Colombia’s Big Summer Music Festival is all about “Blackness”

In western Colombia, the Petronio Alvarez festival is the big event of the summer — five days of music and food and fashion. More than 100,000 people travel from all over the world to the city of Cali, where they celebrate the culture of the country’s Afro-Colombian Pacific region. It’s a huge party.

Integración Pacífica

Over the past 23 years, the festival has become one of Colombia’s largest cultural events. For Afro-Colombians, it has opened a local economy and a space where they can celebrate their culture. And according to Michael Birenbaum Quintero, it’s “one of the places where Colombia started to reckon with its own blackness, and with the importance of black culture.”

Quintero attended his first Petronio fest in 2002, and he’s been to half a dozen since. He also happens to be an ethnomusicologist at Boston University who has spent almost two decades researching the musical practices of Colombia’s Pacific coast. He’s the author of Rites, Rights & Rhythms: A Genealogy of Musical Meaning in Colombia’s Black Pacific.

According to Quintero: “The Petronio Alvarez is set up to be about the Colombian Pacific, a region where 85% of the population is black. All of the music that showcased is Afro-descendant music. By opening the door to the question of region, it absolutely opened the door to the question of race. So today, the Petronio festival is absolutely about blackness.”