When energy travels through vibrating waves that shine amid our insanely accelerated world, somehow magic happens around the fifth element: music; an indisputable witness of the evolution of cultures through the centuries. This is my story.
A little over a year ago and thanks to those clever Instagram algorithms that know everything about me, I came across an ad promoting an appealing experience through the music of my country, Colombia, this ad was unquestionably calling my name. I instantly contacted the advertiser, a man who quickly conveyed his charismatic personality to me via the excited typewriting haste of my Instagram messages; Gregorio Uribe, an extraordinary artist whom I had the pleasure to meet thanks to this experience. From that moment I embarked on a new adventure in my imagination through music and Colombian landscapes. I booked it there and then without much further thought!
Sounds of Colombia is a musical tourism venture that took me on a journey into the African heart of my country in such an exceptional fashion. I have travelled within Colombia several times before, but this experience through the vibes of traditional music is one that I had never done, it was indeed “off the beaten track.” A beautiful reunification with my roots, I travelled through unknown places that not even many of us Colombians ever reached. I am talking about the Montes de María, a region that is today straightforwardly accessed by road from the Cartagena but that in the past would mean arduous journeys towards freedom for many people who were enslaved during colonial times. Sounds of Colombia invited these lands to speak to me with rhythmical language and heroic stories throughout the lively evenings of this venture.
This trip opened my mind and heart in a spirited way, it introduced me to cultural educators and musicians within their community, inside their own homes, and who with their friendly smiles and great talent transmitted fondly their love and pride for their roots to us visitors. There is nothing more authentic than that.
While I was travelling through the roads of Colombia the minutes gifted me with lovely views of the Magdalena River, unique landscapes that with each kilometre brought me something beautiful to cherish. The tour was guided by a music specialist and I was accompanied by extraordinary fellow travellers, what else could I ask for, the universe being kind to me once again. I feel grateful for connecting with all these delightful people with whom I shared these pleasurable moments of life: music and travel. Colombia is truly a country of a thousand rhythms, smiles, cultures, and meaningful encounters.
CARTAGENA – GLORIOUS SUNSET AND CUMBIA SABANERA
I began this journey amid the warm and welcoming climate of the Colombian Caribbean, I arrived in Cartagena from London and via Paris & Bogota in one of those mechanical birds that I like to ride on so much; The Sky is The Limit.
Full of excitement and a great desire to learn about the fifth element, I managed to also have time to celebrate with my friend Karenina for her birthday. We strolled the busy streets of the walled city and danced to the sound of good salsa in one of the local places. All this the night prior to meeting my travel companions who I had the pleasure to meet the next morning, most of them from North America in search of the land of charm or their momposinian roots. We started our exploration there and then.
We began with a pleasant stroll around the Joe Arroyo square, where there is a statue that reminds us that this great man, Joe Arroyo, left behind a great legacy in history with his music, raising the name Afro Colombian culture throughout the world. I have truly enjoyed his songs and surely will keep dancing to them for years to come.
At this stage, we also had our first encounter with a stimulating shot of ñeke, which would later become everyone’s favourite drink! Ñeke is an artisan drink produced with sugarcane juice which is put in water and fermented for approximately seven days, a distillate. The local rum! I assure you from my own experience that it has incredible anti-hangover qualities.
The welcome evening arrived with a few local cocktails and facing the most spectacular roof terrace views of the Pegasus dock and the clock tower. We met and enjoyed the music of maestro Carmelo Torres Mendoza and his Cumbia Sabanera. Maestro Carmelo shared with us some stories about his 50 years of producing music. During his youth, he worked in tobacco fields with the dream of one day being able to afford an accordion. I could not resist imagining those arduous days when a generation of musicians was being conceived through camaraderie and joy, a true revolution of traditional sounds. Today maestro Carmelo is a specialist in the cumbia of the Montes de María.
Maestro Carmelo also told us that his mentor was Andrés Landeros, a musician and composer who won important festivals throughout his life. A man whom his grandson described as irreverent as he was a dreamer, who by trying to imitate the singing of birds, he succeeded in leaving a treasurable cultural heritage not just for maestro Carmelo but for the whole history of Colombian music.
