Out Of Colombia Hillbilly Music Goes Pop


Carlos Vives with acordeonero Egidio Cuadrado, performing in Valledupar, Colombia

Bogota, Colombia.  A soap opera heartthrob playing the lead role in a television series about the life of a lyricist of hillbilly music seems an unlikely recipe for a pop revolution.

But actor and singer Carlos Vives and the hugely successful TV series Escalona have turned vallenato — accordion music once considered too low class, too crude musically, too regional in its themes to find a large audience — into the hippest pop music of Colombia. In the process, Vives might be helping reinvent the sound, and rules, of Latin pop. And it’s coming this way.

“The problem never was the music but how it was presented,” said Vives, 32, in a recent interview. “People respond to honesty, to the simplicity of feeling. But, yes, the reaction has been a surprise.”
Vallenato — the word means “born in the valley” — stands for music but also the people and culture around Valledupar, the capital of the Cesar province in the northeast corner of Colombia. It comes from the Atlantic coast, a hot, lush place where Gabriel Garcia Marquez — the Nobel Prize-winning author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and himself a vallenato connoisseur — found his village of Macondo, Melquiades, Remedios the Beauty, the Buendia family and the magical, yellow butterflies that followed Mauricio Babilonia.
And why not? After all, some locals remember their elders talking about Francisco Moscote — Francisco el Hombre — a real-life virtuoso accordion player who, the story has it, beat the devil mano a mano by singing the Apostle’s Creed backward.
It is not entirely surprising, then, that Garcia Marquez once called One Hundred Years of Solitude “a 350-page vallenato.”

Once performed at gatherings in someone’s backyard, vallenato eventually moved into clubs and dance halls, though mostly within the region. Today Vives plays rock-style vallenato shows in stadiums before 60,000 people. Where established vallenato stars sell 150,000 to 200,000 copies of their albums, Vives’ Clasicos de la Provincia, a pop-rock dressing-up of some the great classics of the genre, has sold 1.5 million, fueled by the hit “La Gota Fria.” And the phenomenon seems to be gaining momentum.

Vives has already taken his brand of vallenato to Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Clasicos de la Provincia has sold 120,000 copies in Mexico, according to PolyGram, its international distributor; in little over a month, it went gold in the Hispanic market in the United States (in that market, gold translates into 50,000 copies sold.) Clasicos has just been released in Spain, will be out in Argentina and Chile in August and in the rest of Europe later in the year. Two videos are being readied for possible broadcast on MTV Latino this summer. And in August, Vives will visit the United States for two shows — Aug. 19 in Miami, the next day at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Vives credits the TV series Escalona, based on the life of vallenato poet laureate Rafael Escalona, with bringing the music to a larger audience. The show, which re-created life in the region in the 1940s and ’50s, helped “awaken in young people a new interest (in vallenato) because of all the imagery, the costumes, the whole period feel . . . and that gave the music a certain mystique.” Vives, who had previously released three albums of pop-rock ballads, recorded two albums of songs for the series soundtrack, then organized a sort of neo-vallenato-rock band featuring master accordionist Egidio Cuadrado, a true vallenato king.
On Clasicos, he set out to update the sound of some of the classics of the genre.
“I just wanted to show the possibilities of this music,” he says. He gave one track a reggae backbeat. Here and there throughout the album he added rock-style power chords, Andean flutes, a saxophone, and a drum kit. Purists cringed. Rock fans found something familiar yet new.

“Vallenato is more a feeling than a set of rules and regulations,” Vives says. “As long as we don’t change the feeling, as long as we tell stories, as long as we don’t get into the “Baby-baby-I-love-you” kind of lyrics, we’re going to be OK.”
German Carreño, director of Discos Fuentes, the oldest and largest Colombian record label, says Vives is reaching a new, different audience for vallenato. “He gave the music a modern sound that young people could relate to,” Carreño says. “Those 16-, 17-year-olds from the big cities are not going to be touched by rough-hewn rural music played by some beer-bellied old guy. Vives mixes it with rock, with reggae, but still maintains the roots feeling.”

Just as important, says Jose Arteaga, music critic for the Colombian national weekly magazine Cambio 16, “Vives has opened up people to something very, very special that had almost been lost (to) . . . commercialization (and) neglect.”
Former Colombian President Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, whose family has roots in the Cesar region, the cradle of vallenato culture, is a champion of the genre. Not only has he written and lectured on the subject, but in 1968 he helped found the annual Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata, a national showcase of vallenato.
Lopez Michelsen places the current popularity of the music in a larger context.
“Vallenato is almost an anachronism,” he says. “But in a country as tortured, as martyred as this, people are attracted to vallenato because it is music without blood, without violence, benevolent, optimistic.”

Traditionally played by a group featuring accordion, caja (a small drum) and guacharaca (a scraper made of cane), vallenato has a coarse skin and sweet heart.  A music of peasants — open-faced, deceptively unsophisticated — vallenato emerged at the turn of the century as a blend of African, European, and indigenous elements. It is decidedly regional. The isolation of the area (the first road connecting the region to Bogota was built in 1930) helped preserve the distinctive qualities of vallenato but also kept it from reaching a national audience. This, says Lopez Michelsen, began to change in the 1940s, aided by the first arrivals of students from the region to the capital.

