As a matter of pride and common conversation point Colombians will tell you, “Colombian accordion players are the best in the world.”
It’s 110°, 3 am. People have been drinking very good whiskey for over five hours at a house party in Valledupar. Peacocks move across the open courtyard, kids peek out from upper floor windows, the mango tree growing over the pool drops a piece of fresh fruit. Israel Romero has been playing song after song, taking requests within a circle of adoring women as maybe a hundred people sing along. The notes seems to accumulate in the wet air, like swarms of buzzing insects, slowly lifting Israel a few inches off the patio.
“Yes, the best.”
Mùsica vallenata originated in the Magdalena Grande area of Northeastern Colombia now comprised by the Departments (States) of Magdalena, Guajira and Cesar. This region touches the Caribbean coast and stretches across the vast fertile valleys between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Sierra de Perija mountains hugging Venezuela. Its musical center, as well as the capital of Cesar, is Valledupar. While the term “vallenato” could reference all those born in the valley (“nato del Valle”), or things originating from Valledupar (Valle de Upar, the valley of a legendary Indian leader), the enlightened explanation is this: In the rural areas along the banks of the Cesar River, many of the extremely poor inhabitants suffered from a mosquito borne disease that left their skin dry and flaky, with patches of discoloration. It reminded people of newborn whales, called “pintaos” or “vallenatos”. So “vallenatos” became a derogatory name for the river based poor. And musicians, the most unsavory of the poor, highly visible because of all the noise they made, were particularly identified by the scornful term, “vallenatos”. One of the earliest known itinerant musicians was the disheveled and deceased, Antonio Guerra Buyones. His mestizo peasant looks, (dark and short), with skin flaking under a large straw sombrero (vueltiao), contributed to a long-lived caricature of the vallenato musician.
While rough hewn and leathery in sound, vallenato lyrics are usually plain written and sugarcane sweet. Everyday events, passion, eternal love, village folklore, travelogues and miracles blur in the telling; voices crack, crackle with emotion in a music that so influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez that he once described One Hundred Years of Solitude as a 350 page vallenato. Indeed most lyricists are considered poets and poets are national heroes. And in the music this “literary-ness” is always at the forefront of any performance, no matter how charmingly danced to. Vallenato is for listening. When a song has gained the weight of truth, everyone sings along; collectively Colombian – individually turning over memories and images. What began as a mestizo ranchers and peasant music in an isolated area has recently evolved into one of the country’s most popular musics, taping into an idealized national character of romance, magic and cowboy macho.
Originally called, “Musica Provinciana,” (“music from the rural countryside”), like “rock” or “salsa”, “vallenato” has been used as a blanket term for a wide range of musics. All the various song forms of vallenato, no matter what they sounded like, were originally called “son”. Eventually distinctions were made to describe the various rhythms as paseo, son, merengue (no direct relation to the hyper-Dominican rhythm) and puya. “El paseo” is cheerful, somewhat romantic, played in triplets with strict harmony. Most vallenato is played in this rhythm having two tempi. “El merengue” has a regular two beat pattern and a strong Spanish influence. “El son” is the most delicate and complex rhythm, usually used to express sadness or offer a lament. As the slowest paced form, success depends on the accordionist maintaining an extremely regular breath-like accompaniment to keep the rhythm from sagging. The melody line is carried by the singer and the accordion usually offers an extended bass passage played solely with the left hand. “La puya,” the quickest rhythm, opens with a pattern similar to the two beat merengue, then changes into a long passage called “cierre,” where improvised solos are taken by all the instruments. While the music is primarily designed for listening, the merengue and puya rhythms are played for dancing, and other Colombian dance rhythms, cumbia and tambora, are often described as subgroups of vallenato. In general vallenato is slower than cumbia, (except puya, which is usually faster) with an all pervasive sweetness to the melody lines.