We were all delighted with his joyful melodies under a magical sunset atmosphere with exceptional views of the city, the most spectacular sunset one can imagine as if the sun listened to the sounds of maestro Carmelo’s accordion rhythms and decided to stunningly shine for us. I was inside “Jenny in wonderland”. The atmosphere was one of a kind I tell you.
The lovely Doña Lili, a beautiful momposina with an endless smile, who came from New York with her two daughters Alejandra and Cumbia, trained us with some lively cumbia dance lessons.
SAN JUAN DE NEPOMUCENO – WONDERFUL SOUND OF FLUTES
The next day we woke up nice and early with a delicious local breakfast to recharge our batteries and start our day’s activities.
We headed towards the Montes de María, towards the town San Juan de Nepomuceno, 90 kilometres from Cartagena. For this journey, we followed the main Caribbean motorway Troncal Del Caribe, where we near-sighted an arm of the great Magdalena River and passed through the Canal del Dique. During the drive, we enjoyed the music of the Montes de María “La Cañaguatera” thanks to maestro Carmelo who accompanied us on this part of our tour.
Upon arriving in San Juan de Nepomuceno, we were greeted by flute luthier Fredys Arrieta, who along with his mother warmly welcomed us to their home. Flutes translate Gaitas in Spanish, and from now I will refer to them as such since it does feel best for this writing.
After a little rest, Fredys took us on a short but beautiful walk around the area and introduced us to the processes of gaitas manufacture. A tour where we found an ecosystem rich in corozo and cardón trees, a type of cactus from which the material to build gaitas is found.
Gaitas are magical instruments, creators of splendid sounds inspired by birds. At the time of writing these lines, I was transporting myself back again to these sounds and was so profoundly bizarre that I was struggling to put it together in words. I then suddenly ran into the amazing English-Colombian artist Titti Orinoko; who inspired me, perhaps without realising, my next lines: “Those sounds that connect us powerfully with the converging universe and intensely fills the soul through the simplicity of its echoes, strangely one becomes a flute in moments of synergy with the ancient cosmos”.
Gaitas, as Fredys states, are 100% indigenous instruments, and their oldest use is among the Koguis and the Arhuacos of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, one of the families of the Tayrona culture, which fortunately did not go extinct by the Spanish invasion. Through time, this instrument then fused its sounds in a magical marriage with the drums brought by African people.
Fredys shared some of the foundations in the process of Gaita production. The tip of the gaita is made with beeswax that is then mixed with charcoal. The reason the charcoal is used is to keep the bees from coming back and to keep other rodents from trying to bite it, this mixture gives the mouth its black colour. The peak of the gaitas used to be made with duck feathers but nowadays is more common to use plastic material that is more durable and easier to repair.
The body of the gaita is made of cactus wood, of which there are varieties depending on the region. After Fredy explained to us all this process, I took the occasion to acquire some maracas and gaitas crafted by him (with the hope of having time to learn to play them one day!).
SAN JACINTO – GAITAS CIRCLE AND DRUMS
Later on that night, we headed for the town of San Jacinto, 15 km south, where we had the pleasure of enjoying a Rueda de Gaitas, which translates as flutes circle. A dynamic cultural display with Dionisio and Orlando Yepes and their group Gaitas y Tambores de San Jacinto, where I had also the pleasure of meeting the talented dancer Eduardo Carval who happily taught us a few steps. Eduardo proudly describes his land as the place where magic is lived in each of its streets.
We learned first-hand that the Rueda de Gaitas is a social festive custom. This practice was inherited from the African Bantu culture and spread during the colonial period and thus over the years in a party of transcending generations. The practice takes place in a circle where the gaiteros and drummers, tamboleros, gather to play in the centre and the dancers move around in synergy with the rhythmical sounds of the drums.
The Yepes brothers, born in San Jacinto, began learning these traditions from their youth thanks to their uncles and their determination to train their listening skills with old recordings of old maestros. At present they are masters in the interpretations of all the instruments used in the Rueda de Gaita, which are: the male gaita, female gaita, caller drum (llamador), female drum (alegre), the Tambora and the maracas.
