Vallenato: The Rhythm of a Lively Culture

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If there is one thing that perfectly portrays Colombia’s Caribbean region, it is the Vallenato. With a humble origin down the coasts of Colombia, it has captivated hearts worldwide and has become one of the country’s many gifts. Today, we’ll learn about this romantic music genre and the city that saw its birth: the famous Valledupar.

When we walk down the identical streets of the city of Valledupar, we’ll encounter many things. From different stunning statues throughout the city to exciting museums and street art, everything in Valledupar has the essence of Vallenato in it. Even the people are as passionate and romantic as the rhythm of their favorite music genre.

A yearly celebration that honors Vallenato is held in this city. The Vallenato Legend Festival represents an important event for the whole country. Millions of people gather together to enjoy performances of the biggest Vallenato icons.

Three of the biggest Vallenateros of all times. Sculpture in Valledupar, Colombia

Vallenato has existed for a long time. If we tried to trace it down, we would have to look back two hundred years, at least. Like many other folkloric music genres, it started as something that was only enjoyed by the lowest classes. That takes us back to our main question: How did Vallenato get so important? Let’s explore the answer as we start from the very beginning, and then let’s take a look at what Colombians think about this particular genre.

What is Vallenato?

Before we start going on about its history, we have to clarify what this foreign concept is. Vallenato was initially a music genre, but it has slowly become much more than that: a movement, a tradition, a lifestyle for some.

Sticking to the theory, we can say that it is a romantic music genre that resulted in combining other genres and different influences. Afro-Colombian, European (especially Spanish with the composition and German with the accordion addition), and indigenous influences.

The lyrics of the Vallenato represent a considerable part of its worth. Three preferred instruments accompany the voice: the accordion, the guaracha, and the caja vallenata. These last two are percussion instruments with indigenous origins.

Within the rhythms of Vallenato, we can find the paseo, merengue, puya, son, and tambura. All of these are Caribbean movements that are popular for their smoothness and enjoyability.

The natural crib of this genre is the coastal region of Colombia, especially the departments of César, Magdalena, and La Guajira. Without any doubt, the ultimate Vallenato location is Valledupar, which is the World Capital of Vallenato.

Museum of the accordion, Valledupar

As our Latin Spirit team went across the streets of Valledupar, we asked locals what they felt about Vallenato. A smile would cross their minds as we mentioned the word, and feelings would start to come from every part of their bodies. Many of them agreed that Vallenato is a part of their identity. Experiences that could count as their own are told in the lyrics of this music.

Locals would find themselves, their times of joy and sadness, within the accordion’s melody and the songs of their favorite Vallenato Kings. It is not a mystery nor a taboo: they are Vallenato. And this statement is so true that the official name for the habitants of Valledupar can be no other than Vallenato.

But where did all of this come from?

What is the origin of Vallenato?

As we already stated, Vallenato has been present in the Colombian lifestyle ever since they can remember. Nowadays, almost every costeño (people from the coastal part of Colombia) sings a vallenato at least once a day, and they know that the main instrument is the accordion. But even though modern Vallenato relies on the accordion to exist, it has not always been like that.

There are not many records about the reliable origin of Vallenato. We know Vallenato is from La Guajira and that it has been around for at least 200 years; historians can’t agree on its actual beginning.

It’s a fact that it started during colonial times, and it was kind of a past-time for two of the most marginalized classes. Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians would come together and, inspired by the traditional Spanish chant, would improvise their own songs. Their traditional instruments spiced things up as the parties grew more prominent: the guacharaca and the caja vallenata were two percussion instruments present in every vallenato performance.

Handmade flutes and guarachas, two of the original instruments of Vallenato

The accordion was probably not even yet invented by the time Vallenato came around. However, the Spanish guitar became popular during the XVIII century, and the vallenateros that could afford it did not think twice before adding it to their genre. That means that as surprising as it can be for some, Vallenato was loyal to the guitar during its early times.

Everything changed at the end of the 1800s when the Germans brought their beloved accordion to Riohacha, a coastal city near Valledupar. The restless fingers of Colombians were eager to try this new invention and were surprised when it ended up being a perfect match. The accordion’s arrival marked the beginning of a new, unstoppable era in Colombian music.

