Monday, August 17, 2009

El Petronio

It was a tough call. Last time I was in Cali, 2 weeks ago, I was sketching out my plans. The Mompox Film Festival was, like Parque Tayrona, one of the only clear things I really wanted to do while in Colombia - other than the last few weeks' commission - and look what happened there. So, no great surprise then, the Law of Plan B prevailed. It was described as unmissable - thousands of people dancing and stomping to marimba bands for 4 nights in a row.

I've just about caught up on my live music drought. Hermanos Lebron, the Cuban salsa band, in Santander de Quilichao last month was a start - but these last 4 days have been utterly amazing, reminiscent of Carnival in Panama. Last night had me actually welling up with tears, for the second time in as many years. Maybe it was the 'viche'... Around 9pm, this group appeared on the revolving stage, as the last were revolved away behind them, a troupe of about 60 kids, aged between 4 and 16. Playing marimbas, drumming, stamping, and singing, they made an emotional impact on me that I won't forget.

Petronio Alvarez is the name of the 13th Pacific Music festival of Cali. Busloads of Afro-Colombians from Choco, Buenaventura and communities all along the coast converge on Cali to witness this spectacular event. For 2 days, back to back bands from 6pm to midnight compete in various categories to see who gets to play on the final day. Saturday is the special invitations days, where famous bands & old winners play and Sunday is the final. The revolving stage ensures there is little more than a couple of minutes between acts.

We were lucky enough to have colour photocopied some press passes, and had access to the central arena. This free festival takes place in the Plaza de Toros - a huge bullring. The stage is set up at one edge of the ring, and about 40,000 people fill up the tiered stands. In the bullring we packed in about a thousand people on Sunday. The atmosphere is crackling with excitement, and the dance moves are incredible. I remember turning around at several points to see literally the whole panorama from top to bottom moving and arm-waving in step.

To me it seems like there are two types of bands - the marimba bands that generally have a lot of drums and those with violins. It's my theory that because this is only the second year with violin bands, that they need another few years practice and audience appreciation until they get better and faster - the rhythm is just a bit too slow on the whole and doesn't really get the crowd going as much as the drums - when they get going something magical happens and I just can't put words to it.

And then at midnight every night the whole place decants to Calle Pecao in the centre, and the Parquedero (the car park) around the corner. Last night there must have been 2000 people in the car park all shaking and moving to miramba sounds from a fat, very loud sound system.

The pacific drink of choice is viche - it's my informed guess that this is made from fermented sugar cane juice - it has that grassy earthy sweetness that French Agricole style rhums do - with a punchy rough kick. It's known as a Pacific aphrodisiac (on Saturday a beautiful latina testified to that) and they sell it in reused plastic bottles - proper homebrew.

Last night nearly didn't happen. We turned up at 6pm on the dot, along with 25,000 other people. The VIP (performers and press) queue was a mess, the cops just standing around and the security shouting at a raging mob of 250 people baying at the gates telling people to get organised and into queues without any success. Pisspoor organisation. After being in this writhing mob for an hour, finally made it into the outer enclosure, and were greeted by a 100 person queue to get into the inner arena. Finally at the front, the security guy took my pass out of the holder, said to me "es una copia" and put it into his hand with a wadge of at least another 50. My mate had just made it inside ahead of me, he passed his copy out (mine was a copy of a copy) and after another 20 minutes queueing made it in for the final night. I could only last until 2am this morning, I think some of the last viche I had was a little more potent than normal and dragged myself to bed.

1 comment:

realfoodlover said...

Great account of a fantastic music festival. It sounded amazing. Thank you.