This week on Afropop Worldwide, we bring you Afropop’s trip to Central America: The Panama Beat. In order to research the show, our producer and resident Latin American traveler Marlon Bishop took a trip to Panama to find out what the tiny country linking North and South America is all about. He brought us back some fantastic records and interviews with artists ranging from reggae star Kafu Banton to cumbia tipica siren Nina Campina. Here you can read some of Marlon’s personal reflections from the trip.
A Trip to Panama
I can’t remember exactly when I first became restless to go to Panama. In the summer of 2009, Afropop sent me to Puerto Rico to research the roots of reggaeton. I was fascinated to learn that the origin of Latin America’s most popular club music was actually not on that island at all, but in Panama, a country rarely mentioned for its music (unfortunately). The deal was sealed after I heard some tracks from Soundway Records’ excellent three-disc Panama! compilation of golden-age Panamanian combos from the ’60s and ’70s. The sound was something I had never heard before but had always dreamed of–washed-out soul vocals in English and Spanish sharing space with rock ‘n’ roll guitar progressions, crispy horn arrangements, and Latin percussion, music that pleased both my old-school funk-solid palate and the pan-Latin proclivities I’d cultivated over the years. So when I saw a several week hole in my schedule, I up and got myself a plane ticket and headed Panama way.
To begin, I must impart exactly how bizarre and wonderful a place Panama is. Most travelers arrive in Panama City, located at the Pacific terminus of the canal (I on the other hand, arrived on bicycle from Costa Rica, but that’s another story). For those with any experience in Central America, Panama City comes as a shock. I spent some months living in Honduras, and never came across a building over four stories tall. Panama City, on the other hand, is a tropical metropolis, filled with gleaming residential towers that crowd the waterfront, glass sky-scraping banks, and twisting freeways that zip residents along. In recent years, Panama’s economy has been booming as a regional center for commerce and finance, and it shows. It’s a worldly place, home to a staggering assortment of people from around Latin America and the world. There are Chinese, Indian, Turkish, and Arab minorities, to cite just a few. Yet it’s not all luxury condos and swank cafes. Panama also contains rotting housing projects, a totally informal transit system composed of decommissioned American school buses, and everywhere you go, the pounding pulse of reggae dancehall.
Just a short few hours east of the city, that elevated highway descends and narrows to a dirt track, and then, impenetrable jungle–the famous Darien Gap, the only place from the tip of Canada down to Tierra del Fuego where the road stops (there is no road connection between Panama and South America). Few people have dared cross it. To the west, vast swaths of the country are wild and empty, home to indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé roving on horseback. To the north, the cultural climate changes and bilingual Panamanians of West Indian descent eke out a living in hardscrabble Colon, and a centuries-old Afro-Latino brotherhood continues to hold court in surf-battered Caribbean beach villages.
In short, it is a land filled with surprises and contradictions. But I don’t need to tell you that–the music tells the story of Panama itself.
Sometimes A Canal Is More Than Just A Canal
The thing most anybody knows about Panama is that it has a big canal running across it. That canal, that hole in the ground, is a crucial part of the Panamanian musical story. American investors first brought West Indians from Jamaica, Barbados, and other islands to the isthmus in the 1850s to build a railroad linking the oceans. Then, from the first French attempt to dig a canal in 1880 to the time when the Americans finished the job in 1913, tens of thousands more Caribbean people came. Over time, those people integrated into Panamanian society and left an indelible sonic mark that continues to inform (and maybe even dominate) the musical culture of the country.
But the canal also brought the Americans and with them, their records: doo-wop, rock, jazz and soul, all pouring into Panamanian stores. Today, if you visit Balboa, the former home of the American Canal Administration, you’ll find a ghost town. The post office, the old YMCA, the movie theater, the orderly rows of apartment blocks–they’re all still there, still spiffy in their matching cream stucco exteriors. Today, they stand empty, but from 1903 to 1979, an average of 50,000 Americans lived there and elsewhere in the Canal Zone, bringing a slice of apple pie America to the tropics.
