years-old, Noency Mosfuera Martinez, an Afro-Colombian leader, was forced to leave her homeland due to increased fighting between left-wing guerrillas and paramilitaries. She is one of over 5 million who are estimated to have been displaced in Colombia by one of the longest running conflicts in the world.

In 2002, Noency’s hometown suffered a massacre when paramilitaries took control of the town and guerillas began to fire rockets indiscriminately. One hit the local church where hundreds of civilians were hiding. 119 civilians were killed, 98 injured.

“The whole town fled straight away, many moved to local cities, we lost everything over night,” says Noency.

Despite the risks, Noency, has worked tirelessly to pressure the government to rebuild the town and bring the people back. While acting as a leader, she has also formed a traditional band, which aims to empower the community to return and work to preserve their culture.

Afro-Colombian communities are some of the most susceptible to displacement. Their traditional homelands are often located in remote mountainous regions, which act as ideal hiding places for armed groups fighting over natural resources and drug-trafficking routes. The massive displacement numbers have worried Afro-Colombian leaders who fear they are losing their traditional culture.

Together with her band, ‘Bongo De Bojaya’, Noency traveled to the fifteenth Petronio Alverez music festival in Cali, Southern Colombia. The festival brings together Afro-Colombian communities from across the country, who come to dance, sing and celebrate their unique culture.

“We came to the festival because we want to tell the world about what happened in our town,” says Noency, whose lyrics tell the story. “We also want to encourage Afro-Colombian communities to protect their land and their culture.”

The festival went on for four days and was situated in one of Cali’s football stadiums. Over 60 artists from across Colombia came to compete in the festival and win one of four main prizes. Along side the festival, conferences were held where experts discussed the preservation of Afro-Colombian culture.

According to Juana Alvarez, an organizer and daughter of composer Petronio Alvarez, whom the festival is named after, the purpose of the festival is to celebrate Afro-Colombian culture. “Our people had their culture taken away from them for so long, now we want to get it back.”

Standing outside the festival, Alvarez explained that up until 1991 Afro-Colombian people had no rights. Then, when the government introduced a law which gave the Afro-Colombian people the right to regain their culture, she got the idea for the festival.

She says that the government initially paid little interest in the festival but once it became popular they decided to back it. When the current mayor showed unprecedented interest and support for the festival, they handed it over, believing it would have a longer life.

“The festival is something that Afro-Colombians are extremely proud of,” says Alvarez. “It has become a space for multiculturalism, where everyone comes to celebrate our culture as if it were their own,”

According to Eliena Hinestroza, a Cali based Afro-Colombian leader, the festival is hope that Afro-Colombian culture will not be destroyed by the conflict. Along with the rest of her community she was forced to flee her town in rural Cauca three years ago when the fighting became unbearable.

Hinestroza says that the government is not doing enough to support Afro-Colombian communities. “They are trying, but more needs to be done. Budgets are being appointed for health and education but it just is not reaching us.”

She believes that if a peaceful solution is not found to the conflict, Afro-Colombia culture could disappear as more and more are being displaced to the cities. “We are not used to the cities,” says Hinestroza. “When we move we lose much of our culture and often live in dangerous conditions.”

One of the winning bands ‘San Bata’, who play traditional Chirimia music, came from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medillin. “If you are my age and you step into the wrong street, they will kill you. It is so territorial,” says Wilmer Bonib, the lead singer and at 21 the oldest member.

Bonib says many of the youth are losing a connection with their homeland as they grow up in distant areas, far from their parents homelands. The violence has also meant that many of the youth are caught up in gang culture rather than traditional culture.

“The best thing about winning the festival is that we will send a message to the youth,” says Bonib. “We hope they will now realize that there is other ways to become successful and they will be interested in traditional things again.”

Due to the mainstream media neglecting Afro-Colombia music, there has for some time been little interest in their culture. According to festival director, Alberto Seviliano, Afro-Colombian music is never played on the radio, even in Cali where most the people are Afro-Colombian. This, he says, the festival wants to change.

“We are making Afro-Colombian music popular again,” says Seviliano, sitting in the production headquarters. “Now it has been on the television and the radio, we think mainstream media will now pay more attention to this vibrant and important music.”

Also, for many of the musicians it is an opportunity for them to get their music known, which would otherwise be forgotten.

Jorge Eliecer Llanos, the lead singer of traditional band ‘Son Del Tuno’ told Upside Down World he believed that without the festival the music from his region would never be heard. Having traveled seventeen hours on boat to reach the festival, he says one of the best things is the cultural exchange with other communities he would never know about.

“We live isolated, far from anyone else, it would be easy for our style of music to die out but the festival keeps it alive,” says Llanos. “We have been invited to play in Bogota and other towns, allowing us to keep an interest in our particular style of music.”

Recognizing the ongoing marginalization of African descendants and their culture, UNESCO made 2011 the “International Year for People of African Descent.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, “People of African descent are among those most affected by racism. Too often, they face denial of basic rights such as access to quality health services and education. Such fundamental wrongs have a long and terrible history.”

Despite the urgency and importance of the festival for Afro-Colombian communities, the emphasis of the festival was recreation. Thousands crammed into the stadium adorning African symbols, waving handkerchiefs in the air, swigging local brews and dancing from start to finish.

Despite the light heartedness, a strong message was sent by most the artists and attendees there.

“We want everyone to know that Afro-Colombia culture is here to stay and it is only going to get bigger” Noency told Upside Down World before heading back to Bojaya. “No matter how much conflict there is, we’ll keep struggling, and we will keep singing.”