Every year in late April the Colombian city of Valledupar comes to a standstill. This rural town of some 400,000 inhabitants almost doubles in size as visitors from the regional villages come to support their participants, and fans of vallenato music from all over the country and beyond come to join in the festivities. El Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata is a celebration of Colombia’s most popular traditional music genre. Founded in 1967, the festival culminates in the crowing of the Rey Vallenato (Vallenato King), the best interpreter of the diatonic accordion, the centrepiece of vallenato music. For five days the otherwise traditional, sleepy town is transformed into a folk music mecca with parranda (party) after parranda that often lasts well into the next day. Crowds flock onto the main squares to watch the competitors compete across four categories of accordion proficiency; professional, amateur, juvenile and infant. There is also a competition for best new composition as well as various parades and dances. The icon and pretty much the only drink you will find the locals sipping on is Old Parr, a blended scotch that comes second only to water even though it is relatively unknown to the rest of the world. The hospitality is breathtaking. The locals are very proud of their cultural heritage and many households demonstrate this by maintaining an open-door policy. If you pass by a parranda you will most likely be invited to join in and down a couple of shots of Old Parr. It is no wonder most consider it as Colombia’s finest festival. However it was not always this way.
The roots of vallenato date back to the late 19th century. At a time when communication was difficult and travel was arduous, the rural communities of the Magdalena, Cesar and La Guajira regions relied on messengers to pass on information and convey news. These messengers were in fact minstrels, “juglares” in spanish, a form of troubadours that would relay stories from village to village in the form of songs in exchange for food and drinks. Usually travelling on donkey or mule, the juglares would stay in each village for a few days, soaking up the gossip and messages to pass on to the next. The events they witnessed and the experiences they had would gradually develop into songs. At the turn of the century a new musical genre was born within the poorer classes of northern Colombia’s rural population and by the 1920’s the town of Valle De Upar (today Valledupar) would become its home.
Traditionally played with three instruments, vallenato is perhaps the music that best represents the cultural makeup of modern society. There’s the guacharaca, a wooden scraper, owning its origins to the country’s indigenous communities, the caja drum, testimony to the Afro-Colombian population, and finally the accordion, an instrument brought over by European immigrants and gipsies alike. Vallenato music would first be heard in Valledupar during colitas (tails), a type of after-party that the service staff would organise after their work at the formal events of the evening had ceased. Hearing the melancholic sound of the accordion and poetic stories, guests from the higher social circles were drawn in. However, in the Club de Valledupar, the main entertainment establishment that continues to this day, both the music and the accordion as an instrument were banned, making way for pianos, violins and waltzes.
Ironically it was in Bogota that vallenato gained momentum, as the capital’s intellectuals caught onto the catchy tunes and intriguing stories of life, love, heartbreak, and everyday struggles gripping the rural communities. It was actually a former president, Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, that became an authority on the genre and would later co-found the vallenato festival. A friend of the great composer Rafael Escalona, Michelsen and his colleagues were the seal of approval needed to make vallenato acceptable in its hometown. And as the colitas grew into parrandas vallenatas, the rest of the country slowly began taking note of this poetic and highly passionate music. As everything, vallenato needed a catalyst to ignite its popularity not only in Colombia but throughout Latin America. This catalyst was Carlos Vives, a pop singer and former actor. Much like Elvis popularised blues music in the Unites States and beyond, Carlos Vives would take traditional vallenato songs and give them a modern makeover. The results were spectacular. Two Grammy awards, 9 Latin Grammy awards and a shift in perception that would lead vallenato to overtake cumbia as Colombia’s representative music genre. All over the country, otherwise regionally isolated custom and culture wise, Colombians would party to and sing along to songs written by little known and often underprivileged composers from the plains of northern Colombia.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez once referred to his greatest work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, as a 400 page vallenato, a huge compliment and testimony to the music’s profoundness. Unfortunately, today vallenato music has metamorphasised into something else, the “nueva ola” or new wave as they call it. Much of the initial meaning has been lost as emphasis is given to straightforward and often meaningless lyrics in an effort to compete against reggaeton, the most popular genre amongst the young. However, during the five days of the festival, Valledupar pays homage to the great composers and accordion players of both past and present and reminds us that classic vallenato is not only alive and well but also remains of fundamental importance to the livelihoods of millions of Colombians living in and around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
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