By Jean Noël Mugabo
The Afro-Colombian rap group Kombilesa Mi, on tour from San Basilio de Palenque, graced Portland on Sunday July 17 with their unique sound – a fusion of rap and traditional Colombian music, with lyrics in a mixture of Spanish and Palenquero, a traditional Afro language used by their ancestors.
Kombilesa Mi is way beyond our music. It is about our hairstyle, our clothing, about how we look in the world. We teach it to the youth as well, to develop their self-esteem, and their sense of identity.
— Keyla Regina Miranda Pereira
San Basilio de Palenque was the first free Black city in the Americas, and escaped enslaved people are believed to have been the city’s first residents. Palanquero was influenced by Kikongo, a Bantu language primarily spoken in the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and northern Angola. Portuguese, the language of the traders who first brought enslaved African people to South America, is another influence. Today Palenquero is spoken by about 7,500 people, half of the residents of San Basilio de Palenque.
As a music collective, Kombilesa Mi preserves the cultural heritage of their city through their music, and their popularity is helping them pass their culture and language on to the next generation of Palenquians.
“Kombilesa Mi is more than a band. This is a way of strengthening cultural identity in the community,” said band member Keyla Regina Miranda Pereira, known as KR. “This has been the primary goal of our group, which is to make sure that the new generation continues speaking Palenquero in the village.”
Kombolesa Mi launched at a music school in 2011, and has been together for the last 11 years. Director Afro Neto said, “The music comes from a long time of being and working together – since school time – creating relationships in the community to teach, dance, and sing.” The group’s goal is to make sure that their cultural heritage is passed from generation to generation, he said.
Having women be part of the group is important, Neto said, to help motivate others to play their music. “From the beginning, it was important to have women in the group. We had KR and Kendry in order to inspire other girls in the village and show them that it is possible, even though it is not a typical thing in Colombia to have women in this kind of music.”
While working together, the group learned to join their talents, ideas, and strengths, and come up with something outstanding, according to Neto. “Some members of the band are interested in traditional sound, others are interested in rap, and still others are interested in the preservation of Parenquero. Today, the band is like a unifying force for the community, able to transmit its message around the world.
The group uses the tambor alegre, tatura, malimboura, and llamador, among other instruments. The llamador is particularly important because it creates the primary beat. The malimboura is an instrument from Africa made with metal and strings that creates bass notes. “In Colombia, rap did not have its own signature. That is why we decided to include the traditional instruments in our mix. Thanks to the inclusion of various instruments, we can say that we have our own style of rap that feels native to our country,” Neto said.
The tambor alegre, which means “happy drum,” holds deep meaning for the community because it was the first instrument used by formerly enslaved people to communicate from neighborhood to neighborhood and from village to village. “When we put it in our music, it speaks directly to the community because it is direct communication from our culture. It can be loud, it can be soft, and it creates a different kind of expression in the music.”
Peter McLaughlin, Music and Community Programmer for SPACE Gallery, which brought Kombilesa Mi to Portland, was thrilled to showcase the music in a free, outdoor event that was open to everyone.“It was a wonderful opportunity to give some folks…a chance to hear some music that they would not get normally. McLaughlin said. “Kombilesa Mi is a group very different than any other that exists in Maine.”
Hen wasn’t concerned that the group sings in a mixture of Spanish and Palenquero. “It is my belief that music crosses barriers and borders, and transcends language. I do not think that people need to know what every word means to really appreciate the music, to be consumed by the sound and the power of them, and their message as well.”
Colombia has the second-largest population of African descendants in South America, after Brazil. Over the years, these African descendents fought off many attempts from their Spanish kidnappers to recapture them, and most of the time, they were victorious.
And clearly, Kombilesa Mi is justifiably proud of that heritage. As KR said, “Kombilesa Mi is way beyond our music. It is about our hairstyle, our clothing, about how we look in the world. We teach it to the youth as well, to develop their self-esteem, and their sense of identity.”