PSi #21 Fluid States - Panama: INTEROCEANIC, Reflection on “Panama Caribe” – A Performance Propelled by Ela Spalding, by Jennifer Spector

“Panama Caribe” –  A Performance Propelled by Ela Spalding – Colon City, Panama
on January 8, 2015 – for Interoceanic – Fluid States Panama

Text and Images by Jennifer Spector
Panama Correspondent

PDF version available here.

“Panama Caribe” was multilayered – on one level it was a performance, various musical groups representing different historical periods of Panama’s Atlantic coast, with common roots in a city once heralded as a lucent, rare jewel, yet over the years, cast to the margins in a languishing desuetude. On another level, it was a convergence of cultural identities, an ambitious tribute on behalf of Ela Spalding and the groups she worked with, to pay homage to musical traditions in Colon which continue to flourish and foster pride and respect within the community. Perhaps on an immediate level, it was a small and quiet gathering of bodies on a concrete basketball court, transformed with celerity into a stage whereby spectators, for just two hours were offered what felt like a private view into Panama’s Caribbean cultural past. Carried forth through the music and dance of these Colonense groups, their traditional performances spoke of histories lumbered through decades and of this unique place and its people, the powerful role they played in the region’s cultural development and in the creation of the Panama Canal, a role still never fully celebrated and deserving of greater attention. “Panama Caribe” shifted the focus away from a reluctance to embrace and support the development of the Atlantic Coast (as redolent as it is of a past greatness and still full of potential which could flourish again) and brought the gaze back into the city and the resilience of Colon’s inhabitants, shaking the dust off the blurred lens with a frisson of magic, ground laid for what others can now take in its sweep.

In a recent interview I had with Ela Spalding, I asked about her process in creating “Panama Caribe.” She mentioned that for her, this performance was “an opportunity to make visible the culture in Colon and the very complex history that there is in this culture.” The cultural musical traditions she employed towards this end included Congo, represented by both the Pastoral Afro Choir and the Instituto Profesional Tecnico Congo Group, the traditional music and dances of the Quadrille performed by the Salomar Colonese Group, the well-known C3 String Quintet, the Fundacion Etnia Negra Choir and as well, the more contemporary (first time performers) “Break-Flip Crew,” a talented group of young, male Colonense break-dancers (and one outstanding young woman), ranging from ages 13-21 who grew up on hip-hop and rap, which they drew upon in their choreography and gymnastics. Spalding also mentioned that “Panama Caribe” could be seen as the “suggestion for a festival” and “an awakening of the very valuable identity (of the Colonense people) and perhaps, a transformation of their relationship to their environment and to their whole space.”

Space in this piece, for me as a spectator, was a pivotal hinge - a way to lace ideas and concepts together. Having arrived to the site, we found the Atlantic wide and open, with the rough summer crashing its waves against the rocks, the wind thrashing the flags borrowed from Portobelo [1] (Panama’s first Atlantic-coast Spanish settlement, founded in 1597, used during the 16th and 17th centuries as an important silver-exporting port, today home to a population of a few thousand and host to the renowned Congo and Diablitos Festival, as well as the Black Christ Festival, rich with musical cultures and dance traditions), hardly able to stake in the sand from the gusts, the stage still empty against the surreal backdrop of long sea, a breadth no crew would ever dismount, sea and sun reframing this small basketball court around which people came, slowly gathering to this makeshift stage, some halting their cars or coming with chairs, a surprise performance on a Thursday at 5pm; a distilled arena for a focused gaze, stippling the musical outfits and spectators (a group of approx. one hundred and fifty, including the 45 or so performers on stage) as points on the plane, the hale sea always present behind us. Like an architect’s model, the ad hoc gesture of placing people and histories together, sprung to life in a myriad of color swathing the scene; traditional skirts and dresses worn by performers, the stripes vibrant on their flags, the unceasing tom-tom of wind, a visceral attunement toward natural elements such as tide and a sun twining its bronze around an afternoon, the whole scene transformed into a site of convergence, a propelling reintegration of things made visible. 

