Drums, dance and sensuality: Afro-Panamanian bullerengue

A couple dancing Darién bullerengue. Screenshot from video “Bullerengue de darien…” from the Asi Baila Panama YouTube channel. Fair use.

Women are singing, a couple dances, and drummers play the greatest African instrument. This is the highly traditional Panamian dance, the bullerengue.

The dance that is the product of a painful past continues today, no longer with so much pain although the wounds are still there. The song cries and the drum comforts it. High tradition that is now pure pride, knowing that the blood you carry in your veins is sacred.

To talk about bullerengue we must also talk about bunde. Both are dances with African roots closely linked to the province of Darién, located in the south of Panama. Bullerengue is also danced in Panama's sister country Colombia, but its evolution has been different in both regions.

Bullerengue is a sensual dance that means joy and movement. It is danced by a couple, generally a man and a woman, the two dance to the rhythm of the drum that is accompanied by the singing of several women while they clap their hands.

The bunde is also a dance of the same origin that incorporates elements of the Catholic religion and is predominant in Garaniché, a district of Chepigana located in the southwest of the country. It is a rite sung to the rhythm of the drum, and dedicated to the baby Jesus. In times of slavery, when a boy or girl died before turning seven years old, then they bundled him or her, because it was believed that the infant died in a state of innocence and was going straight to heaven, the realm of the spirits.

History and performance of bullerengue

Bullerengue is a dance accompanied by singing and is an essential part of Darién culture; it is a dance that symbolizes feminine sensuality. However, in colonial times it was associated with funeral events; because it was a dance of celebration and happiness, they sang and danced to the dead so that they would leave happy. Even today, to honor the great singers who have perished, a bullerengue is organized in their home as a form of love and recognition.

Bullerengue means “skirt” or “maternity skirt,” the etymology of the word is from the African words “bulle” which means “joy” and “rengue” which means “movement.” It is possible that both words come from West African countries.

The dance in its traditional origin represents the celebration of a husband who returns from an exhaustive hunt in the jungle, then the wife organizes a party because her husband has returned, and he also brought several dead animals on his back, which means that there will be food. Then the wife calls the community drummers and the neighbors to start the bullerengue celebration. She dances, sings and plays drums.

The drums set the rhythm while the women stand side by side and clap their hands to the music. They sing and clap, while those who dance as a couple do so by putting their feet together and bending their knees.

The woman who dances appears proud, maintaining her composure and grace towards the couple. While he, bending his knees, dances near her, bowing and displaying courtship, but he never finishes doing so. Bullerengue is a dance of seduction that does not materialize.

The tradition of this dance has endured over time thanks to the teaching from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter and so on, from generation to generation.

For this reason, it is important to highlight the African heritage that reached Darién as a result of the transatlantic trade of enslaved people who, over time, upon freeing themselves in the Bayano Rebellions (1548–1558), would become maroons who inhabited the Mamoní and Mandinga palenques (free African towns).

According to data from the last census carried out in Panama in 2023 by the National Institute of Statistics and Census, 31.7 percent of the Panamanian population consider themselves Afro-descendant.

To keep alive this cultural expression characteristic of the province, the bunde and bullerengue festival is held every year. In addition, songs performed by renowned singers who have contributed to the development of the Darién folklore have been compiled on albums and now on digital platforms such as Spotify.

“It is important to rescue bullerengue so that it is not lost, to teach children and young people the art of bullerengue and to learn its history and meaning,” says Professor Digna Emérita Caraballo de Gómez, researcher at the Darién Regional University Center, in an interview published in La Estrella de Panamá in 2018.

Professor Caraballo de Gómez is known for highlighting Darién culture and has even been honored by the annual festival dedicated to the two dances. “The use of the drum, singing and voice are typical of human beings… Therefore, every time we do this festival we celebrate life, faith, and hope,” she said.

Darién today

The objective of both dances is to promote and highlight the regional culture of this province closely linked to the Afro-Panamanian population, currently overshadowed by Panama City. It is one of the provinces whose development and access to quality infrastructure and basic services have been very slow.

Darién is connected to Colombia by the famous Darién Gap, a thick and dangerous jungle that has served as a route for thousands of migrants traveling on foot from different parts of the continent and the world.

The province faces a problematic situation regarding the passage of migrants through this jungle, so extreme that there are refugee camps at the end of the journey and of course, networks of criminals who take advantage of the jungle to make illegal profits.

Edelmira Sánchez, teacher, folklorist and singer, explains that Europeans entered the continent through Darién. She thinks that the province had less development than other provinces in the country because Darién is an inhospitable area full of geographical barriers.

But this does not mean that the traditions of Darién disappear, but rather that the region needs urgent attention from the authorities; bunde and bullerengue are cultural expressions that symbolize resilience and serve as relief from all the sorrows that the Dariénites face.

I, the author of this article, am a descendant of Dariénites and all my life I heard my grandmother say that she would leave the city to go back to her native Chepigana, because there is nothing like the community and joy of her own town.

I have always listened to and danced bullerengue, but I am not an expert in its execution. My grandmother definitely is, every time she hears a bullerengue, wherever it is, her hips begin to move.

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