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The Portobelo Festival of Congos and Devils is one of the most colorful and lively folklore traditions in Panama. It takes place every two years in that historical town, located in Colón province, on the Atlantic Panamanian coast. Now in its 10th edition, it will be celebrated on Saturday, March 18 with a program that includes parades, music and dances in what it is a homage to the country’s African heritage and the congo culture.
The Congo and Devils Dance of Panama dance has its roots in Africa and came to Panama by way of escaped former slaves known as “Cimarrons.” The dance has been passed on from generation to generation and is not just a dance, but is also a form of expression by which the “Cimarrons” conveyed their feelings of anger, pain and joy. It was also a way to strengthen their spirits.
The dance tells a story, as the characters act out a fight with the devil. At the end they are saved by the “Reina Conga” (the Queen of Congos), helped by “Pajarito” (Little Bird) and “Juan de Dios” (John of God). The Congo Dance represents a fusion between the Catholic religion and the African culture.
Portobelo was founded in 1597 by Spanish explorer Francisco Velarde y Mercado and quickly replaced Nombre de Dios as a Caribbean port for Peruvian silver. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was an important silver-exporting port in Nueva Granada on the Spanish Main and one of the ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets. The Spanish built defensive fortifications. Many African slaves passed through the Portobelo Royal Customs Building to be sold in other parts of the Spanish kingdom.
The women dance swaying their hips in an almost erotic manner, using hands and feet to keep male dancers at arm’s length. They wear a long skirt made of a patchwork of fabric in very bright colors, a blouse with a colorful frill, necklaces, flowers in their hair, and bare feet. The men wear a fringed shirt and pants (made of strips of colored cloth), masks, and bare feet and dance around the women, doing their best to get close and kiss them. The rhythm of drums, singing and applause invites everyone around to participate.
The Portobelo roads are pedestrianized during the festival and cars must be left on the town’s outskirts. A great stage is erected in front of the park, which is the center of the celebration. Congos, devils, musician groups and “cantalantes” (singers) come from different parts of the country, especially Colón, to perform their dances and songs, using colorful masks and costumes.
The aims of the festival is to boost the rescue process and preserve the cultural heritage of the region by strengthening the identity and sense of belonging of the inhabitants. It creates the opportunity to generate income from the sale of food, drinks and souvenirs, as well as offering the opportunity to enjoy different cultural presentations.
The celebration begins at midday with the Handicraft and Gastronomy Fair, located in the ground of floor of the Portobelo Royal Customs building. Delicious traditional Colón food such as saos, salty cod fishcakes and the sought after bon bread and the refreshing Jamaican Water (saril) are on sale as well as colorful souvenirs and other articles like rings, bracelets and earrings to mention a few.
The encounter between Diablos and Congos starts at 2:00 on the main stage with six congo groups and concludes at 7:00 p.m. with a fireworks display, after that there is a celebration of the Congo in the park, where all the groups and the public dance together.
The festival is organized by the Portobelo Foundation (Fundacion Portobelo) and the Portobelo Historical and Cultural Highlight Group (Grupo Cultural Realce Histórico de Portobelo) together with the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) and the National Institute of Culture (INAC).