In western Colombia, the Petronio Alvarez festival is the big event of the summer — five days of music and food and fashion. More than a hundred thousand people travel from all over the world to the city of Cali, where they celebrate the culture of the country’s Afro-Colombian Pacific region. It’s a huge party.
Over the past 23 years, the festival has become one of Colombia’s largest cultural events. For Afro-Colombians, it has opened a local economy and a space where they can celebrate their culture. And according to Michael Birembaum Quintero, it’s “one of the places where Colombia started to reckon with its own blackness, and with the importance of black culture.”
Quintero attended his first Petronio fest in 2002, and he’s been to half a dozen since. He also happens to be an ethnomusicologist at Boston University who has spent almost two decades researching the musical practices of Colombia’s Pacific coast. He’s the author of Rites, Rights and Rhythms: A Genealogy of Musical Meaning in Colombia’s Black Pacific.
Quintero graciously agreed to be my guide at this year’s Petronio. For four days, we milled around the event, eating delicious food, checking out academic panels, and of course, jamming out to some excellent music.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The theme of this festival is race, right? How did that come to be?
The Petronio Alvarez is set up to be about the Colombian Pacific, a region where 85 percent of the population is black. All of the music that showcased is Afro-descendant music. By opening the door to the question of region, it absolutely opened the door to the question of race. So today, the Petronio festival is absolutely about blackness.
Is there a central moment at the event?
The most important part is the announcement of the winners on that final night — Sunday. The Petronio is set up as a competition, so it’s kind of like a reality show. You have the three top bands from each of the musical categories [Violín Caucano, Marimba y Cantos Tradicionales, Chirimía, and Libre] perform, and then the judges retire to their chamber to decide. It’s almost like when they name a new pope and they send the smoke signals from the Vatican.
When the announcer comes up on stage and [says] who won, everyone freaks out. Social media starts buzzing, “This person won, that person won!” And the controversy begins: “Oh, how could they name that person? How could they not not name the other person?” That’s actually one of the most entertaining things about the about the Petronio festival.
Although, of course, there’s real money that’s on the line. Musicians are not paid to come here, so winning a prize is sort of what’s going to make it work economically for musicians. A lot of people come from pretty poor backgrounds and pretty distant parts of the country in order to be here.
Why is a festival about Afro-Colombian identity set in a city like Cali — which isn’t technically in the Pacific region?
Cali is a black city. It has one of the largest black populations in the Americas, and it has grown with populations migrating from the Colombian Pacific. A large percentage of the city is of African descent, so it makes a lot of political sense for the local government to explicitly name blackness. It’s very important for people here in Cali to understand their connection with black culture.
The story of the Pacific is the story of people setting up, in many ways, an autonomous black and indigenous society on the outskirts of modernity. …The Pacific was outside of the mainstream and was totally invisible to the rest of the country for most of Colombia’s history. Before the Petronio Alvarez Festival, people didn’t know about this music that had existed for hundreds of years in Colombia. …
The Petronio festival opens up a kind of mainstream visibility for people from the Pacific, but also for Afro-Colombian culture in general. Even though it’s just the Pacific that’s being celebrated at the Petronio Festival, the idea of having black culture in the spotlight is important for Afro descendant people throughout Colombia. And I would say throughout Latin America.