Afro-Colombians - Religion and Expressive Culture



Black people in Colombia are Catholics. As among many people in Latin America, they tend to practice a "popular Catholicism" that the clergy considers more or less unorthodox. In the past and still in the 1990s, the clergy tended to disapprove of practices in Black regions, but with the emergence of a stronger Black identity, some priests are willing to include "traditional" elements in church ceremonies.

In the Pacific region, the presence of the church was rather weak, and many religious rites are practiced outside the direct control of the clergy. There are festivals to venerate a saint or the Virgin Mary, an image of whom is processed through a settlement and often down a river—in a town such as Quibdó, capital of the department of Chocó, the Fiestas de San Pacho (Saint Francis of Assisi) have the aspect of a carnival as different barrios compete to present the best procession and float over twelve days. Velorios, or wakes to propitiate a saint, are usually sponsored by a specific person who provides drink, tobacco, and food. There are also wakes to commemorate the death of a person. Music is a vital element in these rites, with cantadoras (female singers), who may also take role of rezanderas (prayer sayers). Aguardiente (rum) is commonly taken by the participants to combat the coldness of the deceased; beyond the immediate circle of the corpse, where respect is shown, people play dominoes, drink rum, and tell stories and jokes. At the velorio of a child (whose soul is considered to go directly to heaven, a cause for rejoicing), there may be some merriment and perhaps games that may have sexual overtones.

Less research has been conducted in the Caribbean coastal region but one study shows extensive similarities between this region and the Pacific coast, although perhaps greater attention is accorded to spirits than to saints. In Palenque de San Basilio, the cabildo lumbalú consists of elders who officiate at velorios with drumming, singing, and dancing to help the deceased's departure. Spirits of the deceased are called upon to aid the living and must therefore be propitiated and managed carefully through ritual means, for example during the velorio, when many precautions are taken to prevent the spirit's return or anger. Ritual specialists, often women, are accorded prestige and respect. Some observers interpret the interest shown in spirits and saints as in some measure related to African religious concerns with ancestral spirits and the propitiation of deities. It is hard to discount some African influences, but velorios and a concern with spirits and saints are also widespread in non-Black areas.

Work in the Cauca region has focused on elements that are in fact common in other Black (and indeed non-Black) regions: the use of magic and sorcery to attack one's enemies, bring good fortune, influence one's sexual partners, and defend oneself against the machinations of others. Sorcery is often used where envidia, envy, is rife and this in turn may be the result of perceived transgressions against norms of reciprocity, which occur when a person enjoys some material success and is thought to forget his or her obligations as a friend or relative. In this area, too, the pact made with the devil to increase a worker's output and wages has been documented. The gains achieved are fruitless, however—they cannot be usefully invested and must be spent on consumables; the worker will also gradually waste away. In the northern Cauca region, Black people also celebrate various festivals, including the Adoration of the Child.

There is very little information available on medical practices among Black Colombians. In general terms, as among many peoples all over Latin America, health is considered to be a balance between "hot" and "cold" forces and elements that affect the body: the cold of a corpse can be threatening, for example, and is combated by the heat of rum. Also, health and welfare are affected by the machinations of others through sorcery, and recourse can be made to healers to defend against these threats, whether to person or property. In the Pacific region, Indian shamans (called jaibanas in the department of Chocó) are considered the most powerful healers: they and their patients may use pildé, a relative of the hallucinogenic Banisteriopsis caapi vine (ayahuasca), to induce visions. In the Chocó, Black curers are called raicilleros (raicilla means "rootlet" but also refers to the ipecac root); they diagnose illness by examining urine samples. When they are given a sign that healing is their vocation, raicilleros begin a seven-year training with various teachers. Less specialized healers are called yerbateros (herbalists).

Music in Black regions of Colombia is varied and rich. In the department of Chocó, the chirimía band—based on clarinets, drums, and cymbals—plays versions of European-derived dances (e.g., mazurka, polka); there are also alabaos (religious songs), romances (ballads), and décimas (ten-line stanzas). Further south in the Pacific region, currulao, played with marimba, drums, and voices, is a central genre generally thought to have a more African derivation. In the northern Cauca region, fugas (fugues) and coplas (rhyming couplets) are European-derived forms that are widely played and sung among Black people.

In the Caribbean coast region, there is a huge variety of styles, including the cumbia, which exists in both folkloric and commercialized forms. Music there is often held to be of triethnic origin, but the major inputs have come from European and African traditions in a complex cultural interchange. During the twentieth century, genres from this region have become commercialized, often crossing over with Afro-Cuban styles, and have become popular nationwide and abroad under the generic umbrella of cumbia. An accordion-based style, vallenato, which interprets what were once traditional Caribbean Colombian airs, has also become nationally commercialized and is especially popular among Black people in other regions of the country. All over Colombia, but especially popular in Black regions, is found salsa, a genre based on Afro-Cuban and other Caribbean styles, which became commercialized in New York in the 1960s and spread over the entire Latin American region.

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