Empowering Afro heritage: Cali’s Petronio Álvarez Festival


Cali’s Petronio Álvarez Festival paints a vivid picture of Afro heritage and cultural vibrancy in Latin America. This renowned event, now in its 27th edition, has evolved from a modest competition among Pacific music bands, centered around the Currulao genre, into a pivotal celebration of Afro-descendant pride and a window into Colombia’s vibrant yet underprivileged regions.

Spanning from August 16 to August 21, this six-day festival offers an unparalleled platform for music and culture that often struggles to find recognition on the continental stage. The heart of the event pulsates with captivating performances, accompanied by dances and the unique instruments native to Colombia’s Pacific Cauca region, such as the marimba and cunuños (hand-crafted wooden drums). The infusion of the violin, bridging European and Afro-Colombian influences, adds an unexpected layer to the musical experience. This year, the main stage welcomed the renowned Salsa band, Grupo Niche, for the first time.

The festival’s energy builds throughout the week, culminating in an explosion of excitement over the weekend. By Friday, the crowd swells, with dancing and colorful scarves twirling in the air. The smaller stages offer variations of Pacific music styles, providing a dynamic contrast to the main stage’s intensity.

Beyond the performances, the festival creates space for learning and discussion. The amphitheater hosts conferences and conversations about marginalized traditions and issues often overlooked by mainstream media. A poignant exhibit memorializes victims of violence in the Cauca area, fostering solidarity for a community marked by mistreatment, limited resources, and isolation. Panels and testimonies contribute to a deeper understanding of unreported concerns, enriching the celebration of Afro-Colombian culture while shedding light on the reasons behind the celebration.

However, the festival’s atmosphere of joy was marred by instances of violence and theft. Pickpocketing was rampant, resulting in numerous lost phones. Additionally, a tragic incident unfolded during one of the post-festival gatherings in Ciudad Cordoba. A blackout caused by heavy rain escalated into a fatal fight, claiming the life of Lizandro Vallecilla Riascos, a percussionist from the group Canalón de Timbiquí. This incident underscored the complex interplay between art, violence, and peace.

Despite the somber undertones, the festival persevered until its conclusion. The poetry tent provided an outlet for marginalized voices, sharing stories of marginalization and self-doubt. Amidst the sorrow, the stands offering vibrant traditional clothing from Cauca, the welcoming braid-makers and makeup artists, became symbols of empowerment, celebrating Afro-Colombian beauty and its divergence from Western standards.

Food stands offered insights into Pacifico cuisine, featuring an abundance of seafood like patacones and shrimp, alongside coconut rice and the revered viche liquor known for its medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. The culinary experience mirrored the festival’s celebration of marginalized traditions.

The artisanal market showcased colorful jewelry and headscarves, a testament to the infectious joy spread by the Pacific peoples. Participants left with enduring memories of dances, laughter, and a deeper connection to their often overlooked compatriots. The Petronio Álvarez Festival encapsulated the essence of Afro heritage, leaving an indelible mark on all those who experienced it.


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