The cultural influence of the gringos was far-reaching. Those American records were widely listened to in Panama, and later, imitated. Homegrown doo-wop groups came up in the 1950s and eventually transformed into what were called the combos nacionales. These were small groups styled after American rock n’ roll bands–containing drum kits, electric guitars and basses, often mixed with horn sections and Latin percussion. Their golden age was 1967-’75, when, according to the Soundway liner notes, about 50 such groups were playing clubs and dances across the country, toting fantastic Anglicized names like Los Exciters, Los Silvertones, Soul Exciters. Their music fused Latin and American (and Caribbean) sounds in a way that, I’m pretty sure, has never happened before, in a way that makes my heart sail.
Today, the legacy of the combos nacionales, it seems, is nowhere to be found. Their albums aren’t sold in the big department stores, nor on the street by the reggae-toting CD-R pirates. No one much appears to talk about them any more, and the band members themselves have faded into obscurity. I was able to pick up a bunch of their albums reissued on CD at a store called Super Sonidos, located in an alleyway off of Avenida Central, a busy pedestrian mall towards the older, seedier side of town. The store has been in operation for over 30 years and is run by Nestor Jimenez, a dimunitive gentlemen with kind eyes.
“The old music was the best music,” Nestor complained to me. “That’s when the artists had inspiration. But the times change, the world changes. Let’s hope things go back to normalcy one day.”
Nestor’s store is a virtual history lesson in Panamanian music, its walls lined with national music from across the years, but he says that piracy is hitting him hard, and he doesn’t know how long he will last. “We even used to sell country here, for the American soldiers when they were stationed here. Not anymore.”
Conversations With an Afro-Latina Princess
There is a much older story that began many hundreds of years before anybody dreamed of canals and electric guitars. When the Spanish first colonized Panama, they brought African slaves with them. Their descendants are today called Afrocolonials, a term that distinguishes them from the Afro-Antilleans who arrived from the Caribbean.
The Afrocolonials’ history begins much like that of other enslaved peoples in the Americas–in abuse and indignity, forced to load and unload ships hauling cargo to and from Spain’s wealthy Pacific colonies (Peru, etc.). But somewhere along the way, it became a history of resistance. The slaves rebelled and fought and fled, many escaping to form palenques, or fortified towns, in hard-to-reach places on the cruel Caribbean coast. Today, their progeny belong to a sort of Afro-Panamanian cultural brotherhood known as the Congos.
The group is organized as a royal court, complete with a queen, a princess, majors and all sorts of other titles. They maintain traditions that honor their people’s spirit of resistance–enacting a kind of street theater during carnival season that depicts stories of rebellions, and even speaking in the invented Congo language that is believed to have been created during the slave days to confuse the masters. They also maintain their own heavily African music traditions, and pass their history down in a musical canon that includes hundreds of songs.
I met Marcia Rodriguez, the Congo princess, at a folkloric event in Panama City, and she agreed to let me interview her at a later date at the small museum where she works downtown. Marcia is an average-seeming 30-something living in Panama City, but she’s also next-in-kin to become the leader of the Congos. Her mother, Alejandrina Lan, is the queen, the symbolic head of the group, and the public face of the Afrocolonial community.
“The slaves could bear the whips and abuse because they strengthened their spirit through dancing,” says Marcia. “Congo dance is much more than a dance. When a drum is played and a black man dances Congo, he’s getting rid of negative energy and absorbing the positive energy that comes from nature and the Earth.”
For hours, Marcia regales me with stories of ancient African kings, rebel warrior slaves, and foolish Spaniards. She’s a practiced storyteller, speaking in a patient steady tone about her people’s history. In her crisp soprano, she sings me Congo songs, each that tell a story: of the remote town that panicked after seeing American warships on the coast, of a slave lamenting the rape of his wife by a white man, even one that detailed the fabled flight of Charles Lindberg. She tells me about Congos who converse through drums, about the simpler days on the coast before Congos started immigrating to the cities.
“There are many fragments of history that we wouldn’t know if it weren’t for the songs. The elders sang all the time. In my house, there were times with my mother that we didn’t speak–we sang our conversations,” says Marcia.
Later, we walk around the old downtown together in search of lunch and Congo CDs. Marcia has a calming way about her, and I feel strangely like we are old friends already. Countless people greet her on the street as she goes by–she is royalty, after all.