Here I leave you with the link to their new release, Canto a los Juglares so that you can catch this wonderful music. Press Here.
The next day we continued our route entering yet another charming town which in the past I had the pleasure to visit and which still remains in my fond memories.
SANTA CRUZ DE MOMPOX – SUNG DANCES BY DON ABUNDIO
We continued five hours travelling north and arrived at Santa Cruz de Mompox, a town with an extraordinary cultural legacy. We had lunch in a charming atmosphere next to the refreshing breeze of one of the arms of the Magdalena River.
After lunch, Paloma, Cumbia, Lili and Alejandra and I enjoyed a historical tour through Mompox’s beautiful streets where a few years ago I bought my first filigree necklace, a handmade art made with very thin silver threads and considered to be 100% momposino.
Late at night, we continued our musical expedition with an artistic display that fully enchanted my heart, a diverse demonstration of “river sung dances” with Don Samuel Mármol, artist and AsoAbundio’s cultural director, from Mompox, artistically known as Don Abundio, who has dedicated nearly 50 years to learning and teaching this local folklore to the new generations, thus creating this enriching cultural space, a meeting point that brings together young and old in an authentic community mix of cultural preservation of music and dance.
In the words of Don Abundio, “music is what unites people and it is the undeniable path to peace.” And I could not agree more with this statement.
Don Abundio y sus Traviesos, (which translates literally as Don Abundio and his mischievous) is a folklore group that offers a powerful connection with our ancestors within a carnival atmosphere that contains infinite nourishing energy. Afro-Caribbean folklore vibe inspired by the daily experiences of community life by the shores of the Magdalena River.
This bursting display filled my spirit with great joy as if dancing to the cosmos and nature at the same time. Incredible moments to the sound of the drums, where the mischievous displayed delightfully their local rhythms of guacherna, chande and berroche, and made vibrate the last cell of my body, a night of festive animated rumbles.
Leveraging the moments of this festive occasion Goyo practised his flauta de millo and with the lovely young singer Arianna Pena, delighted us with a beautiful cumbia, a song that I personally loved from the start! “Candelario” tells the story and the last days of a swallow, this song has since become top on my favourite playlist. It honours the life of a beautiful being that flew free around the windy skies of Mompox… but suddenly passed away. Click here to know the history of Candelario.
This was also a special night for me since Don Abundio y sus traviesos played one of my favourite fandangos “Escudo de Tambor” and the lovely Ariana Pena delighted me with her voice. Voila, I had my artistic moment too with a lively bullerengue dance.
We all started to dance through this night of delicious rhythms, a joy to our body and our spirit, where no one could sit still with these traditional Carnival dances.
Thanks to all the momposinos for this warm welcome, to Goyo and to all the members of the group Don Abundio y sus Traviesos. Thankful to Arianna and Keimer for giving me a beautiful and warm welcome to their beautiful enchanting land. CarpeDiem
The next day I woke up with the little sun peeking out my window as if pushing my shoulder to get up happy for our day’s journey. We headed 230 km on a 5 ½ hours journey towards a town called…
MALAGANA – JUAN AMARIS – TAMBORES DEL LAMBA SCHOOL
We arrived at night to Malagana, where we experienced a Bullerengue workshop with the brilliant percussionist Juan Amaris, director of the Escuela Tambores del Lamba, a school for the instruction and preservation of musical traditions of Malagana. A space where children and youth can study, dance, share in the community and learn how to play the drums.
It was a great pleasure to share with this lovely community. I surely burned more than a few calories while dancing with the spirited children and young people of the school, who shared their best steps of the son de negro and the representative smiley-grimaces of the dances. If you want to support this school you can find information here.
We also had the pleasure to enjoy the songs by the wonderful Juana Rosado, one of the most traditional voices in the history of bullerengue, born in Evitar, Bolívar. A true privilege to enjoy the sounds of Las Olas de La Mar directly from her live voice. Juana Rosado began to sing when she was a child while doing her house chores, growing up next to her mother Martha Herrera who transmitted this knowledge to her in the most natural way possible, everyday life!
