5. Alabados and Chigualo, music for the dead

Laméca file

Afro-Colombian music



Anthropologists such as Anne-Marie Losonczy and Thomas Price have noted that, as among many Bantu groups, the human soul is seen in the Colombian Pacific as composed of two parts: the spirit, or life-force, and the soul, or personality. Although the spirit of the dead person is extinguished immediately upon death, there also exists the risk that his soul, thirsty for life and unwilling to detach itself from the world of the living, will instead wander the places it frequented as a living person. Effectively dispatching the soul is the purpose of the funeral ceremonies, which take place over nine nights.

Alabados (adults)

Course of the funeral ceremony

Friends and family members congregate at the dead person’s home. Outside the home, more distant relatives and neighbors take a break from the proceedings inside to play cards or dominos, tell stories or jokes, drink alcohol and coffee and smoke cigarettes. If not yet buried, the corpse is laid in a coffin on a table with candles. Certain prayers like the rosary and the Ave María, are prayed, alternating with the singing of hymns called alabados (from a Spanish word meaning “praise”), led by the cantadoras, who sing without accompaniment from other musicians.

“Jesús Nazareno” by Dora Bonilla, July Magaly Castro Bonilla, Oliva Bonilla Carabalí, Inés Granja, Yoly Bonilla et Luz Beatríz Bonilla (recorded by Michael Birenbaum Quintero, Santa Bárbara de Timbiquí, january 2006)

Throughout this period of time, the soul of the dead person is understood as remaining around the house. On the ninth night, the soul is definitively released from the world of the living. A three-tiered altar is built. At the end of the ceremony, those present stand in two lines, leaving an open passage from the altar to the door. The final rosary is said, and a last, particularly potent, alabado sung. At that moment, the soul of the dead person leaves to the realm of the dead, to be judged by God.

Alababos, songs of separation of the soul

The afterlife is conceived rather grimly, as a kind of gray oblivion in which the identity is fragmented beyond coherence. The funeral rites aim to prevent the soul from suffering by ensuring that this fragmentation of identity takes place to the point where the soul can no longer feel the bitter suffering of being separated from life. The suffering of the dead soul, as it is slowly ripped from the life it still desires to have, is expressed in the alabados, which beg the mediating figures of the saints, Christ, and the Virgin to help the process of separation of the soul, and to God to have mercy on the soul when it is presented for judgment. They also depict the situation of both the living as they confront their own future death and of the soul of the dead person which has yet to depart on the final night.

The use of the voice in alabados has a very particular function: the soul of the dead person lodges in the body of the singer to ride her sung exhalations to the realm of the dead (see Losonczy 2007).

The alabados themselves are sung in harmony by the cantadoras, and seem to be derived from the Church music repertoire of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Franciscan and other missionaries taught them to the slaves and their descendants at the mining camps. They may in fact be one of the best-preserved examples of this music, although they have been assimilated into the distinct cosmology of the black river-dwellers.

Chigualo (children)

The chigualo (called gualí in Chocó) is a ceremony celebrated upon the death of a child. Unlike the death of an adult, the death of a child is a cause for celebration rather than sadness. A child is understood as not having had the opportunity to sin, as an adult would, meaning that it dies in a state of purity. Therefore, a child’s death converts her into an angelito, a little angel, which will ascend directly to Heaven. The angelito, like the saints, can then carry a message to God to have mercy on the sinners it has left behind on earth.

Course of the funeral ceremony

When a child dies the neighbors send for the child’s godparents and parents’ relatives, the musicians and cantadoras. The little corpse is washed, dressed in white and set on a table or the family altar with wreathes, flowers, leaves, and candles. Throughout the chigualo, the child is referred to as an angelito, a little angel or as chigualo or gualí, terms which, according to Lozonczy, can be traced to words for “child” in the language of the Emberá indigenous group of the Pacific.

People begin arriving, bearing coffee, cigarettes, candles, and alcohol. Around dusk, the musicians, including all of the instruments described above except the marimba, begin playing, mostly bundes with a few jugas.

The lyrics for this music often includes lullabies, hushing or fussing over a crying or sleeping baby :

Este niño está llorando - This child is crying
Porqué lo dejan llorar - Why do they / you let him cry ?
Por una concha de nácar - For a shell of mother-of-pearl
Que está en el fondo del mar - That’s at the bottom of the sea.

The weeping mother may sit close to the corpse or may stay in her bedroom, accompanied by her siblings or other close relatives, who comfort her.

For the rest, however, the mood is decidedly festive; indeed, if the chigualo is not joyful enough, the child’s spirit will be displeased, and will not ascend to heaven at all but become a ghost that wanders the earth, haunting the village.

Therefore, the participants sing, recite and improvise poetry, play cards, gossip, and tell ritualized stories, about animals. In these stories, and in related games, they may imitate the actions and sounds of the animals. Adults as well as children may also play song-games like the florón, the buluca (or muluta), the zapatico and pájaro tinto, which are musically similar to bundes. In many of these games, the participants sit in a circle, with one person in the middle. As the people in the circle sing, they pass a small object rapidly behind their backs or under their legs, as the searcher tries to grab it.


Led by the cantadoras, the participants also sing bundes and jugas referring to the angelito’s ascent to heaven, with the participants wishing that they too were going to heaven, marveling at the miracles of the saints, or contemplating the theme of a child left “unfinished” as a person. Cantadoras sing the long ballad-like lullabies called romances used in daily practice to put children to sleep.

At a certain point, the angelitos’ godmother takes up the dead child and dances with it, and it is passed between the participants as they sing a bunde. Finally, near dawn, the parents and godparents pick up the child’s corpse, sometimes by each holding a corner of the sheet on which it is laid, and carry it to the graveyard, where it is quickly buried.



1. Black Colombia
2. The Southern Pacific
3. Currulao, the marimba dance
4. Arrullo, a lullaby for the Saints
5. Alabados and Chigualo, music for the dead
6. Black Pacific modernities
Musical illustrations


by Dr Michael Birenbaum Quintero

© Médiathèque Caraïbe / Conseil Général de la Guadeloupe, 2009-2016