San Basilio de Palenque: African Tradition in Colombia

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Haga click sobre la imagen para ampliarla The palenquera

The palenquera /Fot. gufomusike/

On the Colombian Caribbean Coast, at a distance of one hour from the city of Cartagena, between mountains and swamps, there is a place where, in spite of the passage of time, its inhabitants live guided by African customs, traditions and rites, just as their ancestors did several centuries ago.

Its inhabitants prefer to have their community called San Basilio de Palenque not Palenque de San Basilio, with the argument that the village does not belong to the saint, rather than the other way around.

This place, known as San Basilio de Palenque, is famous for its symbol, the palenqueras, dark-skinned women who, dressed in multicolored dresses and swaying their hips, walk while they balance bowls of fresh fruit on their heads.

The palenqueras are the image representing the difficult, complicated history of their ancestors. They symbolize the struggles of the black cimarrones - slaves who courageously escaped from their owners in search of a better future.

The palenqueras preserve the African traditions brought by the slaves who disembarked on these regions of the South American continent during the Spanish Conquesti. Soon after, in colonial times, palenques began to appear on the mountains. These were settlements of rebellious cimarrones. The term “palenque” turned into a symbol of freedom because anyone who became a member of one was automatically free.

Since the 15th century, San Basilio de Palenque is considered the first village of free slaves in South America, as well as the birthplace of the African cultural wealth of Colombia.

Social Organization

The palenqueros live by the norms of the social organization inherited from their African ancestors: the ma-kuagro, according to which every society is divided into age groups to allow the division of labor, the protection of the territory, and the preservation of traditions based on honesty, solidarity, and a collective spirit.

Another form of social organization in San Basilio de Palenque is the junta, a committee of sorts that is formed for a specific purpose - an illness, for example – and disappears once its purpose has been fulfilled.


The Palenque language is the only Creole language used in the world that is based on Spanish and African elements.

The Palenque language is a Creole language based on Spanish lexicon, but with the morpho-syntactical characteristics of the African continent’s autochthonous languages, especially Bantu. Researchers have also detected that the Palenquero lexicon includes words from the Kikongo and Kimbundo languages.

This type of Creole language originated as a response to difficulties in communication between Europeans and the various representatives of different linguistic families who arrived in South America.


In addition to the language, the palenque preserved African music and the traditional way of manufacturing instruments for its interpretation, the main ones being drums, the most widely-known of which are pechiche, bongó, timba, bombo, llamador and alegre), and marimbulas and maracas.

The following rhythms are played on these instruments:

Bullerengue sentado:
a women’s song originally associated to pregnant women. Nowadays, it is sung by a feminine voice that interprets the verses that are responded to by a women’s chorus.
the merriest rhythm in palenque music.
Son de negros:
a dance where a man and a women court each other.
a mixture of African and Caribbean island music, the latter imitated with palenque instruments.
Son palenquero:
which follows the format of the Cuban son brought by Cuban workers in the 20th century to the sugar mills of the Colombian Caribbean and then fused with the region’s music.

Festival of Palenque Drums and Cultural Expressions

The Festival of Palenque Drums and Cultural Expressions will take place from October 9 to 12, 2009.

To preserve and protect their cultural expressions, the Palenque de San Basilio will be filled with drum rhythms that will recreate the oral traditions of the palenque that keep the culture alive and vibrating.

Events schedule

Evening of oral and visual narrations

Stories, myths, and legends will be told in Palenque language and translated into Spanish. There will also be showings of oral and visual documents, like photographs and videos taken by palenque researchers.

Date: October 9, 2009.

Samples of Afro-Colombian drums and dances

During this exhibit, music and dance groups representative of the palenque will be presented to the public. There will also be guest groups from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Additionally, palenque percussion workshops will be held.

Date: October, 10 – 12, 2009


At four in the morning, uniformed dance groups and drummers will meet at the main square to begin a grand promenade through the most important streets. This will include visits to the homes of the most representative exponents of palenque cultural expressions.

Date: October 11, 2009

Handicrafts exhibit

The handicrafts of San Basilio de Palenque culture will be displayed.

Date: October, 10 – 12, 2009

Haga click sobre la imagen para ampliarla Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales de Palenque

Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales de Palenque /Fot. troskiller/

Hairstyle samples

Palenque women will show their different hairstyles, which are considered elements of identity and membership in the community. Tips for maintaining the hairdos neat and clean will be revealed.

Date: October 10 and 11, 2009.

Samples of tanks and porcelains

Palenque de San Basilio women are characterized by perfectly balancing tanks, porcelains, and their laundry utensils on their head. This sample will recreate palenquera work dynamics.

Date: October 10 and 11, 2009 .

Gastronomy samples

The diversity of palenque food will allow visitors to sample the dishes and sweets of the region.

Date: October, 10 – 12, 2009.

Workshop on Palenque language

The inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque communicate with each other in their own language, a Creole tongue based on Spanish vocabulary, with a strong influence of the African Bantu, Kikongo and Kimbundu languages. The Palenque language is not limited to its grammatical and structural aspects. It is an entire cultural construction related to the interpretation of the reality of this community.

Date: October 10 and 11, 2009.

If you were interested in the subject of Colombian palenqueras, we invite to see the following…


Calle 28A Nº 13A-15 Piso 36

Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Fondo de Promoción Turistica PROCOLOMBIA

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