Juana sights and tell us that when singing, her mind stops as if the world vanishes for a moment when only her voice exists, the power of now. Her energy is brutally contagious and her smile is that of a woman full of virtues, I could not resist squeezing her with a big hug! Juana and her Bullerengue are a source of joyful energy.
That night passed me by like a hasty sigh as if time shrinks when one has such an incredible time, has it happened to you?. It was here in Malagana that I met my new travel companion, my new alegre drum which I called “mechita” in honour of my wonderful mother, kindly facilitated by Juan Amaris.
SAN BASILIO DE PALENQUE – TOWN OF HEROES, ARTISTS, AND AFRICAN HERITAGE
The next day we continued 6 km more to reach San Basilio de Palenque, one of the most culturally exquisite towns in the Colombian Caribbean, which I was also lucky to visit back in 2018.
San Basilio de Palenque is known as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2005. It was the first free town in the Americas. The story goes that at the beginning of the 17th century, the African king Benkos Biohó managed to escape from slavery by breaking into a rough territory some fifty kilometres from Cartagena. Together with a few other escapees, Benkos Bioho founded Palenque in 1603, as the only space of freedom for Africans and their descendants. Remember, that this happened 250 years before the total dissolution of slavery in Colombia! It is truly a story of courage, heroism, and resistance.
During these four centuries, Palenque has long established a socially unique culture, with musical and oral expressions of African origin. It is as if a pause button had been pushed to preserve its identity. Their ceremony called Lumbalu is a mortuary rite of Bantu origin that brings together song, dance, and percussion, I see it as the sound that connects them with their ancestors. The ritual is also a reunion for the community where the memory of the dead is jointly evoked.
We toured the humble streets of San Basilio de Palenque and learned a bit about its monuments such as Benkos Biohó and Kid Pambele. Also, one of the many things that I really liked was the street art, its colourful murals that are displayed on many of the walls of the town. I took the opportunity to photograph many of them because for me they are artistic expressions that transport me to local life and give me a perspective of reality through their colours, shapes, and graffiti. The portrait of the life of an inhabitant, and Palenque was no exception.
One more significant legacy of Palenque is their language: Palenquero, the only creole language with bases of Spanish mixed with African linguistic elements. Ata Uyo Bega Palenque!
The next lines are dedicated to shortly describe the artists, maestros, and cultural knowers that I met during this visit:
We enjoyed a homemade lunch from the hand of the forever-full-of-energy Emelina Reyes Salgado, known artistically as La Burgos. Who not only fed us with her wonderful homemade food and delicious local sweets alegrias, but also delighted us with her energetic voice and some of her songs.
La Burgos is also a singer for Las Alegres Ambulancias, who has represented Colombian African musical heritage on various national and international stages. She is a woman proud of her roots and with an innate talent, which she says she inherited from her mother.
In the afternoon we had the opportunity to visit the workshop of Kombilesa Mi, a group of musicians from Palenque, creators of a fantastic fusion of traditional music and urban rap. RFP (Palenquero Folkloric Rap). The group is made up of young local artists proud of their ancestral roots who through various sound innovations, reinvented their own culture.
Their sounds are based on traditional rhythms such as Sexteto, Mapalé and Bullerengue, merging them with Hip Hop, creating unique and modern harmonies with lyrics in the Palenque language and in Spanish.
Kombilesa Mí was born as a result of a desire to express resistance, struggle, and the preservation of their traditions as a people of Palenque. A group with significant international recognition.
MAESTRO RAFAEL CASSIANI Y SU SEXTETO TABALA
Later we visited the house of maestro Rafael Cassiani and his Sexteto Tabalá, I greatly enjoyed an afternoon of music, dance and drums, where even a joyful howler monkey joined us in the party.!
