Cartagena's Folkloric Extravaganza
When Enrique Grau's famous curtain rose in Cartagena's Teatro Heredia last Saturday night, those fortunate enough to have tickets to this year's 14th annual National Folkloric Festival were not disappointed. Not only did the full house get to see bullerengue and other tradional dances from places as far away as the Department of Valle and Boyaca, but they witnessed the amazing performance of two women in their 70's singing a rousing and spirited rendition of a song called Mama, porque me pegas? (Mummy, why do you hit me?), backed by a 12 piece choir and band.

The two women, Aura Velasco de Lopez and Eulalia Gonzalez Bello were so frail they had to be helped up the stage stairs by two men. After being honoured with certificates by the organizers for conserving and preserving the Colombian heritage of folkloric songs, they launched into their performance, which can only be described as penetrating. The audience thus primed, the presentation of a wide spectrum of folkloric troupes preoceeded to get better with each new act.

A group called Son de Negro de San Martin, from Barranca Nueva were introduced by a solo singer and then performed several dances which portrayed the history of Cartagena. The men were shirtless and barefoot, and their dance was in part performed in a crouching stance, sticking their tongues out at their female partners. The next group, Herencia Viva from Bogota, wore ruanas, the traditional blanket draped over the shoulders, matching white paisa hats, and carried staylised lantern poles, representing the Night of Candles, which in Catholic countries commemorates the Immaculate Conception. The band that accompanied them included two guitarists and a mandolin player. The next group, Renacer Plateņa from Huila, featured a 6 piece band accompanied by a female vocalist. The women wore elaborately embroidered shawls and the men multi-buckled belts.

The following act had a black bogeyman with long dreadlocks who was bothering a washer-woman by blowing cigar smoke in her face - until her hero arrived and danced her to safety. The group from Valle de Cauca began by reciting bawdy jokes and comical marriage skits, followed by a fast paced dance that extended to the audience when the dancers descended the steps and selected people to join them up on stage. The troupe from Antioquia presented a female soloist who performed her own composition, a song simply called Cartagena. They followed with a presentation singing the praises of being a grandmother, the stage becoming more crowded with each new verse, which introduced a new generation. The troupe from Boyaca danced in circles, the men costumed in Quaker-style hats and the women bearing terra-cotta water vessels.

The last acts were from Cartagena, and they soon brought the the crowd to to their feet. The difference between the acts from the interior and the locals was immediately apparent. The interior dances, with its conservative and religious roots, while more steeped in tradition, were staid and slower comapred to the coastal dances, with their African origins and seemingly ad-lib delivery. The first Cartagena act was a young black girl, surounded by machete-weilding men. The next was a representation of women winnowing and pounding grain. It was followed by a hilarious transvestite skit with eight men in wigs and dresses twirling umbrellas. The audience was almost in a frenzy at the end of the penultimate act, a dance symbolizing the grim reaper and his victims. The very last act was an amalgam of acrobatic African movements and the sexually suggestive Mapale dance which brought everyone to their feet. The music kept going and soon all the troupes were on stage together, a riot of different costumes, dances and skin tones. No electric instruments of any kind were used all night.

So if you happen to be in Cartagena next year around the 30th of May (Cartagena's Foundation Day) try and get to see the Festival Folklorico Nacional. The groups also play for free in the smaller towns surrounding Cartagena; prior to appearing at Teatro Heredia they performed in the town plazas of San Juan Nepomuceno, El Carmen, Turbana and Turbaco, at schools and even the local prison. The Cartagena show is usually sold out well in advance, but you might get lucky if you stand out the front of the Teatro and offer enough money.

Photo and story copyright of Glen David Short. His adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat through Mexico and Central America' is available from Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short