ExperiencesCulturePetronio Álvarez Festival: The Warm Breezes of Santiago de Cali

Petronio Álvarez Festival: The Warm Breezes of Santiago de Cali

By Alejandra Algorta
Photos: Juan Felipe Pérez Duque

We reached Cali’s San Antonio neighborhood at about four in the afternoon after sneaking out of Bogotá at dawn to avoid the truck traffic. Gabriela had driven for more than seven hours and the only thing stronger than our fatigue was our desire to dance. The Cauca Valley opened up before us, a vast, hot plain surrounded by mountains, and the city of Santiago de Cali welcomed us with a warm breeze and the fragrant bouquet of river water and rain trees.

After parking the car, we walked to the Olímpico neighborhood, approaching the Pan American Fields where we were greeted by the faint noise of a cheering crowd and distant marimbas. This was the 19th annual Petronio Álvarez Festival and I was about to experience it for the first time. As we headed towards the entrance, we saw men and women with white handkerchiefs in their hands and flowers pinned to their chests.

A tall, burly man lifted a bottle of milky liquor towards the sky, as if performing a ritual, before pouring some of it on the ground.

“To the deceased!” he cried, before lifting the bottle to his lips and passing it around to the rest of the group.

“Who is the deceased?”

Gabriela replied with a smile: “Petronio, of course! Patricio Roman Petronio Álvarez is the deceased!”

They say that Petronio Álvarez was born in Buenaventura over a hundred years ago and that he devoted his life to blazing a musical trail between his native village and Santiago de Cali. “Whenever I’m sad, beautiful town, I look at your lovely sky and no longer feel down,” is a line from one of his songs that has become Buenaventura’s iconic anthem.

The poet died in Cali in 1996 and eight months later the first Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival took place, to honor and preserve the culture that inspired the work of this musician from Buenaventura and celebrate the wealth of Afro-Colombian traditions: their foods, sounds, ways of life, and, of course, their dead.

During the festival, groups from all over Colombia’s Pacific region compete in several musical categories: marimba, chirimía, best unpublished song, best vocalist, and best clarinetist. For five days, musicians from Guapi, Santander de Quilichao, Tumaco, Timbiquí, Quibdó, and other towns perform before an audience that has traveled just to see them, a cheerful crowd that gathers to dance and celebrate the success of the musicians from their hometowns, who, with their hands and voices, sing of their history and traditions.

On our way in, we learned a bit about the mysterious milky-colored liquor known as arrechón, just one of the many spirits that we’re offered every five steps or so on our way through the multitude crowding around the stage.

“Have some arrechón, friend, to heat up your insides!”

A large woman with braided hair was holding out a plastic bottle with a half-peeled label. The bordered label read: “Arrechón: Aphrodisiacal beverage from Colombia’s Pacific.” And below this, a cell phone number. I looked for some information indicating the contents of the mysterious liquid, but found nothing.

“What’s in this stuff?”

“Viche, picha, borojó, cola, sweetened condensed milk, chontaduro, honey, and cloves.”

I looked at Gabriela, confused.

“And turtle penis,” she clarified.

Turtle penis or no turtle penis, arrechón is one of the best-selling beverages at the Petronio. Its magical effects are attributed to the chontaduro, one of the most nutritious tropical fruits, loaded with protein, vitamins, and oils. Although chontaduro can be prepared in a number of ways, at the festival it is mainly valued for its legendary aphrodisiac effect. The large woman with braided hair sensed my fear of the arrechón and instead offered me viche, a sugar cane beverage distilled in a clay pot, which she made herself and brought from Guapi, her hometown. They say that the farther away the spirits come from, the higher the percentage of alcohol, and Guapi is more than 100 miles away from Santiago de Cali… Finally, we opted for a bottle of viche and another of tomaseca, which according to our well informed supplier, contained a mixture of sulfur, cinnamon, molasses and pipilongo (the mysterious herb that provides the drink’s power). Among the other beverages available were levantamuerto (raise the dead), tumbacatre (knock the cot over), calentura (heat), and passion cherries.

They say that after imbibing one of these local spirits, it’s impossible to leave the event alone, as hips start to move and there’s no stopping them. I think the effect is due more to the music than the drink, to the drums and marimbas, the currulao, bunde, and chirimía rhythms that take over this crowd eager to celebrate their culture.

And if after the festival you feel like continuing, there’s always some place in Cali where people are dancing. The second night we decided to finish up at Zaperoco, one of the city’s more traditional salsa bars. By the time we arrived, there wasn’t room for another soul in the confined space with high ceilings and paneled walls that feature pictures of all the great salsa musicians who had played there. The DJ jumped from Cuban son to pachanga, and then to a charanga and back to some classic old “salsitas.” At midnight, the Mambanegra orchestra started playing; this band of young musicians from Cali draws its inspiration from New York salsa, along with a bit of funk, hip-hop, and some Jamaican sounds. We danced until we couldn’t feel our feet.

But the Petronio is more than just music and dancing. Entire families come from the remotest parts of the Pacific to sell their food at festival stalls. There is a whole pavilion dedicated to food and we had a chance to taste the full range of flavors from western Colombia in a single place. We started with the piangua, a tasty, chewy shellfish cooked in a thick sauce and served over a patacón pisa’o (fried plantain). We also tried the encocada de pateburro, a stew made from creamed coconut, sweet peppers, and shellfish. Gabriela ordered the arroz endiablado, a rich, deeply flavored rice dish with chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetables. For dessert we had the aborrajado, fried plantain filled with salty cheese –crunchy on the outside and soft inside— a typical treat in Cali. Gabriela insisted it was the best aborrajado she had ever tasted and while she went off in search of the cook to ask for her phone number and swear eternal loyalty to her kitchen, I walked over to check out some stalls that didn’t seem to be offering food.

In a row of wooden stalls, more than twenty women waited, ready to braid a map on the head of anyone who approached. The Afro-Colombian tradition of hair braiding dates back to the times of slavery, when black women wove patterns into hairdos to represent the trails that led to freedom. The preservation and celebration of this tradition has become so important that these women, along with a few men, have formed the Colombian Association of Afro-Descendant Hairdressers, a guild that honors the history of Colombia’s Afro population, replicating their struggle and reviving the culture, literally, on people’s heads.

A crowd of children shouted enthusiastically and led us to the Quilombo, a small platform next to the food pavilion erected in honor of the festival’s founder, Germán Patiño Ossa. Here, children and adults sit down to watch the dances and listen to stories from around the Pacific region. In addition to the rich musical narrative, the stories speak of resistance. Initially, the Petronio Álvarez Festival was attended only by Afro-descendants, but several years ago it started to fill up with other people from Cali, and tourists from around the world. The event is now a recognized celebration of the culture, history, and musical and culinary roots of Colombia’s Afro-descendant population.

The last night of the festival, the excited crowd celebrates by dancing as they await the announcement of the winners. The ground is soaked with alcohol spilled in the name of Petronio, Patricio Roman Petronio Álvarez, the deceased. In cheerful choreographies, the crowd flutters their white handkerchiefs in the air until a leader coordinates the dance and everyone joins in enthusiastically: three steps to the right, shout, handkerchief in the air, three steps to the left, and repeat. Parents carry their children on their shoulders so they can see the musicians on stage and move their hips even before they learn to walk. Rhythm is felt and taught. Suddenly, one or two hundred people, perhaps even all 100,000 inside the stadium, wave their white handkerchiefs in the air to the beat of “Kilele” by Grupo Bahía. The Petronio Álvarez Festival has become a giant fan of white handkerchiefs. This, I’m sure, is where the warm breeze of Santiago de Cali originates.