An hour’s bus journey south from Cartagena bus terminal (which itself takes an hour to get to from the centre of Cartagena) lies San Basilio de Palenque, a small village of 3,000 people descended from African slaves. Much of the coast in Colombia in fact has a large population of African descendants, but Palenque is the one place that has remained resolutely African.
The village is full of wannabe guides who I walk past as I get my bearings. The main square has a statue of Benkos Biohó but little else except for a few shops and bars. There’s an old woman in the corner of the square with some pots and pans so I go to see if she’s got some food, which she has; a soup full of bones followed by a plate of rice. While there I am joined by Daniel, one of the wannabe guys from the arrival. I ask him a couple of things about music in Palenque and he seems to know what he’s talking about. Considering the village looks nothing more than row after row of houses I agree to pay him 10,000 Colombian Pesos (about GBP3.50) to show me around.
Palenque is quite famous as the home of champeta criolla, a style of music that mixed Afro-beat with local Colombian styles (check out the Palenque! Palenque! to listen to this style in full flow). Daniel takes me to the house of Rafael Cassiani or El Maestro, leader of Sexteto Tabalá, a group with a strong Afro-Cuban feel. I felt a little bad for not buying any of the CDs he offered me but they were 30,000 Pesos (10 pounds) for CD-R’s with badly photocopied artwork. I told him I’d like to buy an original, to which he replied that they are the originals and that they sound better than the official ones which are actually broken. Apart from that dispute though, I got on well with Rafael. Then we met one of the two old singers from Las Alegres Ambulancias, a more traditional palenque group. Her CDs had proper liner notes and cases and were only 25,000 Pesos so I bought one. We also checked out La Casa de La Cultura, where many musical events happen on the weekend and at holidays.
In essence, if you plan on going to Palenque you’ll definitely need a guide as otherwise you will just find yourself walking along dirt roads past very similar-looking run-down houses. You should also know that the bus will only drop you off at the entrance to Palenque and from there you will need to get a moto for the final 2-3 miles to the village. It’s definitely worth it though for a taste of Afro-Colombia!