Pedasí, Panama: The Palm-Fringed Coastal Town Home to a Joyous Community Ritual

House building was once a joyous communal event in Pedasí, on Panama’s south coast. Now the ritual of junta de embarre has been reborn as a special occasion, and all are welcome to join in the riot of mud, hay, song and solidarity

This article first appears in Volume 39: Ritual.

Sleepy it might seem, but the rural town of Pedasí on Panama's Azuero Peninsula has been an open secret for years, with its world-class surf and mellow ambience proving enticing to visitors. But look closer at its dusty streets and you'll see past the squat, concrete constructions to the typical quincha houses. The latter sit at the heart of a cultural revival - one using just mud, hay and music to transcend the gulf between generations and the country's past and future.

Leading this cultural resurrection is the junta de embarre - a form of house building whose name loosely translates as "mud meeting". Started some centuries ago to help newlyweds build their first homes, it draws on the abundant materials at hand: sand from the peninsula's kilometres of unspoilt beaches and hay from its hectares of lush farmland. But the most critical resources are the builders themselves, who come from the local community and are motivated not by money, but by the shared purpose of building someone else a home.

A local using his bare hands to build the mud home, left, and a child helping.

Many have little experience, some can barely walk alone, but everyone from gleeful toddlers to wizened grandparents links arms and ventures shoeless onto a plot of earth to slap their feet and dance their way through the slurry, churning soil, sand and water into mud. Drums add a festive atmosphere and a rhythmic backdrop to the work, and are the catalyst for women, mud- slicked and hoarse, to raise their voices into a cacophony of song. Ruminating on age-old topics, these sometimes comical, often bawdy call-and-response songs follow the rules of tamborito, an African-inspired Panamanian folk music that is not far off a yodel.

Into the melee, mud stampers armed with distilled sugar cane, known as seco, slosh it into any open mouth, while attendees scatter and then churn hay into the mixture. The perfect consistency achieved, armfuls are gathered and slapped onto a waiting wooden frame, to be left to dry in the beating sun and, finally, topped with clay roof tiles.

The muddy act of junta de embarre unites everyone from kids to village elders.

But the junta de embarre isn't just about house building, and its near disappearance is a familiar story for rural communities around the world. As young people migrated to the cities, they took with them the possibility of new life-blood pumping into a ritual that only the eldest members of the region remembered. Revival came in an unusual form. In 2017, a group of entrepreneurs in Pedasí, including the now tourism minister, Iván Eskildsen, created Barro Fest, an annual event that binds together - much like the water and earth of the junta de embarre - the traditional and the modern: an indie music festival with a muddy, community-bonding junta de embarre at its heart.

The festival has since become itinerant, moving to different parts of the country each February to allow more towns to reconnect with their ancestral heritage. However, raucous, music-filled junta de embarres continue in Pedasí. Book through a local tour operator, then join the townspeople, young and old alike, to stand shoulder to shoulder and stamp your way through the mud, carrying cultural tradition with you as you go.

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