Some consider the 1940s and ’50s the golden era of vallenato because of the work of creators such as Leandro Diaz, Juancho Polo
Valencia, Emiliano Zuleta and the late Alejo Duran.
“In the 1960s, there was competition for audiences with salsa and other rhythms, so vallenato had to adapt, add trumpets, timbales, electric bass. It became more of a show,” says Arteaga.Then came the ’70s, with groups such as El Binomio de Oro and Los Hermanos
Zuleta and such artists as Nicolas “Colacho” Mendoza and Diomedes Diaz.
Vallenato moved toward mainstream pop, both in sound and theme. It was also the heyday of the marijuana trade, which brought a lot of money into the region — and corrupted, some say almost destroyed, vallenato.
“The marimberos (marijuana smugglers) started to act like patrons of the musicians, hiring them for events, commissioning them to write songs,” says Arteaga. “And that changed all the dynamics of the creation and performance of the music.” Adds Enrique Santos Calderon, senior editor of El Tiempo, the largest national daily newspaper: “The most shameless use of vallenato has been by the marijuana bosses. Any self-respecting boss who hosted a parranda (house party) needed to get the best musicians. . . . It was a prestige thing. That a famous vallenato singer would salute them in a song was a big deal. And they would pay fortunes for that. So
in the middle of a song, you would hear ‘and warm greetings to so-and-so.’ ”

In the 1980s, with the decline of the marijuana trade and the ascent of the cocaine cartels, the dynamics changed again. “The group that kept the music alive was El Binomio de Oro — Israel Romero and Rafael Orozco,” Arteaga says. “They represent a commercial side of the music, no doubt, but Romero is a virtuoso of the accordion.”
Singer Orozco was murdered in 1992, but Romero has kept the group going. With its choreographed singers, timbales, percussion, brass, and keyboards, the ensemble suggests a flashy merengue band rather than an outgrowth of the disarmingly no-frills vallenato trios. Still, Romero sees the innovations by Vives as a continuation of El Binomio’s early work.
“Vives is a very good singer and a great presence on stage, but he can be innovative now because of what we did then,” Romero says. “(We) prepared the soil. The same people who criticized us when we did it are now cheering for Vives. These traditionalists that are now my best friends were our biggest detractors.”

Although widely danced, vallenato is, first and foremost, music to listen to.
“Yes, you can dance it,” says Jose Alfonso “Chiche” Maestre, a vallenato composer and performer now living in Hollywood. “But it’s a music so charged with emotion that you are compelled to listen to the lyrics.”
Classic vallenatos are chronicles of everyday life in a small town, retellings of news events, sung letters taken from place to place by wandering troubadours. Often composed by working-class poets who couldn’t read or write, these are lyrics of great elegance and wisdom.
So, a listener will hear of the heartbreak and guilt of Juancho Polo Valencia, who traveled to another town to get medicine for Alicia, his sick wife, stayed at a parranda too long, and returned home to find her dead. Or sense the indignation of a town after a beloved religious icon is stolen from the local church. Or hear Escalona pleading to his wife, La Maye, to forgive a certain indiscretion, while in another song, a friend of the poet weighs in, advising him to cut out the carousing.

Because every name has a face, a voice — indeed some of the characters are very much flesh and bone — the effect at times is that of listening in on a private conversation. In spite of this, perhaps because of it, vallenato has crossed regional and class lines
and is now becoming an international hit.
“It’s the same thing that happened with Garcia Marquez,” says Consuelo Arujonoguera, one of the founders of the annual festival in Valledupar. “It’s the old story of being universal by telling your small town’s stories. Garcia Marquez didn’t invent anything. He wrote down his grandmother’s tales. He was the record-keeper of the town.”

Regional roots aside, the phenomenon of vallenato suggests a larger trend. Inspired by the success of Bob Marley with reggae in Jamaica, a young generation of musicians in the Americas is re-creating the sound of Latin pop and rock — this time to their own image. It is worldly but rooted in local tradition. It takes its attitude from rock ‘n’ roll but its sound from a neighborhood party. It comes MTV-friendly but speaks the language of home. And it is finding a surprisingly large, avid audience.
Consider Dominican singer-songwriter Juan Luis Guerra, who is reinventing merengue and bachata, using sophisticated jazz harmonies, literate wordplay, and fastidiously crafted production. Or the Haitian group Boukman Eksperyans, blending Europop, rock, R&B, and jazz with the ritual rhythms of voodoo and obliquely political lyrics. Or Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jaime Roos, a precursor of this movement, who has been keeping alive the traditions of murga (carnival street music) and candombe (the black music of River Plate) by turning them into electric pop.
Some observers question the longevity of Vives’ brand of vallenato. Arteaga, the music critic, calls the phenomenon “an important fashion — but a fashion nonetheless.” But Carreño of Discos Fuentes believes it is more than a passing trend.
“What I see is a true change. There is something happening,” he says. “There was a generation out there that was hungry for something modern and hip but also different, substantive. That’s the audience Vives found.”
But Paul Ehrlich, PolyGram’s regional director of marketing for Latin music, is not as hopeful.
“It is an extraordinary phenomenon, but I think it is about Vives, not vallenato,” he says. “It is very hard to translate personal success to a whole genre in a market that is not traditional for the music. Juan Luis Guerra is huge in Spain — but this doesn’t mean merengue is. The Gypsy Kings sell millions of records in the United States, but you can’t say flamenco is established (there).”
Vives seems unconcerned.
“Some people think there are formulas, marketing strategies, but there aren’t,” he says with a shrug. “They think it’s a recipe: Put a bit of this and take a bit of that. (But) you can’t go about it that way. I have a deep feeling for that region. I was
born there, I grew up listening to that music.
“Listen, I don’t play folklore. I play folk-rooted pop music,” he says. “I think it can be done honestly. You can preserve a lot of the tradition but also do something new. I think that’s the secret of the popularity — although we are not clear about
what all this is about yet. We just need to go forward not backward.”


This feature appeared in Miami Herald, June 1994

Fernando González