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a little down in the mouth

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Colombian Music: Part 2 Salsa y Vallenato

In every conversation I get into at work about the impending trip to Colombia, I can always count on some cackling jackass to make the "cocaine joke". Granted Colombia's reputation for narcotrafficking and violence had been well deserved. But the character of Colombia was never defined by drug lords, or even the decades of political violence. All fruit both good and bad, has deeper roots in Colombia's history. Is it not strange that a country with such a bad reputation could rank second in a global index of happiness? Both side of Colombia need to be considered together, but since the happier side seems underrepresented in the media, let's continue with our musical tour and we may understand why Colombians have almost as many words for "party" as Eskimos have for snow...

You may have heard salsa from Cuban, Puerto Rico or Panama. Cuban salsa has the atmosphere of smoky steamy nightclubs. The salsa of the other two regions is similar only the digs are a little fancier.

Colombian salsa is music with a horizon. There is a soaring quality that strains against time and circumstance and the more jubilant the melody the more profound anguish it causes in the listener. This may be completely subjective so listen and let me know what you think.

While he is considered the Godfather of Colombia salsa Fruko shares his moniker with something most familiar to Colombians namely the native brand of ketchup. Despite the humble association, he has probably been the single most influencial person in Colombian popular music. He started at the age of 15 with the aforementioned Corralejas de Majagual. When he traveled to New York he was exposed to big band salsa and with his band Fruko and sus Tesos he launched a tradition of particularly Colombian salsa. This song El Preso shows his salsa is mighty. But he was also the empresario who founded the previously mentioned cumbia group Sonora Dinamita and made his label Disco Fuentes a pop powerhouse in Colombia for decades. His band also launched two major salsa artists. The lead singer of "El Preso", Wilson "Saoko" Manyoma was also in The Latin Brothers. They recorded one of my favorite salsas Sobre Las Olas. And Colombia's world champion salsero Joe Arroyo started with Fruko's band in the early 70s. He went on to a solo career and won the salsa competitions at the carnivals in Barranquia and Cali for years. A native Cartegenero, he has made a permanent place for himself in our family's folklore when he crashed a birthday party for my wife being held at someone's penthouse apartment in Cartagena. Rebelion tells the story of the slave trade in Cartagena. The video features some nice shots of the city. Musically it is one of the greatest of the Colombian salsas. His repetoire is deep and the distinctively expansive sound of the Colombian salsa can be heard in Bam Bam, En Baranquilla me Quedo and Pal Bailador.


Vallenato comes from a rural interior region around the city of Valledupar. It is said to have evolved from the songs of the troubadour cowboys of the region as they drove their herds from town to town. Vallenato composer Rafael Escalona was the prime mover in popularizing vallenato in the middle of the last century. He was a close friend of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and supposedly Gabo once told Escalona that his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was just a 350 page vallenato.

Before discussing vallenato further I have to fully disclose my current grudge against the genre. After I proposed in Colombia and had to return to the US without my fiancee, aside from a few letters photos and a small fortune in international phone card, all I had to cling to in my solitude were her vallenato mix tapes. This set up an indelible conditioned response that usually means upon hearing a vallenato I have to fight back tears. It somehow seemed appropriate then, now it's getting old, and tend to avoid the music altogether.

Currently for Colombians the most familiar voice is that of Diomedes Diaz whose talent is overshadowed by his trainwreck of a life [He makes Phil Spector look like an Eagle Scout]. His specialty is classic vallenatos based on a melodic accordion line and surprisingly sophisticalled insistent polyrhythms.

Vallenato went through a revival due to the singlehanded efforts of Carlos Vives. He grew up in Santa Marta, but his professional association with vallenato began when he played Rafael Escalona in a telenovela based on his life.

La Gota Fria is a good example of an old vallenato he has refitted as a pop song while being faithful to the spirit of vallenato. The title means "cold drop [of water]" and refers to a term we lack in English, but the French call "frisson". It's the chill one gets upon hearing a particularly beautiful piece of music.

Every famous vallenato singer need a virtuoso accordionist to embellish the mornful lyrics. Colacho Mendoza was considered the greatest accordionist of all time. Garcia-Marquez said that he was the best at interpreting the songs of Rafael Escalona. Although he hasn't shimmied with Shakira at the Latin Grammys yet, Tulio is keeping it real by using Alejandro Duran on accordion, who Colacho Mendoza defeated in a King of Kings of Vallenato competition. Here's another "old school vallenato" video of Duran.

One of my goals of this trip is to find one of those black and white vaquero hats that fit my calabasa gringon.

There are at least a dozen other distinct types of Colombian music, like the Andean bambucos and llaneros. Most are not my cup of tea. At some point I'd like to do a post on music from the Dominican Republic like merengue and bachata if there is any interest. Between now and the time I leave for Colombia I'll try to do at least one more post on costeño slang.

I feel like I've only scratched the surface of a culture of contrasts and contradictions. One could spend a lifetime trying to understand Colombia. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll try to do just that...

Posted by guest author: papijoe on Jun 20, 2007 8:58 am

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