Kombilesa Mi: Representing Palenque to the Fullest
On Thursday, October 25, the rising stars of the group Kombilesa Mi bring their electrifying fusion of traditional music and contemporary hip-hop to the David Rubenstein Atrium for a free show, presented in collaboration with Hi-ARTS and in partnership with Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center. In advance of the show, Hi-ARTS executive director Raymond Codrington caught up with the band on tour and sent in this appreciation.
Hip-hop culture and rap music have always built bridges between communities—locally and globally. The band Kombilesa Mi, from San Basilio De Palenque, Colombia, arrive at a time when those bridges are more essential than ever. Believed by many to be the first free African settlement in Latin America, Palenque is a town built on a tradition of resistance and anti-slavery rebellion. It's no surprise, then, that culture and community are major themes in Kombilesa Mi's identity, music, and message. Even in our globally and virtually connected worlds, place still matters in hip-hop. Place grounds the artists, localizes the issues, and influences what kind of hip-hop is created. For Kombilesa Mi, being from Palenque is central because, as they say, it "inspires us and helps us continue working for our community."
Kombilesa Mi bring African and Afro-Colombian influences into their music in a way that feels less like a nostalgic throwback to the past or an idealized notion of what Africa represents and more like an updated, remixed shout-out to the ancestors and to global Black culture. But we are talking about hip-hop, where style and skills have to be on point. From their use of iconography, clothing, hairstyles, and head wraps to the ubiquitous drum painted with the continent's outline, Kombilesa Mi has found effective ways to communicate who their musical and cultural influences are and to build connections to Palenque and Afro-diasporic culture. By having women in lead roles, they also send another clear message: "In our group, we want the woman to be as important as the man."
Lyrically, Kombilesa Mi rap in a mix of Spanish and Palenquero, which has both African and Portuguese influences and is believed to be the only existing Spanish Creole in Latin America. In a continent where the African presence is often unacknowledged or marginalized, what they rap about is as important as the language they rap in. When asked about their music, the group notes, "the music of Kombilesa Mi speaks of life in Palenque. We sing in the Palenquera language and we talk about the daily life our people. We talk about racism and we look for ways to face it." Their embrace of their Afro-Colombian identity and their outward confrontation of racism is somewhat unique, and they use rap music as a tool to report what's happening on the ground, to give those outside of Palenque a look into what it means to be young, Black, and hip-hop in Colombia.
In the era of autotune and the star music producer, even Kombilesa Mi's approach to making music and beats is different. They rap to live beats produced on a mix of traditional rhythm and instruments, including the tambor alegre, maracas, llamador, and marimbula without using electronic instruments, referring to their music as "completely organic." For a loose reference point, think of the early '90s and the scaled-down live instrumentation of The Roots in their early days, or even further back to the days of school kids banging out a beat on the lunch room table and rapping. In this way, Kombilesa Mi's beats and flows are universal and reflect the essence of hip-hop, regardless of language.
Like other places created out of resistance, Palenque is at the center of political and cultural identity for many. Performing in the city where hip-hop was born—about an hour's subway ride from the Bronx—Kombilesa Mi's appearance at Lincoln Center represents the broader dialogue of global hip-hop and the continuation of a diasporic hip-hop cypher in real time.
Raymond Codrington is the Executive Director of Hi-ARTS.