My View

Breakfast and beats in Panama

May 25, 2013 

Pierce Freelon


Every morning in Panama I woke up to women singing “desayunoooo,” (breakfast) to the syncopated rhythm of a wooden spoon clanging against a cow bell. During carnival season in Portobelo, the music never stops.

I would spring out of bed and race my roommate, filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala, down a spiral staircase to a picnic table overlooking Portobelo Bay. Neither of us want to be labeled “tortuga” -- a title that the women reserved for the slow-poke who was last to arrive at the table.

We dined in front of a large mural of Cristo Negro (Black Jesus). Legend has it, a life-sized sculpture of Black Jesus was jettisoned from a Spanish ship and washed ashore in Portobelo dozens of years ago. The statue remains in a church in the middle of town, and is the destination of an annual pilgrimage. As the patron saint of criminals, Cristo Negro absolves the sins of wrongdoers from around the world. He also overlooked our every meal.

We ate a lot of seafood directly out of the bay: fish steaks, filets and whole fish, shrimp, scallops and pulpo (octopus). One morning, we saw a man pull his boat into our pier carrying a huge fish he had just caught. It looked to be at least 30 pounds. He lugged the fish onto a chopping block across the street and started dicing it with his machete. About two hours later we had juicy fish steaks, with beans and rice for lunch. It was delicious and made me realize how far removed from my food I am in at home, in America. I rarely have any idea where my fish is from, how long ago it was alive, or how long it had been sitting on ice/under a heat lamp, before it landed on my plate. Panama was simple: my lunch was swimming in the bay that morning; by the afternoon it was in my belly.

All of the food was farm-to-table: beet salad, purple cabbage, greens, sweet plantains, potatoes and leafy herbs. The only juice available was freshly squeezed: orange, cantaloupe, pineapple, ginger. I ate healthily and heartily.

The town was charming and small; sandwiched between two decrepit forts. The brick foundations were composed of concrete and coral -- literally the shells of Panama’s former colonizers.

On our first day in Panama, Saleem and I were talking about soccer, which inspired a young boy and three of his friends to sprint off in different directions in a mad dash for a soccer ball. When they found a ball, the ninos tracked us down and we joined them at the abandoned fort for some good fun, and some pretty severe sunburn.

Shortly after the soccer game, our hosts, local-ensemble Barrio Fino, piled us into a pair of water taxis for a floating jam-session. The musicians, mostly percussionists, piled their congas, timbales, cajons and shakers onto the boats, and serenaded us during the 20-minute commute to a secluded beach.

The island was ridiculous. Rolling green hills with lush tropical vegetation surrounded a bay with clear blue and light green water. The beach was about 200 yards long, just wide enough for about 75 people to perform, eat, swim and dance comfortably.

Barrio Fino were gracious hosts. When we disembarked, they took their instruments to a concrete platform about 15 meters inland and launched an epic dance party. No one was permitted to be a mere bystander. Guests and strangers alike were encouraged to join the ensemble, as members of the band moved interchangeably from instrument to instrument.

Coolers of local beer and liquor lapped onto the lips of the musicians and their guests like salt water on the white sand. After three exhausting hours we boarded the water taxis and returned to the mainland.

After a quick bite, we headed to La Esquelita del Ritmo, a local music school where producer Apple Juice Kid and I were building an electronic music studio (called a Beat Making Lab) for a group of 16 Panamanian youth. Saleem was with us to film the experience and my band, The Beast, was also in town to collaborate and perform.

At La Esqualita the jam session continued. We played for several hours with Barrio Fino until we were so fatigued that we could barely walk back to our house across the street.

It was the beginning of an amazing musical and cultural collaboration, which took place over the course of two weeks. Learn more about and listen to music from the Panama Beat Making Lab on my PBS Digital Studios channel:

Pierce Freelon, a professor at N.C. Central University and UNC, can be reached at pfreelon@gmail. Follow him on Twitter @Durhamite.

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