Palenque de San Basilio is considered the first free African slave town in the Americas. We compile a list of seven iconic and new Afro-Colombian bands from Palenque that shouldn't fly under your radar.
What makes Palenque de San Basilio a musical hot spot is its deep connection with its African heritage, which comes from a community who escaped slavery from coastal plantations to found their enclave in Palenque's village in the early XVII century. The town is located in the foothills of Montes de María in the northern coastal region of Colombia, a very isolated place that allowed them to keep their distinct creole language, known as lengua Palenquera, and their amazing array of musical styles.
When you arrive in Palenque you hear a mix of beats coming from loud picós (from 'pick-up'), a sound system operator, tuning rhythms ranging from champeta, reggae, Afro-punk, Congolese soukous and folkloric hip-hop to more traditional drums and percussion.
The town's party happens the second weekend of October when the Festival de Tambores (Drumming festival) and Ñeque y Tambó celebration gather local musicians to showcase genres like Terapia or champeta, lumbalú's sounds (a funerary tradition with Central African cultural roots), rap Palenquero, reggae, electronic music and DJs. For four days they perform while people hang out in the central square or dance at the forefront of the houses to jam and drink ñeke, a sacred sugar liquor to Palenque's musicians. Here is a list to capture the lush and sonic landscapes of the first free black town of the new world.
Kombilesa Mí are a nine-member 'rap folkloric Palenquero' collective. Their music combines Caribbean rhythms like cumbia, mapalé, champeta, bullerengue, son palenquero, puya, African soukous and hip-hop with lyrics delivered in the Palenquero language. They're lead by Adris Padilla, alias Afroneto, who encouraged several hip-hop collectives to end rivalries between rappers to start this band in 2016. Their second album, Esa Palenquera, is filled with references to their African roots, the strength of Afro women, Palenque traditions and their ongoing fight to end racial discrimination. Kombilesa Mí have carved their own path in their town and abroad to spread their Palenque language and mark the legacy of Palenque de San Basilio on the world.
Estrellas del Caribe
Estrellas del Caribe is a musical institution in Palenque. Throughout the years, a lot of musicians have played with the group and the band has sparked new genres like champeta. Estrellas del Caribe is comprised of five iconic and psychedelic members: Leonel Torres, Rosalío Salgado, Juan Gañate, Franklin Hernández (Tambor) and Laureano Tejedor. Almost all of the musicians combine their countryside activities with their 'therapy' as they call their music Terapia criolla—a mixture of elements of rap, reggae, Caribbean music and bits and pieces of African soukous that came to Palenque thanks to the arrival of acetate records from Central Africa. Thanks to their manager Franklin Tejedor, a member of a prominent Palenquero musical family and a musician in his own right, the band recorded their first album in 2013 and they are now working on their second album to be released in 2020. It was because of this pioneering band that the sound of 'urban champeta' arose with artists like Viviano Torres and Charles King, who brought the music to Cartagena.
Mitú is electronic duo which was conceived to be a live show band rather than a studio-based group. The group is comprised by Julián Salazar, former member of psychedelic cumbia band Bomba Estéreo and Franklin Tejedor, a percussionist from a lineage of musicians in San Basilio. Mitú mixes electronic sounds with palenquero music by using synthesizers and drums machines accompanied by words and chants that Tejedor, or pther Afro cantoras deliver in Spanish or in Palenquero language. The group has been around since 2012 and have recorded five eclectic albums with an array of afro-futuristic beats, as shwon in Potro (2012), Balnear (2014), Cosmus (2017), Los Ángeles (2018) and (Tandem) 2019.
El Sexteto Tabalá
El Sexteto Tabalá is the most traditional and pioneering band based in San Basilio. They display a mix of sounds like cumbia, lumbalú (a funerary musical tradition) and Cuban influences by incorporating an instrument called the marímbula, an instrument based on the mbira that Cubans brought to Colombia. The band started playing in funerals, marriages and rituals and didn't really care about recording until Palenque Records, a local record label, encouraged them to record its first vinyl and made them known across the world.
Rap Ku Suto
Rap Ku Suto is creating a new hip-hop movement along the new generations of musicians from Palenque that sing and rhyme to prompt social transformation. Their words advocate for their roots, fight for Afro-community rights and denounce injustices against their community. Rap Ku Suto, in Palenquero, mean "rap with us," which embodies their collective search to find their African roots and promote their origin. This is conscious, social and protest rap that embraces the voice of the people and defends their territories.
Son Palenque has been around for 40 years. Its leader Justo Valdez sings in the Palenque backed by powerful champeta beats and traditional instruments. With more than ten albums and an outstanding career that has taken them through different parts of the world, Son Palenque is a responsible for a hotbed of artists dedicated to champeta in the city of Cartagena, including Viviano Torres, Charles King, Melchor Pérez and Kassiva. They recently released a new single, "La Jugadita," and will play in the Cartagena and Barranquilla carnivals in 2020.
Las Alegres Ambulancias
This ancestral group is made-up of a family of drummers & singers that have played parties and wakes in Palenque for over a century since 1907. It's a sort of music school for many young musicians and its legacy has delved into various rhythms like Lulbalú, bullerengue, chalupa and son de negro. Las Alegres Ambulancias have toured locally since 1980 celebrating the dead's rituals to say farewell to their souls and help them to go away. Now, the manager and percussionist of the band Tomás Teherán, a descendant of the 'Batanta' musical drummers dynasty, is reviving its legacy with African soukous beats, not only for the dead but for those who are alive.