“The Music of the Carnaval de Barranquilla”

A group of men stand on the streets of Barranquilla, Colombia as they play a wide array of musical instruments during Carnaval de Barranquilla celebrations, a festival whose origins date back to the colonial era in Colombia. Photo by Richard Cross

The Carnaval de Barranquilla, like all other carnival celebrations across the Americas traces its origins to medieval Spain. However, to better understand the origins of carnavale, we must go back much farther, to the ancient European Saturnalia, the celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Each year, the enslaved were temporarily freed and all official functions postponed, allowing all to participate in all festivities, including usually prohibited forms of leisure.

The rise of Christianity throughout medieval Europe played witness to the Catholic Church’s inconsistency in its attempts to repress what it perceived as debauchery, which ultimately helped its institutionalization in 11th century Italy. Celebrated on the streets and in private homes, European urban centers exploded with carnavale as locals celebrated with abandon, emulating Saturnalia. At the same time, it was also a reflection of local circumstances, practices, and customs that transcended time, space, race, and class.

By now known as carnaval, the celebration appeared in the Spanish colonies during the 1700s with unique variations. Once in the Americas, it became subject to local circumstances, practices, and customs. Thus, paternalistic elites always seeking to soften the animosity and the strength of the spirit of liberation of the Africans they enslaved allowed their participation in carnaval festivities, cementing African contributions.

A young man passionately plays the conga drum during Carnaval de Barranquilla festivities in Barranquilla, Colombia. He is a member of Son de Palenque, a comparsa (dance troupe) that originated in San Basilio de Palenque. While the musicians play, the dancers perform a dance called “danza del son de negro,” which invokes traditional African rhythms and movements. Photo by Richard Cross

Many of those enslaved were trafficked from parts of West Africa where drums and percussion instruments were and remain historically and culturally significant. Their participation during the Spanish colonial era enriched the celebration with their ancestral culture, invoking Africa in their instruments, movements, music, and aesthetic. Notwithstanding, by way of their cultural expressions, these enslaved Africans also developed distinct drumbeats for different occasions and a drumbeat-based system of communication for use by the enslaved during the colonial era.

The African legacy has been a lasting one, all things considered, and it is palpable. Modern-day performers of these Afro-influenced dances have noted that each dance is accompanied by a distinct and unmistakable drumbeat. In fact, the sounds and musical structure of cumbia, the musical symbol par excellence of Colombian identity, also reflect African influence as the use of drums, guache, and maracas represent a distinctive African flair within the genre.

Barranquilla’s rapid growth and development during the second half of the 1800s encouraged both foreign and internal migration, from Europe and from Colombia’s rural poor near the Atlantic coast, respectively. This environment fomented a tolerance, albeit a limited one, of diversity that facilitated the gradual incorporation of these rural migrants, many of them of mixed or Indigenous ancestry, into Barranquilla’s existing popular neighborhoods and mainstream social and cultural life. This proved to be the catalyst that propelled carnaval into yet another transformation.

Once in Barranquilla, their ancestral culture, their rural folk songs and chants accompanied by gaita (pipe), flauta (flute), drums, and maracas, also an Indigenous instrument, over time constituted the most important artistic and cultural contribution of the many different Indigenous groups in the region to the celebration. The regional pre-Hispanic origins of the gaita, flauta, the most significant Indigenous instrument for musical expression, the drums and maracas, complemented the structure and style of Colombia’s national sound and a carnaval favorite: cumbia.

The modern-day carnaval de Barranquilla’s owes its color, candor, sound, and mystique to centuries of subjugation, accommodation, preservation, and resistance. Born on the margins of Barranquilla’s society, residents from the city’s popular neighborhoods celebrated, interpreted, performed, and, most importantly, preserved their ancestral culture. In doing so, they helped define Barranquilla’s unique culture and the carnaval as its most important avenue for popular cultural expression. For that and more, it comes as no surprise that in 2003, UNESCO declared the carnaval de Barranquilla a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a fact that surprised nobody.


Cassiani Herrera, Alfonso. Palenque magno. Resistencias y luchas libertarias del Palenque de la Matuna a San Basilio Magno, 1599–1714. Cartagena: Icultur, 2014.

De Friedemann, Nina S. Carnaval en Barranquilla. Bogotá: Editorial La Rosa, 1985.

— — — — — — — — — -, Richard Cross. Ma ngombe. Guerreros y ganaderos en Palenque. Bogotá: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1979.

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