While Vallenato was played at informal gatherings, for serenading, dancing and at parrandas (house parties), the style bloomed at “piquerias,” improvised competitions where accordionists would play in a round robin of one-upsmanship, trading musical and verbal barbs. Contests that overly involved the public resulted in heated support of heated rivalries. Jail, the police, real fights, and rum were all common elements to accounts of musical battles that often lasted for days. Support seemed necessary, both for winning the musical duel and leaving bodily intact, with phrases like, “He had his people, I had mine,” often worked into the story of a famous encounter. In the telling the looser slinks away, magically disappears or is so fatigued from the competition that he simply falls asleep. One of the nicer aspects of these legendary rivalries is a tendency to reach for your accordion to do damage, leaving your pistol in it”s holster. Renowned masters of the extempore composition included “El Mono” Fragozo, Tono Salas, Lorenzo Morales, Leandro Diaz and Emiliano Zuleta Baquero. Duels were the stuff of legend, people claiming witness to traded verses between Francisco Moscote (Francisco the Man) and Abraham Maestre, Abraham Maestre and Cristóbal Lùquez, Emiliano Zuleta Baquero and Chico Bolaños, Victor Silva and Octavio Mendoza. Improvisation, once a trademark of the music, gave way to orchestrated performances at stage shows, bars, nightclubs, festivals and more formal competitions.
The extemporaneous composer, who was both vocalist and accordionist, evolved into a professional musician as part of an ensemble comprised of accordion, caja (drum) and guacharaca (scraper). Colombians are proud to point out that vallenato symbolizes the unique and largely imagined harmonious relationship between the races that comprise their country; native Indians, Black Africans and the Spanish. Each group is said to have contributed an instrument to the ensemble.
The accordion carries the melody in vallenato. Here the three row button model is used, known in different regions and at various times as “el moruno,” “guacamayo” and “espejito” (“machine screw”). The accordion first came to Colombia in the latter 1800s where it was used in European dance music. From the very beginning it was considered a lowbrow instrument, a position it proudly maintains to this day. Most accordions continue to be imported from Honer in Germany where they are tweaked to produce the warm and reedy sound Colombians prefer. One brand, Bapos, is manufactured in Colombia. Since performers change accordions to change keys, there is usually an assortment of diatonic instruments at the artist’s feet, or off to the side of the stage. The ruby colored instruments are German, and the pearlescent ones, home-grown. The isolation of the region meant that accordionists were both unschooled and on their own when it came to technique. Many developed unorthodox fingering techniques (rutina) to set them apart from competitors and bent scales (registro) to suit their vocal abilities or individual leanings.
The caja is a single headed, foot-high tunable cylinder drum who’s origin is attributed to Africans who came to Colombia during the colonial era as slaves. Some histories reference this “box” as literally a wooden box in the earliest days of the music’s development. Others suggest that originally a bongo-like double headed drum was used. A recent trend is to replace the traditional goatskin heads with more stable and long lasting plastic, and even sheets of x-ray film have been used. A good player produces a remarkable range of sounds from this simple drum, the three major rhythmic patterns being “el adominicao”, “el rodado” and “los tres golpes”.
Indigenous Indians are said to have contributed the guacharaca (guaracha) to the ensemble. The name of this scraper derives from a female peacock (wahasaraka) that inhabits the mountains, who’s call produces a similar rasping sound. Originally the scraper was made from a plant called the “little grape of tin” that was struck with an animal jawbone. In some areas the scraper was made from a sugar cane stalk. Today the guacharaca is a notched hardwood stick struck with a specially manufactured metal fork. Modern electric bands also use a hollow metal cylindrical scrapper that resembles a food grater.
