This Panamanian Carnival tradition manages to make blackface 'playful' and 'emancipatory'

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Carol Hills: I am Carol Hills with The World, and for the next few minutes we're getting a test of Carnival in Panama. That's what Carnival sounds like in Portobelo. Its a city in Panama that has a unique way of marking the annual festival. Pierce Freelon is a friend of our show, and a Professor at the University of North Carolina. He's also a hip hop artist, and he is in Portobelo right now. So, Pierce, what's so special about Carnival celebrations there?


Pierce Freelon: Well, carnival here is unique. They kinda celebrate the festival here through this kind of Congo tradition which is the African dance where they're kind of critiquing slavery and colonialism through this amazing metaphore, The Diablos, who represents the whip wielding slave master and the Congo, who represents this kind of liberated African, you know the legacy of Cimarrones, that means The Maroons in spanish. The freed themselves and they became The Congos, just like the free Africans. Say engaged Carnivals do this dance, its really cool.


Hiils: So, what does this look like visually?


Freelon: The Congos have kind of painted their face in charcoal, they're kind of wearing old discarded clothes in this cool chains with whistles and you know, oh man, its really fascinating just the position of the Congos represent the Africans as I mentioned in the Diablos wearing these big red mask with horns and these gnarling teeth you know, and carrying this weapons and whipping people you know as they walk by. Our friend and Photographer Sal, who's here with us got lashed yesterday at yesterday, we all got with that and that's kind of part of community performance that everyone from the elders to the ninyos engage in.


Hills: Yeah, the photos are beautiful, and listeners you can see the photos at, and an interesting way of turning the notion of black face which is a very negative connotation on its head.


Freelon: Oh my Goodness, like okay so, [???] was my frame of reference when I got here. I am like what are these people doing in black face? I completely had no context for understanding kind of the new answers that they could seek and they were kinda celebrating black culture through black face. It was jarring at first you know what I mean? In America black face is just terrible, its Bert Williams, its exploitation, its stereotype you know, here like we say its playful, its submersive, its an anticipatory.

Hills: So you're working with local artists there on a project called the Cristo Negro | Diablo Blanc. Whats your project about?


Hills: With Cristo Negro | Diablo Blanco through beat making and poetry and photography, and there are wonderful kind of roster of Artists that we're working with here, to kind of explore these topics. Its part of our wrestling with these issues, and for me as a Black man, as an African American whose country has yet to deal some aspects of there legacy even slavery enslavement, its inspiring to see how the people of Portobelo, are addressing this issues. So, I have been making beats you know sampling local artists, working with [???]here in Portebolo working with [???] who's just been kinda working ingesting and soaking in the elements of the festival and then creating art from that.


Hills: One of the signiicant things about this tradition is that Christ is black, and Portebolo itself has this black tradition because it was where Portobelo slaves were brought in. How does that link to the story?


Freelon: Well, I guess I can start with a kind of a very brief personal story. So, the first time I saw a black Jesus was at my Grandmother's house. Queen Mother Francis Pierce we called her. She was like a activist organizer and hairdresser, and I always thought like well this is perculiar, seeing Jesus he's had like the blonde jheri curl or something you know, but he's kinda this white figure. So, to come up here to Portebolo, and everywhere you look you see black Christ in a purple robe. Its just staggering from the standpoint of someone who you know doesnt have a frame or reference from black Christ, but thats what people here in Portebolo have known, and if you look back historically the legend goes that the statue, the Christo Negro statue was from a Spanish boat when they were trying to keep from sinking, they were thrown you know from all types of cargo off the ship and they ettisoned this Cristo Negro life-sized statue of Black Christ off the boat, and its found its way to the shores of Portebolo. So, you know it was kind of a miracle in that way. This whole thing about Jesus walking on water, well black Jesus found its way through the waters.


Hills: Pierce, I know you've been making some beats down there, tell us about them?


Freelon: Yeah, well making alot of beats, meeting kids on the street, and that'll just beat box. A couple of beats have just been made has been inspired by different kids beatbox, different comparsa kind of the rythms, but there is one beat where I sampled an Artist named Ismael Rivera. He had a song called [???] which was about Black Christ. I took that song, chopped up the sample, kind of used it with some of the rythms that I heard here, and was inspired by here to kinda make a beat celebrating the Black Christ in a new medium, in an electronic hip hop medium, but totally inspired by Ismael's work. There is actually a statue of Ismael Rivera in Downtown Portobelo. So that's what kinda encouraged me to look at his work, and his whole work was like centered around Black Jesus.


Hills: That was a taste of Christo Negro. Now, Pierce what happens next?


Freelon: Well, we've been here for the Carnival and we're gonna continue to stay in Portebolo till sunday collaborating [??] and then in March they're actually coming to Chapel Hill in North Carolina to do some presentations and workshops with us both in the community and at UNC Chapel Hill through the process here theories and through digital Portebolo and Creative Currents, those are our partners that helped us put this project together. So, yeah we've been depending on them and they have hosted us and filled us full with [??] and services and now we get to host them in North Carolina and filled them also with some you know, I dont know pork rhymes and root beer or whatever, and we're gonna create with them. We're gonna make some art in North Carolina, inspired by the process that we've engaged in here and premiere that on March 20th and 21st at UNC.


Hills: Pierce Freelon, he is a Professor at the University of North Carolina. He is also a Hip Hop Artist in his own right and we've been speaking to him from Portebolo, an interesting city in Panama celebrating Carnival and Pierce and his friends have been celebrating along with them. Pierce thanks so much.


Freelon: Thank you.