The connective thread of travel took me to the Nov. 5 Colombian Dance Party at the Las Tablas Steak House, 4920 W. Irving Park in Chicago.
I've been to Bogota' and Cali in recent months and my soul was captured by the warmth of the people and the spirit of cumbia and salsa. Even though things don't always run on time in Colombia. And even though I am still hurtin' from my laptop, briefcase and Chuck Taylor biography being ripped off at the Bogota' airport just before my departure.
Did I tell you about that?
Well, that could happen anywhere.
But Colombia is completely unique, a destination on the come.
I was invited to the benefit party by people I met at the Chicago Latino Film Festival. All proceeds from the door went to Fundacion Batata, a non-profit in the town of San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia which is being created by the music group Las Ambulancias Alegres (Vehicle of happiness, the regional philosophy of the passage of death).......
....The Afro-Colombian group was established in 1905 and is leading a drive to build an arts and music school for children in the community of 3,500 people. In 2005 the town and its musicial practices were declared "Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible World Heritage" by the United Nations office of UNESCO.
Palenque (walled city) was founded in 1603 in northern Colombia by runaway slaves after a revolt.
"By many historians accounts it is the first town in the Americas to gain independence from Spain," Las Tablas (the tables) owner Leo Suarez wrote this week in an e-mail from Palenque. "This is the main place in all of Colombia where African language, music and culture has been preserved." The traditional dialect of the town is the only Creole in existence which has a Spanish/Portuguese lexicon and grammatical base of Bantu-family languages such as Kikongo.
"However, since the '60s when the town became increasingly open to its surrounding region for this first time in centuries the people there have experienced so much discrimination and racism that it seems like anybody born there from the late' 60s to early '80s was ashamed of their culture and language as a result of the ridicule they would receive when they left the town," Suarez wrote.
"So you have an entire generation of people from Palenque who tried as much as possible to get away from the culture of their ancestors. It wasn't until the 2000s where you had people from all over the world going to film documentaries and linguistical studies that people there realized how unique they were and begun to feel pride for their customs. However by that time you already had a generation that didn't study these traditions and therefore were not able to pass them on to their children.
"This town is also the root for just about every important musical movement from the Colombian caribbean coast."
This is what can happen when you step out of your comfort zone on a Friday night.
More than $1,700 was raised at the event.
Suarez is hands on in Colombia helping drummer Tomas Teheran Salgado, director of Las Ambulancias Alegres find a site for the school. The end game would include a small hotel and creation of an economy based around cultural and ecological tourism.
I'd been to the Suarez famly's other Las Tablas in West Lakeview and that was no great shakes.
But the live bands and the energy on the dance floor in Portage Park was a completely different experience. It reminded me of the late 1980s glory days and nights of Tania's, the steamy Cuban supper club and dance floor in Logan Square.
Juvenato played accordion-based cumbia and Cuban son while the six Groupo Cumbe' delivered a scorching set that blended Afro-Colombian drumming with 1960s jazz elements (trumpet, piano and bass). Both groups are based in Chicago.
I enjoyed a cold bottle of Colombian Aguila beer (known for its "beer girls") and looked at the fat guy Fernando Botero paintings (Colombia's most famous artist) on the walls.
And tried to muster up the courage to dance.
The author, far right, taking salsa class in Cali, Colombia
From the stage Suarez asked the full house if they would like to see live music on a monthly basis. They roared with approval. About 16,400 Colombians live in Chicago according to a 2008 study by the Chicago Community Trust.
"We have to make sure all the musicians are available," he wrote this week."Which is tough when people in your group are constantly touring Europe and the U.S. with other groups. If we did it it would always be at the Irving location which has a capacity of 300 compared to 150 at Lincoln, and also whenever we throw parties at Lincoln we heavily exceed capacity and the neighbors always call the cops on us...problems we don't have at Irving."
The 2942 N. Lincoln restaurant is in Wrigleyville-Wanting-to-be-Naperville.
"All this is part of a larger purpose we have which is to expose Chicago to positive aspects of Colombian culture," Suarez continued.
"So people have a different point of reference other than movies about drug cartels. This is the main purpose with which we founded Macondo Colombian Coffee & Empanadas (that party also doubled as Macondo's 1st anniversary party, located at 2965 N. Lincoln)." Macondo also sponsored the successful Chicago Colombian Music Festival, which debuted over the summer at venues from Millennium Park to the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Stay tuned on all fronts.