A dim street light shooed away the darkness. I stood in an empty building tucked away on a hill in Laureles. On the walls were painted images of indigenous warriors and goddesses, the strength of their tools and the curve of their bodies bursting to escape from the 2-dimensional form. The columns that supported the building bore carvings of Egyptian hieroglyphics, giving the place its name, Palacio Egipcio. I had been expecting a salsa club as was the typical nature of the girls from Laureles who had invited Joe and I out Saturday night. When we arrived, there were a decent amount of folks lingering outside, smoking, chatting. We peered inside and found a group of maybe 50 folks clustered around a band I couldn’t see, hidden behind the pillars. The drums and the melodic wail of the lead singer were unmistakeable. I peered in, craning my neck to try to see behind the pillars. Who was that? How? Joe hesitated and stayed back, but I paid my 15 mil and followed Cathy in.
At first the atmosphere gave off vibes of a post-Coachella, post-molly crowd. The gringos jumped from foot to foot loosened from the typical rhythm of salsa. The clap from their sandals resonated throughout the empty building, which perhaps could have served as a cultural center in a past life. The Colombians pittered their feet to the beat, mimicking the fast steps of the Colombian salsa, and sang loudly in response to the lead singer. An ethereal feeling emanated from the band and enveloped the room. The drums shook the floor and carried my feet to an unknown rhythm that filled every hole in my heart. The indigenous instrument similar to a flute shrilled with notes that hit the ceiling and shot back down electrifying and reinvogorating the band and dancers. The guitar strummed lightly in the background. And the singer embraced it all.
A powerful black woman, her voice billowed from the mic and she floated from instrument to instrument soaking up energy from each. When we sang her lyrics back to her, she seemed to grow five inches with each verse. Her song choice traveled from the coastal cumbia to the Andean indigenous folkloric tales to the Afro-storytelling of the music from the Pacific. She gave thanks to her Afro and indigenous ancestors and placed them at the root of her performance, an unwavering tree.
For those of Afro descent, music is a conduit through which we see the world. It guides the way we worship, the way we tell and preserve our history, how we express the joy of each day. Our culture of call and response cycles energy from performer to attendee and back and serves as a way to communicate history and instruction. It is as much real as it is spiritual. And thus, it is in the midst of the drums and the singer’s moving tune that I felt peace. A freedom of some sorts. And it was in that moment that I prayed.
I prayed through my feet that shuffled, still shackled like the slaves that helped to create cumbia. Still shackled to earthly desires trying to fulfill a heavenly need. I prayed through my hands. Though they timidly rise when demanded by pastors, here, they are outstretched to receive whatever blessing the Lord might bestow, has already bestowed, will bestow. My soft palms absorbed the reverberation of the drums, unlike the hard hands that beat the taut animal hide. I prayed through my hips today, built and sculpted by the same hand that pulled the mountains from the earth, Master of shapes, curves, and beauty. As my feet shuffle, my hips shake from left to right as if my body is an ocean and the South American and African costs are calling out to one another, sending messages that exude from my form and blend so effortlessly with the music weaving amongst the crowd.
“Can you hear me my brother?” Africa asks. The strength of its voice diminished from a centuries-long passage across that ocean, yet still audible for those in whom the sound is etched in melanin. “Yes, estamos aquí.” South America calls in response. “We are still here.”