If you have ever got a bus in South America, you will have experienced the joy that is vallenato – the accordion music that has been dubbed both an epidemic and the best thing that ever happened to Colombia. As alegre as it may be, it’s pretty hard to get some shut-eye on a night bus when that screechy accordion is blasting out the speakers.
I really think it’s the Colombian’s way of saying ‘up yours’ to the Europeans who brought it over in the conquista: ‘If you’re gonna give us an accordion, we’re going to damn use it. IN EVERY SONG WE EVER WRITE!’
I was in two minds about coming to Valledupar. I really don’t love vallenato music. Like really not at all. But I also realise it’s the main traditional music of this whole region of Colombia (3 departments – Cesar, Magdalena and La Guajira which used to all be Magdalena) so I had to take a look really…
I am really glad I did.
What I have realised very quickly is that the commercial sh*t I am hearing on the radio is not real vallenato. This is called ‘la nueva ola’ (the new wave) and is a real concern for vallenato purists who are worried that traditional vallenato is being phased out. Commercial vallenato brings in a lot of money, so even though young people want to keep the traditions going, the promise of dollar is just too much of a temptation…
Now I want you to imagine that someone from abroad is coming to do research in the UK. What would happen if you gave them the following advice?
1. People do not like to have notice for meetings in the UK. So just give them a ring on the day and ask them if they are free, even if they are complete stranger. They will be so happy to speak to you and will drop everything!
2. It is totally appropriate to walk into someone’s work place, into their very office and ask for a meeting there and then. People love it!
3. If you do ring someone in advance make sure it’s only a day or two – any more and they will be unable to commit or give you an exact time as it is too far in the future. Who know’s what they’ll be doing?
4. If you want to meet local heroes, hang around in coffee shops. They will probably come in and want to meet you and talk to you, or even take you to lunch!
5. Very famous people love to meet foreigners in the UK. It is totally appropriate to find out where they live and knock on their door for an interview. The taxi driver will know where to drop you. Don’t be shy.
6. Tourist offices are a good bet. Generally the secretary will have an address book of all the important people in that city and will ring them all for you to arrange meetings for that very day.
Can you imagine if you gave someone this advice in the UK? They would have a SHOCKER! But I think you know what I am getting at. This is exactly how you do research in Colombia. (I dread to think how Colombians cope in the UK if they haven’t had the low-down ‘Hola, good day can I espeak with er Dabid Cameron aplease? Ah okay, sorry for bothering you…’)
Yesterday I walked into a tourist shop and the lady sat down and did just that; pulled out her address book and rang about 15 people who might know about vallenato from journalists to musicians to historians. While I was there a historian walked in who had just written a book on ethnomusicology and vallenato and agreed to a meeting the next morning. Then a chap called Carlos came in, he’d been a journalist for 48 years researching vallenato. He took me for lunch and told me everything I needed to know. At lunch we met an artist who in one breath told me how Colombians like to invent things all the time and then that he was a first cousin of Garcia Marquez…. Carlos the journalist looked really unimpressed with this guy and as we left he told me that he was ‘loco’ and that his thoughts were all over the place.
When I got back to the tourist office there was a musician sitting there who had won the festival de vallenato recently. So we chatted for a bit and he told me that there were not many women in vallenato because it is a very demanding music and they do not have the physical strength to play the accordion. I asked if there were any women in Valledupar who were musicians and the lady said to go two blocks away to an office and ask for ‘Estela’. I said that I felt awkward marching into someone’s work unannounced and she was like ‘nooooooo! Of course you can do that!’ So I walked into this office and she was busy but told me I could meet her tomorrow. Meanwhile I was whisked up to another floor to meet a man in charge of trying to get vallenato recognised by UNESCO. He stopped everything to talk to me, sent me the draft of the plan, gave me about 10 CDs and books and told me to contact him if there was anything I needed.
Then the brother of our driver from a recent trip to La Guajira, a music producer, picked me up to go and meet Silvio Brito, one of the vallenato superstars, at his house. The taxi driver was so impressed that we were going there telling us he had the best voice of all vallenato singers. This guy was amazing. From a farming family, he used to hear his Dad sing all the time. When he was 16 he wrote a song dedicated to his Dad about how he wanted to be like him and sing like him when he was older. He got spotted and became an international (South America speaking) superstar. I have a video of him singing to me which I will upload later. (I look really awkward in this video)
I literally couldn’t believe it. I had turned up in Valledupar with NOTHING. No ideas. No contacts. Just a hostel booking and my uke. But it felt like a secret PA had set me up back to back meetings for the whole day. Do I have a secret PA? Seriously if you are out there and reading this, thank you. If this is just the Colombian way, I LIKE.
I the next couple of days I will be visiting two vallenato music schools for young people in Valledupar. More to come…
Dressing up as a local
Me and the lady in the shop – we look so cool!
Photo of García Marquez in the vallenato festival
Abrahan, the ‘storyteller’ and Carlos the journalist showing me some typical vallenato artwork over lunch
Silvio Brito and his family