Petrona Martínez: The Great Bullerengue Singer
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Petrona Martínez: The Great Bullerengue Singer

Petrona Martínez, the great bullerengue singer, has become one of the most significant figures of Colombian traditional music.

Male figures dominate the music industry worldwide. According to Quiñones, a reporter from the UN, in 2019, female participation in the music industry reached only 30%. That’s why it can surprise us when women are those who win prizes, go on tours, or become the most listened to in a specific type of music. Traditionally, women are figures of music like pop, with a higher participation rate -42% of pop artists are women-. So it can seem doubly astonishing when it is a woman, a traditional singer, Latin American, who becomes a world-famous artist. Our protagonist of the day is Petrona Martinez.

The great bullerengue singer

Petrona is a bullerengue singer. So, maybe I should start by explaining what this rhythm is.

Bullerengue is a musical rhythm, but it is also a dance. Authors who have devoted themselves to studying bullerengue aren’t in agreement over whether it is a music or a dance style because they are deeply related. It is a type of music/dance of African origin, a product of the African cultural heritage imported during the slavery years to the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Bullerengue was born in the palenques, where runaway slaves formed new villages and settlements with their families. It is an oral heritage music. Until the 20th century, bullerengue hadn’t been included or recorded by anyone outside the community. It had been a product of the teaching process from parents to children for hundreds of years.

Bullerengue: a female rhythm

Despite the lack of certainty, the exciting part of bullerengue is that it is a piece of music and dance that is traditionally feminine. It has been passed down from mother to daughter for many years, which is uncommon in cultures worldwide. As time went by, it became a practice solely for older women. It was sung in social meetings where women came together to cook, sew, or discuss their marital problems. Frequently, those women’s daughters took part in these meetings. As a result, they accidentally copied the example of these practices. Handmade drums of wood accompany bullerengue and hide, and they are also from African heritage.

Amid this context, Petrona Martínez arises. Petrona was born in 1939 in San Cayetano. This small territory isn’t a known village but a San Juan de Nepomuceno neighborhood in Bolivar on the Colombian Caribbean coast. Martinez was born during the cultural practices that we explained earlier. She watched her great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt singing fullerene to vent their sadness, as that rhythm does that job.

Bullerengue’s slow rhythm and repetitive singing are conceived to sound tireless the entire night. During Petrona’s childhood, when the possibility of being part of the interconnected world was nonexistent, bullerengue was all that existed in her world.

Petrona reunites with bullerengue

Bullerengue emerged from runaway slave territories around the 1980s, when the music producer Wady Bedran discovered a traditional bullerengue group: Los Soneros de Gamero. Nevertheless, Bedran’s work embellishes this music. It was considered bland and outdated, so he added electric bass, saxophones, and clarinets to the female singing and handmade drums.

After leaving the community and getting away from bullerengue, Petrona Martínez heard Los Soneros de Gamero’s songs on the radio. At that time, Martinez worked picking sand from the streams and selling it for construction around the area. The singer had been the product of economic and social processes that led women to precarious and poorly paid work to survive.

Petrona Martinez

While loading sand from one palace to the other, Petrona started to sing songs that would later give her international fame. Martinez says that the stream was a source of creative inspiration and memory recovery, as well as helping maintain the family. From then on, the singer wanted to become professional in singing, recording albums, and being heard on the radio.

Ironically, Petrona Martinez found recognition not by mixing traditional rhythms with modern music elements but by staying with conventional sounds of feminine singing and handmade drums. Likewise, she became famous because of her traditional attire and lyrics that addressed conflict, sorrows, pains, and happiness. The definitive leap to worldwide recognition came thanks to the publication of the album Colombie: Le Bullerengue.

Petrona Martinez in the worldwide industry

By the 1990s, Petrona Martinez was already a celebrity, especially in academic environments. There, European ethnomusicologists started to pay attention to Latin American and “third world” music. Their analysis focused on the difficulty experienced by musicians from peripheral territories regarding the global center (Europe and the United States).

However, I think the analysis could expand and wonder if women generally experience difficulties entering the worldwide music market. But we can also demand especially for women of color, from lower social classes, and violent environments. There are few successful cases where these women can get ahead.

Therefore, it is crucial to remember histories like Petronas Martinez’s. We must be conscious that the world is still an unequal place and difficult to gain admission to for some, where only a few lucky people can change their stars. Her legacy has not only left a mark on women of color from marginalized communities on Colombian coasts, but her story has also deeply resonated with many other women still dreaming about creating a meaningful legacy and positively impacting their community.