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43 f Palenque People


Lucas Silva has been a man on a mission, to publicise the hidden gems of Colombian music from an era when Africa, the Caribbean and psychedelia produced glorious local hybrids. Jamie Renton phones Bogota.


I


got a serious case of disorientation listening to the compilation album Palenque Palenque for the first time. Where does this music come from? Latin America? West Africa? Some of it sounds as though Nigerian Afrobeat has been grafted on to vintage Latin funk, at other times it’s like Colombian cumbia played by a stoned soul band. Maybe it’s one of those modern Franken- stein’s monster DJ mash-ups… No hang on, it’s on the reliably retro Soundway reissue label and is subtitled Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots In Colombia 1975 – 91, so it must be from back then, but… but… where does this music come from?


Thank heavens for sleeve-notes. Hav- ing played all 21 tracks, loved every minute and danced round the kitchen like a mad thing (no one else was in at the time, lucky for them and me), I sat down like the good schoolboy I never was and did my homework, reading through com- piler Lucas Silva’s extensive CD booklet notes, from which emerged a strange and compelling tale taking in slavery, sound systems and psychedelia. Clearly in order to get the full story I needed to go over to Colombia, travel round the Caribbean coastal towns with Lucas unearthing old records, sip rum in romantically run-down bars with the gnarled old veterans who made the music… but sadly nobody’s bud- get stretched to such an adventure and I had to make do with a phonecall to Bogo- ta, where Lucas was on the line and ready to help fill in the gaps.


He’s been researching the music for the last 14 years. “I’m a film-maker,” he explains in an easygoing Latin American accented drawl. “In 1996 I started making movies about Afro-Colombian music. I heard some champeta at that time and was really interested, so after that I just kept on looking for sounds.” For the uninitiated (which until recently included me), cham- peta is the culture and music of the African descendants of Colombia’s Caribbean coast; it takes its name from a small curved knife found in the region, which is used both in the kitchen and as a weapon!


Smitten with the sound, Lucas was a man on a mission, unearthing hard-to-find Afro-Colombian gems and putting them out on his own Palenque label, initially in France (his home country was apparently none too keen to explore this particularly funky post-colonial cultural phenomenon). At about the same time, much taken with


Soundways’ excellent Ghana Soundz com- pilations, Lucas started sending label boss Miles Cleret Afro-Colombian tracks and over a decade later Palenque Palenque finally sees the light of day.


“It was a very particular time when this music was made,” he says of the era covered by the compilation. “In the late 1970s and ‘80s, this was when the music of Africa, the Caribbean coast of Colombia and the psychedelic mentality came together. It was a golden age with all kinds of experimentation.”


Abelardo Carbono Y Su Conjunto T


his story of the roots of this music is really the hidden story of Colombia’s African commu- nity. Palenques were the free villages created by runaway


slaves (Maroons, as they were called) who had been shipped over from various parts of Africa 500 years ago. “Many Palenques were created in the time of slavery and today in Colombia, many of them still sur- vive. The album features three bands from Palenques. Most of the music was recorded in Barranquilla, which is the biggest town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. But the music expresses the sense of freedom, not only for black people but also for culturally mixed people. All of the tracks are influenced by the Palenque culture and other black culture on the Caribbean coast, because as well as the Palenques, there were other black vil- lages, that didn’t come out of rebellion. So there are two kinds of black people: the Palenqueros and those who didn’t fight the system in slavery times. In both sets of villages all of these ancestral rhythms, like cumbia, bullerengue and chalupa were born, so these villages with a strong African heritage were very spe- cial places for music.”


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