PALENQUE, Colombia (Reuters) - The drumskin sings in the tropical sun as 12-year-old Pedro Joaquin beats out an ancient rhythm. His mother shells peas and nods approval as chickens peck in the dirt around her feet.
The sights and sounds could be those of an African village, but they come from Colombia’s Palenque de San Basilio.
“Welcome to the first free town of the Americas,” says Manuel Perez, head of the cultural council at Palenque, a town established in 1603 by a slave from nearby Cartagena, where slaves were sold by Portuguese traders and Spanish colonizers.
Now it is one of the few surviving such towns, jealously preserving a language and culture more African than Latin.
The name Palenque means “fortified escaped slave village” and many of these villages were built throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. But only this one, with 3,000 residents, survives with its distinct tradition intact.
Palenque’s tourist infrastructure is extremely limited. Transport is difficult, with only a dirt road linking the town with a highway. Motorbike taxis ply a daily trade for local people.
There are no places to stay, there are few restaurants, and the visitor center is dilapidated and underfunded.
It is a curiosity, a town out of time and place.
In the school at 8 a.m., the children sing in Lengua, a language that sounds more African than Spanish, with roots trailing back to villages at the mouth of the Congo River.
Thousands of slaves were snatched by Portuguese traders there in the 1600s, taken to Cartagena and sold to the Spaniards, who resold them to work on sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations and gold and emerald mines across Colombia.
Slaves created languages known as Creoles, blending their many native tongues with those of their captors in order to communicate in mixed groups.
But Lengua is unique, says Armin Schwegler, professor of Spanish Linguistics at the University of California, who has studied Palenque’s language for more than 20 years.
“This is the only place in Latin America to have a Spanish-based Creole,” says Schwegler. “The African element is the Kikongo language. Ninety percent of the language is Spanish, but the grammar is so different that it is unintelligible to an outsider.”
UNESCO declared the village a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2005 because of Lengua.
The U.N. program aims to safeguard cultural and linguistic expression, whether this is dance, a musical instrument, a language or a culture. Only 70 such cultural expressions worldwide are acknowledged in this way.
Primitivo Perez, a local farmer, says he used to be embarrassed to speak Lengua: “People used to criticize me in the big towns back in the 1970s and say, ‘Hey, pal, you speak ugly.’ I just stayed quiet. Now, I realize how important it is to preserve the language.”
Palanque’s children are still taught the language at school. Teacher Moraima Cimarra raps the whiteboard and scolds a student in the town.
“You’re speaking Spanish. What language are we speaking today? Lengua. Repeat after me...”
“To mu etulo a mini aguo nu,” the children chant in unison and write down the phrase, which means: “All of the students did not come today.”
Colombian Minister of Culture Paula Marcela Moreno, the first female black minister in the history of Colombia, says Palenque is a source of pride for all Afro-Colombians, one that reflects their struggle to keep their tradition and language.
Still, there have been no cultural exchange visits between Palenque and Africa, as the town’s inhabitants are extremely poor. A dance troupe from Palenque has performed in Europe in recent years.
Afro-Colombians make up around 4 percent of Colombia’s population, according to the latest figures from the national statistics department. But blacks in Colombia make up the most underprivileged sectors of society.
According to Schwegler, the funeral traditions of the Palenqueros — as the town’s residents are known in Spanish — reveal their ancestry: “By studying their funeral rites, we could trace the lineage of Palenqueros back to the Congo Basin.”
On a recent afternoon, a 35-year-old local woman died suddenly, and a prayer vigil got underway.
The keening, ululating sound of women’s screams fills the night, mixing with the yelps of bullfrogs. This wailing, known as Leko, is part of Lumbalu, an ancient tradition of dancing, drumming, and praying with which Palenqueros mark a death.
All around the body, women scream and pray and sip tiny cups of coffee. Outside, many more chant and pray. The ritual continues through the night, with the men sipping moonshine.
“This helps to remove the sadness from the body,” explains teacher Moraima Cimarra. “It can be dangerous to hold pain inside. People can have heart attacks.”
Next day, the family carry the coffin down the main street, and the church bell strikes. The funeral ends as the men seal the grave, and the women return to continue mourning in Palenque’s own style.
“Me? I’m neither Colombian nor African,” said a young man as he strolled back to work from the ceremony. “I’m a Palenquero. And I’m proud of my country.”
Reporting by Mike Power; Editing by Patrick Markey and Eddie Evans