Sexteto Tabalá is a group that was born in the 30s in a sugar mill located close to Palenque, between Sincerin and Malagana. At that time local workers together with foreign workers brought from Cuba used to gather after exhausting working days to bond in fraternity and naturally mix their rhythms, a natural fusion of two worlds. This is how the Sexteto Tabalá was born. Nowadays more alive than ever, this group has fully fulfilled its multigenerational legacy and is still in full force to delight generations to come.
Thanks to this pleasant-sounding afternoon we explored Sexteto genre and understood its strong Cuban influence. For me it was a great honour meeting maestro Rafael Cassiani and learning about his legacy while enjoying music in his own house, there are things in life that are indeed priceless and this was one of them. I am also deeply grateful to Juan Canate and Franki Lukumi for following my lead and singing Reina de los jardines, one of my favourite songs.
Here I leave you a little video of our visit – a song from Sexteto Tabalá: Ofelia
ISLA GRANDE – ROSARIO ISLANDS
In the morning we travelled to the main island of the Rosario Archipelago; Isla Grande, after crossing for an hour aboard a musical boat and through the sparkling turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea while listening to the melodies of the accordion and the beautiful voice of Gregorio, as if the sea invited music to dance on a windy trip of infinite blue sea and sky.
We arrived at the Eco Hotel La Cocotera where I found one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen, a small one but with spectacular turquoise colours and white golden sand, I would actually love to be there right now, for a few moments at least.
This is something I wrote while observing these turquoise settings “When these moments give me an unlimited sight towards the enchanting horizon where I can still find peace, warmth, pure air and transparent turquoise waters, there the sky looks at me with its blue eyes sparkled by spectacular white pillows, where I dance happily in the clouds of my imagination, you are the only infinite sky and beautiful and I’m in love with your universal and cosmic greatness – thank you forever” theskyisthelimit.
Isla Grande is the largest island in the Rosario Islands archipelago, where you can find both mangrove vegetation and dry forests. From this beautiful piece of land (200 hectares) visitors could also see the coasts of the Caribbean Sea, Barracuda Island, Marina Island and the Boca Grande Channel.
This afternoon was a relaxing rest time for me, where I was in harmony with nature and the sky, while I enjoyed seeing my intrepid fellow travellers jumping cheerfully into the blue sea and enjoying more than a few fun splashes.
Late in the afternoon, we visited the island’s main town through the gentle forest paths, easily reached on foot. In there we enjoyed a cultural display with today’s sound: Champeta, we learned that this genre has a strong influence of African Sukus from the 70s, of course with a strong local fusion. A reconnection with Africa through music and dance, but then again mixed with modified electronic components, the Pikó (sound system). For me, however, it is insanely loud!
CARTAGENA AND FAREWELL – PORRO
On this day we went back to Cartagena, where we had our farewell night with a porro concert, a traditional musical rhythm from the regions of Córdoba, Sucre and Bolívar. It is characterized by a joyful and festive rhythm. It is usually performed by bands known as “papayeras”.
Tonight, we danced to the sound of the porro & fandango with Jorge Otero and his group of musicians armed with trumpets, clarinets, trombones, and drums. He taught us that within the Porro genre, there are several rhythms, some slower and some fast, such as the porro palitiado and the porro patiao. And well, that’s as far as my notes went because my mobile went battery dead but it was a magical night with a lot of joy and dance where many locals joined in this celebration of incredible energy.
I want to give a special thanks to our group leader, multi-talented musician Gregorio Uribe, a person that I admire for his work helping traditional musicians to preserve and develop their art. Gregorio has made it a reality that many of these artists are going to tour Europe and the rest of America.
This tour is what I truly call authentic, sustainable, and ethical tourism, it left me feeling a big sense of gratefulness for being able to meet such great musicians and knowers for the preservation of our Colombian culture.
Also, thanks to Impulse Travel for organising this truly sustainable experience, I congratulate you as a colleague in the industry and as a passionate traveller. This is the way we should all travel!
Thanks to all my travel companions who made that week, one that I will cherish forever.
And lastly infinite thanks to all the teachers and cultural managers and knowers who gave us their time, their knowledge, and their big smiles.
“Air, Earth, Water, Fire… and Music: what unites people and the undeniable path to peace.”
With lots of love