When I started doing Music Mondays, I knew I’d have to feature vallenato at some point because it’s an integral part of the culture of coastal Colombia…but I was putting it off because while it’s a genre I hear constantly, I know nothing about it or its artists. Fortunately, my friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer James Everett III became a vallenato expert and aficionado during his 2 years living in Colombia, and agreed to help me out by writing the below overview of the genre. In future Music Monday editions, I’ll also share some more of his recommended artists/songs and more about those artists.
If you ask any costeño what music is the best representation of their spirit as a people, I can guarantee that most of them would tell you vallenato with little hesitation. So what exactly is this musical genre that so perfectly encompasses the soul of an entire region?
The name vallenato comes from the term used to refer to the people of the town Valledupar. This city, located in a valley near the Colombian Sierra Nevada, is the birthplace of vallenato, and the most famous vallenato artists still come from this valley. Vallenato in its origins was a form of music used by travelling farmers to deliver rhyming messages between towns. Imagine a weary group of fieldworkers from a nearby village arriving in your town and greeting everyone with something like:
“Now it’s time to skip town,
Because here comes a flood,
If you don’t want to drown,
You better hope that it’s a dud.”
The music was a way for farmers to both entertain and deliver valuable information to neighboring communities. These early songs used to be played with a variety of instruments: flutes, drums, guitars, and any other instruments on hand, but these early songs wouldn’t sound anything like the vallenato of today until the introduction of the most iconic instrument in vallenato: the accordion.
The German accordion was quickly embraced by farmers from Valledupar who were able to get their hands on them in the port city of Riohacha. The upper classes at the time snubbed the accordion and preferred more traditional instruments like the piano and violin. This was not the case amongst the humble farmers, who, despite their inability to read music, eagerly learned to play the accordion by ear. It quickly became a staple in their early vallenato songs along with two other instruments: the caja (a small drum of African origin) and the guacharaca (a ribbed stick that is scratched with a pick to emit a scraping sound). To this day, these are considered the three principal instruments of vallenato. In some ways these instruments represent the multicultural influence that created vallenato. The caja drum represents the Afro-Colombian community and the guacharaca the indigenous community, two groups which were essential in creating vallenato.
With its new trio of instruments vallenato quick developed four distinct rhythms (puya, son, paseo, and merengue) and grew wildly in popularity amongst the working class. In the early 1900’s it was still very much seen as the music of the country bumpkins by people from cities and the upper classes, especially with vallenato’s emphasis on local slang and their lifestyles. This didn’t last for long, however, because by the 1950’s, vallenato was already starting to spread in popularity to people outside of the farming class and within other parts of the country. Maybe it was vallenato’s dancing-friendly rhythm, or perhaps its lyrics which spoke to the every-day man, but once it started spreading it only needed one final push to really become iconic in Colombia. This push came in the form of a legend: Diomedes Diaz.
It isn’t like there weren’t great and famous vallenato stars before Diomedes, but there was never anyone quite like him, and it would be fair to call him the “Elvis” of vallenato (strangely enough, when I told a Colombian this they responded with: “He wasn’t the Elvis of vallenato, Elvis was the Diomedes of Rock” to emphasize his reign within his genre). The “Cacique de la Junta” was born in a small town near Valledupar called La Junta to an extremely humble family of farmers. He started singing along with his uncle who was an accordion player, and that’s where the legend began.
Diomedes in many ways represented all of the best and the worst of his culture through his music. He was happy and free and sang about parties and alcohol, love and infidelity, marriage, divorce, his Catholic faith, his love for his children (at least a few of the 28 documented children that he fathered), and his love for his country. He was never quite a role-model, and was a regular drug user, womanizer, and potential murderer (he was convicted with the manslaughter of a 17 year-old girl who supposedly overdosed while partying with him and his gang). None of this changed the fact that he was a lyrical genius, who could use his songs to tell stories that reached the hearts of millions of Colombians. He created pure poetry, and even those few people who recognize the negative aspects of Diomedes would never deny that he was revolutionary to the genre.
Near the end of his life and after his drug-related death, a new wave of vallenato started. The leader of this new movement was a young sentimental singer from Valledupar named Kaleth Morales. He changed the feel of vallenato music and made it more accessible to a younger generation. Although he died very young in his career, his legacy is continued by other “new wave” vallenato singers such as Silvestre Dangond and Martin Elias (the son of Diomedes). Young singers such as Carlos Vives were also responsible for making vallenato popular on an international scale by creating “vallenato-pop” with new rhythms and instruments.
Vallenato continues to change and grow every day. It is officially recognized as an important piece of cultural heritage, and even has its own festival every year in Valledupar. This festival brings together the best talents in vallenato music, and every year a “Rey Vallenato” is crowned as the best accordion player at the time. New talent is born every moment, and although the genre may change, one thing will remain the same: Vallenato will always reflect the spirit of Colombia and the soul of the region.