While the music remained a mainstay in it’s home regions, around the 1940s vallenato began a roller coaster ride of national popularity and accelerated change. A highway linking the Northeast to Bogota had recently been completed, and students entering university brought their music with them to the capitol. In general, outer departments became less isolated, and in metropolitan areas venues became more plentiful with diverse audiences demanding a wide variety of styles. Postwar competition from other musical forms, including salsa, cumbia, western dance band music, and later rock, led to increased showmanship and ever expanding instrumentation. Probably the first new instruments to be introduced were the tumbadora, (Cuban conga drum) and the cowbell. Other instruments were gradually incorporated into the traditional trio bringing the number of players into the teens. Leading innovators included Julio Torres and Guillermo Buitrago, the later one of vallenato’s first big stars.
The tendency now is to view the 40s and 50s as a sort of golden age of vallenato. Master musicians emerged, like Leandro Diaz, Emiliano Zuleta and Alejandro (Alejo) Durán. These artists adapted while retaining enough traditional qualities to create a repertoire that is still actively performed. In the 50’s the lyricist Rafael Escalona elevated this folk form to high art, setting literary standards and exploring both subtle and blatant aspects of Colombian identity in song. While the music was thought to go into a quality decline in the next decade, one mid-60s pioneer was Caliya, who re-invented bass lines in both cumbia and vallenato music while performing with Los Corraleros de Majagual. In no other steady tempoed music, except perhaps classic reggae, is the bass so free form, so undeniably innovative and in a world of it’s own, as in modern vallenato.
By the 70s innovators like El Binomio de Oro and Los Hermanos Zuleta were constantly adding new instruments and updated their sound. Binomio, featuring singer Rafael Orozco (d:92) and accordionist Israel Romero, at this time resembled a salsa orchestra more than a vallenato trio, complete with rehearsed dance routines and backing chorus. They were heavily criticized for a ‘look’ that is nowadays quite common – electric organs, synths, guitars, brass, backup singers, Latin percussion and traps. Other well known artists of the decade include Nicholas ‘Colacho’ Mendoza, Gustavo Gutiérrez Cabello and Diomendes Diaz. The 70s was also a period of newly created wealth from the marijuana trade, largely centered in the same departments famous for vallenato, and bands now found themselves lavishly supported. But still the music remained largely regional, a lowbrow curiosity to the rest of the country. By the end of the decade as the prosperity of the region suffered a decline when cocaine replaced marijuana and the new Southern urban patrones favored salsa, vallenato was slowly gaining widespread radio play. With cumbia perceived as too “Black,” and salsa an import, vallenato took on a nationalistic role. And the television age further romanticized this music of outcasts, brothels and farmers.
The big push came in the early 90s with the airing of the tele-novella, Escalona. Here the life of the composer was played by a handsome young actor in tight jeans, Carlos Vives, who captured the imagination of the nation. Playing Escalona actually created an interest in the music for Vives, and soon he was recording and touring throughout the Americas with some of the best musicians. Vallenato was at it’s apex of popularity. Even politicians demonstrated their ‘common touch’ by quoting a lyric in a speech, wearing a straw vueltiao, or being photographed singing at a parranda. By 1995 Vives’ vallenato had evolved into an all encompassing pan-Colombian rock, with instrumentation that included Amazonian, Andean and local native Chimila Indian flutes and percussion. Other 90s innovators include Alfredo de la Fé, an American ex-pat who brought Latin violin improvisation to the form, and Armando Zabaleta who incorporated socialist themes into his “vallenato-protesta” The early 90s also saw the emergence of female fronted vallenato bands. One of the biggest selling was Las Musas Del Vallenato, led by the now separated Patricia Teherán and accordion playing Graciela Ceballos. Their version of the oft sung “Me Dejaste Sin Nada,” was irresistable. Other powerhouses of the late 90s include Esmeralda and Indira, while listeners all over the world have had an even greater exposure to vallenato with the release of Gloria Estefan’s 1995 CD, Abriendo Puertas (“Opening Doors”). This Latin album with a vallenato accent won the Grammy for best “Tropical Latin Performance,” featuring a title cut paseo and the accordion of Gonzalo A. “el Cocha” Molina.