“Panama Caribe” was an assemblage of cultures and people, transversing time and space, an echo across histories, a rescue of lost voice or elements from an irradiated place, which was this place where we stood as envoys, witnessing something rare and ephemeral that seemed at the moment, so private. As if the pinhole widened and the view was somehow that much grander, a place where distances were tethered, linked, made more whole. Perhaps “Panama Caribe” could be seen as a graft, a small cleft in the taut canopy that holds so much thriving beneath it; individual entities having become less visible under this swath. As a group, each performance brought its history to the foreground and space, as a result, changed; the wide avenues with their glorious palms made longer by the blue motion of a continuum - the Atlantic always with its message of ‘elsewhere,’ moving past and beyond, seemed to lean closer, a chorus to the assemblage with its tankers and cargo and passing cruise ships, while we in the distilled huddle of revelry (as spectators and performers) remained small from our place on land, but in seeing those larger elements moving out to sea, the interior space we carved out, brought us closer. I think of the Joseph Cornell’s boxes, or a seashell or a cone; how multilayered narratives become refocused by limited space and new demarcations. Certain lines were drawn around us, but left blank for the sea - a construction, however ephemeral, disrupts the dissemination and stopples the fissures of histories undergoing displacement. Seeing each group watching others perform also heightened the sense of exchange and a shared awareness of a still unfolding, cultural identity. “Voyage in place: that is the name of all intensities, even if they also develop in extension. To think is to voyage…” [2]

Things indeed, made visible again. The resounding call to look back to the past and take what was known back into the dance. Here I think of ‘Sankofa’ which visiting scholar, Professor Renée Alexander Craft discussed during the Fluid States talks held at the Biomuseo. She has been researching Congo (music) and its culture in Portobello, Panama for many years and her recently published book, based on this research is an ethnographic monograph entitled “When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in 20th Century Panama.” ‘Sankofa’ the word or idea from the Akan language of Ghana, translates into "reach back and get it" (san - to return; ko - to go; fa - to look, to seek and take), represented by the Asante Adinkra symbol of a bird taking an egg off its back while it looks behind it. It is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," which means "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten." [3]

In this polyphonic fray of wind and dance and flags, a new intelligibility comes in with its small rescue and broadens under the gaze of a few, waits like a seed for regeneration and brings in limbing narratives imbued with legacy and song. In a sonic suspension of space-time, “Panama Caribe” took hold, sounding alongside the grandiose wing of ships - a foot - a drum – a network of sheathings. And then, the stage was cleared. Nothing of the moment remained. We scuttled home in dark passages, each taking back a sense of that puissance the hale patchwork left with us in that dusk hour.


Works Cited/Notes:

1. “Throughout the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth, Portobelo was the nexus of trade in the Spanish colonial world. For one to two months each year, the great Ferias de Portobelo (Portobelo Fairs) attracted traders from throughout the empire. After repeated attacks by English privateers and pirates, the Fairs ceased in 1738 and the already small permanent Spanish population shriveled. With the decline of the Spanish  empire in the early 1800s and the mid-century California Gold Rush, which restructured Panamanian trade routes through Colón rather than Portobelo, the town became a ghost of its former self. Emptied of opportunists who exploited its geographic location to benefit the economies of distant homelands, Portobelo retained at least some portion of those residents who had benefited from the protection of its rain forest, learned the contours of its sea, discovered how to farm yucca in the mountains, and read the leaves for prescriptions.”
– Craft, Renée Alexander. When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in Twentieth-Century Panama. The Ohio State University Press. 2015. Print.
2. Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 1987. Print.
3. "African Tradition, Proverbs, and Sankofa." The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver. 2010. web.

4. Digital Portobelo: Art + Scholarship + Cultural Preservation: an interactive on-line collection of ethnographic interviews, photos, videos, artwork, and archival material illuminating the rich culture and history of Portobelo, Panama: web.


Copyright –  Jennifer Spector  (2015) “Reflection on Panama Caribe, by Ella Spalding -- Interoceanic”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015, available

Tags: Mobility Travel Transport and Performance   Performance Studies in Languages Other Than English  Performance Studies in the Americas   

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