The Accordion as a Game-Changer in Vallenato

As the accordion arrived and the Vallenato started gaining its own structure, people became more approving. No longer a matter of lower classes, it was common to hear it during the colitas. Colitas were, basically, a vintage version of an after-party. They were the meetings and dances that would happen after important events such as weddings or baptisms.

They represented a meeting point between all people, no matter their social or economic status. People would sing and dance together, following the accordion’s flow and the beat of the caja vallenata. Perhaps one of the main reasons Vallenato stuck so hard is because it is a direct synonym of union and togetherness.

The truth is that it was a total revolution, both social and musical. The techniques that the Colombian musicians were using did not match the German ones at all. Although the European influence was there, Vallenateros managed to give their own touch to the whole experience. One of the main characteristics of Vallenato is that, as opposed to other music genres, it uses both sides of the accordion.

Vallenato did not only gain popularity among the parties; it also earned its place in the folklore and local beliefs as it seemed to be everywhere. The Vallenato became a way of communication; some messengers would travel around the different cities singing the news and updates of relevance. They could deliver any messages; love declarations, meaningful information about the town, or more personal ones about people falling ill or dying. There was no limit.

Common folks were delighted to see this new form of delivering messages. This caused them to become used to hearing Vallenato everywhere they went eventually. And, that’s how, little by little, it became an essential part of their definition of home.

Legends and Myths about Vallenato: Francisco el Hombre

It was not a surprise when Vallenato started appearing in the common culture. Since it was so heavily attached to the coastal region and its people, it was a matter of time until people began to include it in urban legends and nighttime stories.

One of the most important legends of Vallenato is the one about Francisco el Hombre. It tells the story of Francisco, an accordion player that had the habit of playing his instrument while traveling on his donkey.

One day, he was playing calmly on his way home to make the trip feel shorter, as he was used to. That day was different, though, because at one point, he started hearing someone else playing a similar melody to the one he was playing, but in a much more complex way. He listened carefully and eventually responded, trying to outstand the mysterious music.

As he was playing, he could see his competitor appearing in front of him. The Devil himself greeted Francisco El Hombre with a witty smile and proceeded to take his turn playing. He played a melody so intense, so complete, and beautiful that Francisco thought he had no chance of winning. But at the very last second, an idea crossed his mind.

Francisco began singing a famous prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and accompanying it with a very well-worked melody. There was one trick, though: the prayer was recited from the end to the beginning. The result was magnificent, and the Devil knew that he had lost. He left with an explosion, and Francisco El Hombre became a legend.

Festival of the Vallenato Legend

Once Vallenato started being a part of daily life, it never stopped growing. Masters of Vallenato would arise every day as they wrote history.  In 1968, Vallenato took a more significant step into Colombian culture.

Thanks to one of the most acclaimed Vallenato artists, Rafael Escalona, the essential contribution of the culture manager, and the governor’s immense support, the Cesar department inaugurated the first festival dedicated to this beloved genre: Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata.

Picture by: Policia nacional de la Colombianos

This event’s primary purpose was to honor this genre, showcase it and offer it to the country. Nowadays, the Vallenato Festival is probably one of the biggest events in Colombia.

In the Vallenato Festival, a Vallenato Queen is picked based on her beauty and grace, and a Vallenato King based on his accordion skills. Composition, technique, and performance are all judged at the moment of picking a Vallenato king.

Nowadays, the Vallenato Festival is celebrated during the last week of April for four or five days. Besides the choice of a Vallenato king, there are also other performances of national and international artists. It is organized by the Foundation of the Vallenato Legend and attracts thousands of tourists from Colombia and other countries.

Vallenato during Modern Time

As we have already seen, Vallenato has not stopped evolving since its birth. Today it is more significant than ever and has no struggle at adapting to modern tastes. By still being loyal to its roots, it has been molded by modern exposers to fit today’s demand.

New sub-genres such as techno-vallenato or vallenato pop are popular in clubs. Young people in Valledupar (and all over Colombia) are still enjoying the same music as their grandparents did. The only difference is how it is presented, but its romantic lyrics and accordion presence remain intact.

As examples of exponents of this new modern wave of Vallenato, we can name Carlos Vives, Silvestre Dangond, or even Martín Elías. This last one is the son of one of the biggest legends in the genre: Diomedes Díaz.

As of Valledupar, Colombians rejoice in living the vallenato culture every single day of their lives. The love and passion for their music are palpable on every street, on every interaction. And that feeling is never going away.

By Michelle

By Michelle

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