Through all the changes vallenato has retained it’s focus on the lyrics and the accordion, even if now the duties are split between two artists, and regardless of the number of players in an ensemble. Band names still reflect these defining roles, although duos may only last the length of an recording. A top ten from Colombia in 1995 includes work by Miguel Morales y Juan David Herrera, Binomio de Oro, Diablitos, Diosas, Silvio Brito y Osmel Meriño, Fantásticos, Otto Serge y Rafael Ricardo, Tulio Zuloaga y Jorge Rojas and Diomendes Días y Juancho Rios. Valledupar 1998 biggest sellers include many of the above plus Fabián Corrales, Andrés Gil y “Paki” Cotes, Los Betos, Los Embajadores Vallenatos and Jorge Oñate.
Every Spring since 1968 Valledupar has hosted the annual Festival de La Leyenda Vallenata, Colombia’s largest vallenato competition. The festival was begun to preserve and reinvigorate the music, perceived by many to be in decline. Two of the countries heavyweights, poet Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Rafael Escalona, vallenato’s greatest modern composer, made sure the event got off the ground, and Alejo Duran was crowned the first ever, “El Rey Vallenato”. Here artists are judged by exacting standards to perform the four styles of traditional vallenato, with ensembles stripped down to the traditional three members, vocals to be performed by one of the instrumentalists. “Reys” (“Kings”) are chosen in three divisions, ninos (children), aficionados (amateurs, or professionals with out a recording contract) and professionals. There is even a section devoted to the “piqueria” where performers are given a theme to improvise around. Established artists seldom perform at the festival because they contend the results are rigged by record companies, politicians or drug lords. Certainly patronage pressure exists, but more often it’s the precise nature of the competition, with it’s insistence on form over creativity, as well as the potential embarrassment of loosing, that discourages better known, or hard drinking performers from entering the fray. But the real reason may be that the event offers handsome paydays to stars playing private parties (parrandas) during the festival.
The greatest legend of vallenato is that of Francisco Moscote, known as “Francisco el Hombre,” (“Francisco the Man”). While Francisco was apparently a real person, he personifies the “duel with the Devil” folk-tale common to many cultures. Born in Tomarrazon in the 1880s, Francisco was a celebrated accordionist who earned a living as a cowpoke on the appropriately named, “El Limbo” ranch. Feeling that he was, quite literally, going nowhere, he embarked on a sort of spiritual journey and purge into the mountains, rum and an accordion his only companions. Over the years he met and challenged many other itinerant musicians, defeating them all through his masterful playing and ability to improvise verse. Once, while making a long journey back to civilization to meet his future wife, a strong wind hit him full force as he rode his burro down out of the mountains. The wind, accompanied by sweet accordion music, lifted him out of the saddle, as only a quick instinctive stab for the saddle horn kept him from being blown away. His body now bobbing in the air, there appeared in front of him a tiny man with a wrinkled brow and sharp shinny teeth. Hovering effortlessly, the little man was playing the most fantastic accordion Francisco had ever heard. Francisco knew that such music was not of this earth, that the Devil himself was challenging him to do battle, and the dire consequences if he lost. With one hand still on his saddle horn and the accordion in his other, the floating Francisco defeated the devil in both song and playing.
Nearly every village storyteller in the Guajira Alta region tells this tale and there are numerous variations. Some fall back on religion, rather than virtuosity as Francisco saving grace, having him plays the Apostles Creed in reverse to render the anti-Christ helpless. Others acknowledge Francisco’s greatness, but believe you need both hands to outplay the Devil. By most accounts it seems Francisco was real enough, or metaphor enough, to be described as going mad from alcohol in his old age.
Authored by B. George, ARC Director and in the past a frequent visitor to Colombia. Big thanks to Jorge Arevalo, Paco De Onis, Camillo Pombo, and Charlie Matos for translations, insights, music and travel assistance.