Rehearsal in the hot afternoon sun in Valledupar
So my secret PA was clearly enjoying some annual leave on my second couple of days in Valledupar… Of my five meetings planned the day before, only ONE of them happened!
I must be honest that two of them were cancelled by me (!) One thing I am learning as my research progresses is to say NO. Because everyone wants to help you, it is tempting to take everyone up on their offers, but I also have to ask myself ‘is interviewing this person who is friends with a guy who may have once picked up an accordion ten years ago the optimum use of my time?’ When you first arrive somewhere, you don’t know who you are going to get the chance to meet or interview, so you have to say yes to whatever comes your way, but in Valledupar I was spoiled for choice!
I really hate cancelling arrangements though. And I do believe in sticking to things. But when they’ve only been organised a few hours earlier, it somehow doesn’t seem so drastic… The first time I cancelled an arrangement in Colombia I had a mini-breakdown about it. When my friend asked me why I felt bad and I said ‘it looks unprofessional’ he gave me a really strange look. Teach for Austria values (and Gebhard’s voice) are still very much in my head. ‘Professionalitaet!!!!’
So instead of rushing around the city interviewing three people (I am also learning not to RUSH here!) I took my time to interview ONE person. And she was an absolute legend. Since being in Colombia a side-topic that I have become really interested in is women in music (or lack of). This is obviously not my main focus, but it is something that I cannot help but absorb. So it was so refreshing to meet Estela Duran Escalona, niece of the late Rafael Escalona, a very famous vallenato composer. We met for coffee in her office and had a good chat about women in the vallenato music industry. She explained that it was a very male dominated realm and through family connections she was invited into the circle to sing with her brother. Until then having a female singer in vallenato was unheard of but she was surprised at how welcoming the scene had been to her as a woman: The problem is not that women are not welcome in the industry, it’s just that they don’t think to participate. She told me that they are now having a separate vallenato competition just for women, and for young girls as well. Times are changing slowly… I’m going to type up our interview when I get back to the UK because I think it will be a really interesting read. I asked her to sing something and she just sat on the sofa in her office and performed for me, while her co-workers just got on with their daily tasks. I thought it was really funny but she thought nothing of it!
Estela holding a photo of herself with her late uncle
I also had the pleasure of visiting two music schools where children come to learn traditional vallenato. They choose either the accordion, the guajaracha, the drum or singing.
A girl playing the Guajaracha
One school in particular blew me away! The kids were just so talented and you could see they really felt the music. I watched two brothers aged 10 and 12 perform for about ten minutes and it was so beautiful. The twelve year old literally beamed the whole way through, dancing with the accordion around the room, improvising with a dexterity in his fingers of a professional, and his brother, slightly in his shadow and a bit more modest just sang with such purity… I was honestly gobsmacked!
The teachers at the school were really welcoming and I took advantage of the complete lack of structure of the lessons to bag myself a ten minute accordion lesson. MAN it’s hard! I have such a new found respect for all vallenato music now! I managed to master a little tune though and they all said I’d picked it up well. Woop!
I then met the head of the school, Turco Gil, a very modest man who has achieved great things with his vallenato school. He took his children to the White House and performed for Bill Clinton in 1999 and was proud to tell me that every time Bill Clinton visits Colombia he requests a performance from these kids – what an achievement!
An impromptu performance broke out in the office between staff and pupils, and I realised that the kids were improvising lyrics about me! Vallenato has a thing called Picardía, where two people improvise lyrics back and forth – a bit like a rap battle. This twelve year old was singing to me about my beautiful blue eyes so I sang back ‘thank you for your song, but I could be your mother.’
I bumped into my journalist friend Carlos again at lunch and I think he was a bit bored because he insisted on chaperoning me everywhere (was mostly going shopping so I bet he regretted that!) I was supposed to go to a big vallenato concert in the evening but of course it was cancelled so instead I sat in my hostel with some people from Vienna, playing the ukulele! Not too bad an alternative.
I was quite sad to leave Valledupar – it was one of the most welcoming places I have been in Colombia. Everyone was so happy to help, so honoured that I wanted to find out about their culture and I also really loved learning the accordion! Definitely somewhere to earmark to go back to – although I feel like I have said that with every place I have visited in Colombia!
Beginner’s guide to Vallenato
1. The origins are from the time of the conquista when the accordion was introduced. The Spanish moved along the Río Magdalena stopping at each town and mixed songs, stories and traditions with the locals. The Spanish also introduced the concept of rhyme which is a key element in vallenato.
2. Traditional vallenato consists of four instuments: accordion, guajaracha, drum and voice. Modern vallenato has many more instruments, sometimes whole orchestras.
3. It was a completely male dominated music – groups of men would gather together for a ‘paranda’ and sing songs, share new compositions, drink trago and eat good food. Women were to attend to them, but were not involved musically. In fact women are still extremely unrepresented in vallenato music (more on that in next post).
4. The lyrics were typically ‘costumbrista’: about the daily life and customs of the people. Now they are much more about unrequited love and can have quite crude content.
5. Vallenato was empirical: songs were handed down from generation to generation and no-one really studied it. Now there are vallenato schools all over the region.