Vallenato: Columbian Accordion Music

by Manuel Kalmanovitz


Vallenato is a musical genre from Colombia, developed near the Atlantic coast on a region called Valledupar (it is in the valley of a river called Upar, hence the name) that spread all over the country becoming the most popular genre.  The record Festival Vallenato 1968 Primer  Premio corresponds to the first festival they did in (obviously) 1968.  They still do those festivals today, at the end of April, and every year they crown a Vallenato King which usually is the guy who can do the most amazing things with his accordion.

The gravitational center of Vallenato groups is the accordion, an instrument that came into Valledupar along with German immigrants.  The usual way of playing the accordion was enriched with black and native musical forms, giving origin to this very unique music.  It wouldn't be far fetched to compare it to the blues: they are both rural genres, both take European instruments and make them sound the way they are not supposed to sound, and both have a strong rhythmic (black) component.

There is a page about Vallenato at http://www.uic.edu/~lmoya/vallenato.html

Nowadays there are several Vallenato group that have added synthesizers to the mix with horrible results in my opinion.  But there has also been a tendency to mix it with rock and other Latin rhythms and to turn it into something more easy to digest by a bourgeois audience.  Gloria Stefan, has some traces of Vallenato in that album in Spanish she made, and she is a good example of this trend.  There is also Carlos Vives, who is Colombian, and has had quite a successful international career.

I am really not an expert on this, but I am Colombian.  So I know this music because it's the kind of thing that bus drivers like to play in those long, long, long traffic jams during the rush hour.  I would be interested to know if anyone else has come across this kind of music, and their reactions.  For me it is impossible to hear Vallenatos as just music (that is without a context).  It has an emotional charge (not positive, I'm afraid)  that just doesn't let me do that.

It is different [from such working-class musics as polka, Tex-Mex, tejano, Creole, etc].  In all those genres you have a clear stomping tempo, so even the most rhythm-challenged person can dance to it.  Vallenato hasn't.  The lines of the bass guitar really go all over the place, because the accordion does all the work (melodies and bass) so the bass player can remain pretty 'uncommited' to the rest of the song.

The rhythm section consists of a drum (similar to a single conga) and a guy scratching something called a 'guacharaca', which makes a sound similar to that aluminium washing board used in Cajun music.

The singing, at least for my taste, is truly nerve-breaking.  Loud, shouty and very emotional.  Maybe it is because the poor singer has to compete volume-wise with all the other instruments. (Vallenato groups without electric amplification are quite common.)

The strange thing of Vallenato is that it is black popular music created in the coast that has become very big in the interior of Colombia, where there are not many black people and where the music of choice used to be Rancheras from Mexico.  And this has changed only in the last decade or so.

Having said that I don't like it, I have to accept that there are some very beautiful lyrics.  And also some (few) nice and quiet songs.


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