Music of resistance in Colombia

Fishing communities in Buenaventura, Colombia are defending their way of life, identity and economy through song.

As we carried our film cameras through the rickety wooden homes that stand shakily above the Pacific Ocean off the Colombian Coast, we almost stumbled and fell into the water.

A song for Bajamar

The houses are supported by thin stilts and nailed together with planks of slippery wood that reveal huge holes staring down at the deep blue sea.

The worry about falling in was not just because we would ruin our cameras and hours of footage.

Thousands of people flush their sewage into this water, so we were more concerned about what would pour into our eyes and ears if we took the plunge.

With such difficult living conditions, developers have asked why on earth the residents of this territory known as Bajamar want to stay here and not tear down the houses so they can build a modern seafront to fit Colombia’s biggest port.

Aren’t they happy to move into the 21st century and a home on solid ground? Why have they composed a song against the eviction, which they have named Marking Territory?

But after filming for a fortnight in Bajamar, we realised that for the singers and other residents, the roots of their resistance run deeper than the Pacific Bay under their wooden houses.

In their vision, they want to defend their way of life, community identity and an economy they have carved out for themselves.

A poem for Buenaventura

And crucially, the residents of mainly African descent feel they are a persecuted minority that has never received anything from the government. They built this territory with their own sweat and blood, they say, so why should they give it up now?

As one of the musicians, Pompilio Castillo, sings: “The poor man has never been taken into account. The government and rich will not listen to you.”

Bajamar is located halfway down Colombia’s Pacific Coast in a large bay overlooked by tropical jungle.

Afro Colombians first began to come here back in the 1940s, fleeing a bloody civil war then known as ‘La Violencia’.

The Colombian armed conflict raged through the end of the 20th century, morphing into a fight between communist guerrillas, paramilitary death squads and sanguine cocaine cartels.

The bloodshed drove more than two million people across Colombia to flee their homes. And in Bajamar, the Afro Colombians continued to find refuge with the salt-water fish and tropical fruit of the Pacific Bay.

They had long built houses on stilts to withstand the flooding of rivers. So the sea was no barrier to them; they just plunged the stilts into the ocean and lived right on top of it.

A mural of resistance

They also reclaimed some of the land by filling up the bay with whatever they could find.

“They would get trucks from the city to come here and dump all the trash and build over it,” explains Benildo Estupinan, who dreamt up the idea of the Marking Territory song. “It was dangerous work building these streets. Many lost their lives.”

Not all the Bajamar residents are Afro Colombians. Some indigenous and mixed race families also live in the sprawling community of tens of thousands.

But the vast majority are black and they clearly see the eviction in race terms.

The Afro Colombians have managed to acquire prime real estate, they argue, and now the white and mixed race elite want to take it for themselves.

“Just turn on the Colombian television and you see racism,” says Roger Riascos, a local rapper against the eviction. “The soap operas make it look like most people in Colombia are white. You hardly ever see black people.”

Colombia is arguably home to the largest number of Spanish-speaking blacks on the planet – estimated to be between 10 and 20 per cent of the country’s 45 million people.

In pictures: Bajamar Ballad

However, the Colombian census does not classify people by race so the exact number is hard to come by.

Activists such as Estupinan say this lack of recognition reflects a general policy of ignoring Afro Colombians and their problems.

“We Afro Colombians live in a very difficult situation of exclusion and poverty,” Estupinan says. “For example, in Bajamar, there is no basic sewage system. There is only clean water every eight hours and people often have to walk up to an hour to get it.”

However, evicting people from Bajamar and moving them to a proposed housing development would only increase their problems, Estupinan argues.

In Bajamar, they can fish, chop wood and collect tropical fruit from the mangroves. If they are moved, they will be poor and unemployed in an inland ghetto, he says.

Beyond the economic factors, the Bajamar residents also discuss their “territory” as being the core of their identity.

Such concerns may seem frustrating to those trying to build trade, tourism and development in Colombia.

But to residents of Bajamar – who reap few benefits from Colombia’s biggest port – their home and lifestyle is fundamental.

“It’s like when a lion is taken out of the jungle and put in a cage,” says Bajamar poet Julio Aguino. “We want to be in our habitat where we feel good. Where we breathe the sea’s salty breeze.”


This episode of Artscape can be seen from Friday, July 22, at the following times GMT: Friday: 1930; Saturday: 1430; Sunday: 0430; Monday: 0830.

Click here for more on the series.