Cartagena, Colombia – Urban Rhythms II: Music, Dance and Tumbao

February 2014 – In the first Urban Rhythms essay I wrote about how we can find more harmony with our urban surroundings by tuning into the particular frequencies emanated by the cities we find ourselves in. I mentioned the influential role of Buddhist temples in calming the pace of life in Chiang Mai, Thailand and softening the tempo of individual city dwellers. In Cartagena, life bounces to a different rhythm – a rhythm of festive music, sweaty dance, warm embraces, loud smiles and an expressive happiness for life. An Afro-Caribbean word exists for this particular rhythm of life – tumbao.

Tumbao can be most closely translated to ‘swagger’ or ‘swing’ but it generally refers to a way of walking through life with a sense of rhythm and grace that invites passion and joy into daily routine. If tumbao were a scent, the streets of Cartagena would be fragrant with the odors of people living daily life with an edgy and emotional, minute-to-minute sense of enjoyment.

It’s no surprise that Colombians from the interior of the country, both the cosmopolitan urbanites and the laid back country folk, agree that there is a special energy on the coast that doesn’t exist in other parts of the country. People from the interior speak of costeños, people from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with a sarcastic smile that both detests the costeño lack of urgency and choppy style of Spanish, but also admires the genuine costeño love for life.

It’s impossible to talk about costeño culture without touching on the region’s Afro-Caribbean history. As early as the 16th century, the Spanish colonial empire was steadily importing slaves from Africa to complement the slave work of the often difficult to control South American native population. The Spanish Empire established the New Kingdom of Granada colony in what is modern day Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador in order to exploit the land and its native peoples for the benefit of the Spanish crown.

Cartagena was one of Spain’s premier Caribbean port cities for imports and exports including the importation of African slaves. To protect their prize port against other ambitious European empires, the Spanish built intense defensive architecture around Cartagena that still stands as a prominent feature of the city’s current built environment.

The African based population on the coast of Colombia has endured long periods of oppression and hardships during the region’s evolution from Spanish colony, to transitional statehood and ultimately to modern day Colombia. Many Africans escaped from a life of slavery and fled into the countryside where they formed palenques or communities sewn from the fabric of African traditions.

Even after the end Spanish colonization and the abolition of slavery, both occurring in the 19th century, people of African descent were often subjected to acts of terror by those in power and were nearly completely excluded from political process. They were pressured into complying with a state-mandated policy of racial mixing meant to ‘whiten’ the population and eradicate traces African roots in the region. Despite centuries of oppression and collectively endured pain, Afro-Caribbean culture has come to shape a large part of the Colombian coastal culture.

Champeta is an Afro-Caribbean genre of music and style of dance that originated along the Colombian coast and is now a hallmark feature of costeño life. The Colombian coast is famous for it’s picós which are enormous outdoor dance parties where powerful speakers blast champeta music as the backdrop to these highly impassioned and often rowdy gatherings. Music is a seemingly permanent fixture in the Cartagena urban environment. Salsa music, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and Latin American pop are a constant presence within shopping malls, supermarkets, commercial avenues, parks, plazas and public buses.

The seemingly normalized festive atmosphere of costeño culture creates an environment where simply the act of walking with friends can easily unravel into a burst of dance, laughter and boisterous conversation. Visitors to Cartagena who tune into the city’s warm and festive frequency will soon find their stride softening, their hips loosening and their smile widening.

From the balcony of a friend’s apartment in La Quinta neighborhood, we watch children dash in-and-out from various family households where someone’s sound system is playing music loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear. On this typical Wednesday evening, the neighborhood children run from house to house, stopping only to dance, often in pairs as if adults, in a scene that seems perfectly normal for a Cartagena neighborhood. Music and dance are a natural part of life in this city.

Tumbao isn’t a forced a characteristic. It’s a second nature habit, embodied by the people and culture over time. Cartagena’s festive urban rhythm gives visitors the opportunity to discover the enchantment of living life with tumbao.

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