Panamanian Custom: The Matanza


Matanza Beef Smoking Over a Fire

If you are Panamanian and you want to celebrate your mother’s (or your own) 88th birthday, your daughter or granddaughters 15th birthday, your promotion, your retirement, the birth of a child, or anything else happy, you will hold a matanza. If you need to raise money for a worthy cause (neighbors got burned out and need help rebuilding, somebody needs an expensive operation, the firemen need a new truck) you could also hold a matanza.

jsw_in_the_shadeThis is PARTY with a capital P that involves an entire cow, giant coolers filled with beer and sodas, vats of food, rented tents and chairs, music and dancing.

My neighbors’ mother turned 88, so they held a matanza behind their home, which borders on some land where horses run. The horses were moved to another pasture for a few days, the fence lowered. What grass still stood at the end of the dry season was cleared, raked up and burned off. Tents were rented, along with chairs and tables. All the neighbors were invited. A cow was slaughtered and the meat hung to dry. There are few flies this time of year, so that was not a problem. Fires were built at the cooking tent near the house, and the all-day party began.

Vats of Food at the Matanza

Vats of Food at the Matanza

First, the women of the neighborhood made breakfast for any guests who showed up that early. Later, they made lunch. Shortly after lunch, the music began. Drums and chuco-chuco accompanied the women leading the singing of tamboritos (drum songs), a special Panamanian call-and-response form of singing. It has its own special flavor of twang, with the call singer making marvelous sorts of yodeling sounds.  Although this form of song sounds nothing like American country music, it reminds me of it because of the way the singers change their natural voices to produce an immediately recognizable style of sound.

Three musicians faced a group of young women who led the singing. The lead singer called out a verse, then the others, along with the seated crowd, answered. Sometimes a couple would get up and perform a bouncy, twirling dance to the music.


Singers and Drummers Singing Tamboritos

People wore versions of the native dress – white shirts, skirts and blouses, black pants. Many of the men had the Panamanian straw hat, worn on the back of the head with the brim flipped up.

Signing the Birthday Girl's Portrait

Signing the Birthday Girl’s Portrait

Because it was a very important birthday celebration, there was a large, framed portrait of the birthday mother from which the glass had been removed, and all the neighbors took turns signing good wishes on the mat.