Colombia, the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world, life revolves around
the rhythms of Latin music. In the streets in the afternoon, on party buses at
night, or in clubs that pulse until the early hours, hips sway as naturally as
waves crashing against the shore of the nearby coast. But in late summer, for
the five days of the Petronio
Alvarez Pacific Music Festival, salsa takes a back seat to the diverse sounds
of Colombian Pacific music like cumbia and currulao, and its cacophony of
percussion instruments, like the marimba.
Held in Cali’s
Pascual Guerrero football stadium, the free festival celebrates the indigenous
music, food and culture of the largely Afro-Colombian Pacific region that
surrounds Colombia’s third largest city. And since you will most likely be
worse than 99% of the other dancers there (unless you happen to be from Brazil),
a little liquid courage is just the thing to get your feet moving.
at the 15th annual Petronio festival, beverage options were limited to viche –
an alcohol made from sugar cane that is unique to the Afro-Colombian Pacific
coastal communities – and other Pacific specialties such as arrechon, tomaseca
and tumbacatre, most of which seemed to contain viche.
Pacific region is responsible for some of its most flavourful cuisine, and
dishes like shrimp ceviche and spicy pescado
(fish) helped coat my stomach before I had to force viche down my gullet. At
its worst, the spirit tastes a little like embalming fluid, or at least how I
imagine embalming fluid to taste. At its best, viche tastes like embalming
fluid mixed with a spot of rum.
Sadly, for four
nights in August, drinking viche was a necessary evil, a rite of passage in the
same way that cheap keg beer is a part of university and getting hit in the
groin is a disagreeable consequence of riding a mechanical bull. Though aguardiente
– a relatively palatable, anis flavoured liquor – is the national drink of
Colombia, viche seems to be the object of some (probably misplaced) pride,
possibly for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities.
At the Petronio,
as well as in certain areas of Pacific Colombia, viche is difficult to avoid, as some
friendly local will undoubtedly make
sure that you always have a full shot glass. He will then – most likely – send
you off to dance with his girlfriend.
Most of the
viche and the other micro-produced liquors at Petronio came in plastic bottles with
labels. The key, it seemed, was to pick something with a label that wasn’t
too terrifying (bottles with grey-and-white labels printed on office paper looked
extra scary, like perhaps they were brewed in some one’s bathtub). If I made a
bad choice, perhaps I could contact the producer via his personal email or
phone number listed on the bottle, and demand a refund.
chose a bad bottle.
It took less
than three minutes before a genuinely concerned local approached and informed my
travel partner and I of our mistake. We must try his, he said. It would taste
much better. He would come back later and drink it with us, but for now we
should just enjoy it. So with two bottles in hand, we continued to drink until
another new friend approached. His viche was the best, he assured us. We must
drink it. And in fact, both these gentlemen were correct. The difference
between each variety was noticeable, in the same way there is a noticeable
difference between the taste of regular, plus and premium grades of petrol.
Soon our newest amigo
was introducing us to his cousins, all of whom, he explained, were eager to
dance with us, a task made difficult by the fact that we were now holding onto
a half-dozen bottles. So we passed some viche to neighbours on all sides and
danced unashamedly, while the locals attempted to teach us how to move to the
beats of the Pacific.
“Espera, espera!” (wait, wait), they
would say. “Escucha, escucha”
(listen, listen), with a finger to the ear. And they began to clap out the
rhythm that remained confusing to our non-Latin ears: clap clap! clap clap clap
clap! Clap! Clap clap clap! clap, clap clap clap clap! And then: “OK?!”. After
more than a month in the country, this was becoming a regular interaction, as there
is always dancing going on.
I smiled with
the rest of the crowd and continued dancing as new partners continued to offer
pointers: “Watch my feet”, and “Move your hips more” and “One-two-three,
Finally, at the
end of my second night at the music festival I had a breakthrough. Maybe, I was
still worse than the 99%, but I was getting better. Or maybe it was just the viche.
The joy of
travelling in a country obsessed with shaking its hips is that no matter how
big the language barrier, dancing serves as a wordless form of communication,
and – as with speaking – no matter how bad you are, making an effort is always
As we made our
way through the sea of people, the dancing and shots continued. We were handed tipples
of what tasted like extra spicy eggnog, something resembling cough syrup and
just the regular old viche we eventually came to know and tolerate. Chants of “Gringo!
Gringo!” resounded as we danced with the locals. More shots were poured, more
people eager to dance with us.
into spontaneously choreographed dance, a shockingly impressive, real life
version of the parade
scene in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Whole groups – up to what
seemed like more than 100 at a time – were singing and dancing in step. Circles
of people would fall back at the waist while a man in the centre shot an
invisible machine gun. Dozens of lines of people busted out their best Thriller
as the band played Michael Jackson with a Colombian twist.
people were cheering, singing and waving flags. Men, women and children were being
launched high in the air before landing back on top of the hands of the masses
to surf the crowd.
As unique as
this experience was to Pacific Colombia, it still seemed to characterise the
spirit of the whole country: perpetual music, laughter and passion.
cannot tell you how happy I am to be here,” one Colombian told me as he waved a
flag high. “I really feel blessed to be at this festival. I pray I can return
I would love to
return next year, too. But next time I might bring along a bottle of rum.