Nowadays, Marcia and her mother live in a neighborhood of crumbling housing projects called Curundu. Neither the government nor any cultural institution has stepped forward to help her illustrious family out of poverty. Marcia continues to fight for her culture even without financial support. Every evening during Carnival season in Curundu, Marcia gathers all the teenagers up and teaches them Congo music, dance and history. In the middle of one of the city’s worst ghettoes, she’s saved countless kids from falling into drugs and gangs, by giving them a reason to believe in themselves and their history.
Marcia didn’t tell me about this inspiring story of youth outreach at all, in all the hours we spoke. That part of the story I had filled in by Jon Lipski, an American linguist who works with her. She was simply too humble to sing her own praises in front of me.
Lawd Have Mercy!
Anyone who lives anywhere near an American city (and I mean America in the broadest sense of the word), is familiar with the Spanish reggae-rap genre known as reggaetón. Now, I consider myself a very musically open-minded guy. But before I delved deeply into the history of the music and gained appreciation for the music, I found the stuff grating, to say the least. The relentless beat, the straight-out-of-the-box digital synths, the overall vibe of hyper-masculine aggression – it just didn’t hit the spot.
Walking the streets of Panama is another story. The music blasting out of every car stereo and shopkeepers radio is something different–it’s dancehall reggae in Spanish. The tracks are often direct translations of Jamaican club hits, or not, but always replete with fiery beats, and chatted in that loose-lipped Jamaican style. I couldn’t get enough.
Panama’s reggae story begins in the early 1980s, in a place called Colón, which lies on the other side of the isthmus, just an hour’s drive away from glittering Panama City. From outside appearances, the two cities couldn’t be more different. Over the years, the once-handsome colonial city of Colón has suffered from near abandonment. The New Orleans-style homes have been allowed to slowly fall apart, and the streets are strewn with potholes. Guidebooks warn tourists against stepping foot in the crime-ridden city. They’re being overdramatic, but the tourists stay away just the same.
The city has long been the center of Afro-Antillean culture in Panama–before reggae and calypso ruled here. In the early ’80s, DJs began to spin reggae records at street parties at 13th street and Bolivar, and at an empty lot by the railroad tracks known as El Ferrocarríl. Early artists such as Gaby, Nes el Sensacional, Jam & Suppose, Calito Soul and Rastanini began singing in Spanish over the B-sides, and in less than a decade, reggae had taken over Panama.
“I don’t know what Colón got,” says reggae star Kafu Banton, in halting English. “But we got a lot of talented people.” Banton goes on to list the gold-medal prizefighters and grand-slam blackballers native to the city. “Most of the popular artists in Panama are from Colón. And the majority of the DJs on the radio station right now, they’re from Colón too.”
Kafu Banton arose in the mid-’90s as one of Spanish reggae’s biggest stars. When I visited him in his ganja-soaked Panama City studio, he had just cut off his trademark dreadlocks in mourning for the untimely death of his teenage son. Kafu is a practicing Rastafarian, and is known for his socially conscious lyrics. “In 2010, everybody wants the club,” bemoans Kafu. “They want air conditioning, they want whiskey, they want champagne. That’s not how it used to be when we started the reggae movement.”
One thing that will set any Panamanian reggae fan off is the mention of the success of Puerto Rican reggaetón. The general feeling is that Puerto Ricans stole their musical innovations and went on to make all the money. All the radio people and reggae artists I talked to had something to say about it–that they should have made their music more commercial, that they should have stayed away from “street” themes and stuck to romance.
In recent years, local artists like El Rookie and Comando Tiburón have learned their lesson, and have begun churning out radio-friendly fare in search of an international hit. And to an extent–it’s been working. I tried to tell everyone I met that I thought that Panamanian reggae was better than the Puerto Rican stuff, but it fell on deaf ears.
A stroll down Avenida Central to buy the latest reggae mixes tells me I shouldn’t be worried. The stuff that kids are buying here is still hard-hitting, Jamiacan style dancehall, en español. Phew.
Marlon Bishop writes (and makes radio shows) about culture and music for Afropop Worldwide, Wax Poetics Magazine, Bass Player Magazine, Songlines Magazine, ARTnews, Worldvision Report, Studio 360, and WNYC. He specializes in Latin and Afro-Latin music, and has traveled and conducted research all over the Western Hemisphere, and then some. He can be contacted at MarloniousThunk@gmail.com