If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – my journey to the orígen of vallenato



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


La Barra – a search for lost traditions


It was a typical Colombian scene.

I must remember ‘ahorita’ does not mean ‘now’, or anywhere close to it!

If someone says that something is happening ‘ahorita’ it can mean in a few hours, a few days, even the following year eg. ‘ahorita en febrero.’

If someone says ‘we’re leaving now’ in England you are usually rushing for your coat and scrambling around trying to find your wallet and keys, which you have probably lost. The other person, or people will be waiting impatiently at the door, slightly ajar, letting in the cold air to hurry you up as you scurry out behind them, coat probably on inside out, apologising for being late again (or so my less punctual English friends have told me 😉 )

But HERE. When someone saying ‘we should get going’, I get my stuff together and sit by the door. And then I realise that I have no idea of the time frame. And I wait. And I don’t want to ask how long because they won’t know, no-one knows. Time does not really exist here…


So Ruben and I were heading for the Pacific Coast. It’s a little bit dangerous to go there at the moment but I really really wanted to see it because of all the music I had  been listening to. Ruben spoke to a friend of his and the north is a complete no-go because of strikes, guerilla presence and it just would not be wise for someone of my colour and gender to go romping about there. So we settled for the part near Cali in Valle de Cauca.

Now I know I take a long time to leave the house but Ruben is off the scale! I was a little anxious because in my Lonely Planet it said that there were three boats a day from Buenaventura at 10am, 1pm and 4pm.. Doing my backwards planning I realised we were really cutting it fine. Ruben looked at my guide book, ‘is that English? In Colombian time it won’t leave ’til later.’ I thought that perhaps the guys at the Lonely Planet had done a wee bit of research and hadn’t just typed random times for a laugh but to be honest, and with my experience of Colombian timing so far, Ruben was probably right.

The ride to Buenaventura was incredible and reminded me of the Cuenca to Guayquil route in Ecuador where you travel from mountainous cities through jungle down to the coast. This journey was made particularly amusing as it was Halloween so everyone was dressed up: in every tiny village and road side bar there was a superman, a princess, a catwoman. If I hadn’t known the date, I might have made some erroneous generalisations about the local dress of this part of the world.

We got to Buenaventura and got a taxi straight to the port. ‘The last boat has already left,’ the lady at the ticket desk said. ‘There are three boats, at 10, 1 and 4.’ I gave Ruben a smart-arsed smirk and he looked a bit annoyed. ‘Well, I thought there would be boats!’ To be fair to him, in high season they do tend to have more boats, but this was not our time.

So we had to spend a night in Buenaventura which is a pretty horrible, noisy, harbour town. It didn’t feel safe, there was torrential rain and it was hard to sleep with the incessant noise from the row of bars and the car horns throughout the night. I was glad to get onto our boat the next morning.


La Barra

To get to La Barra, reportedly the best beach in this part of the coast, we had to take a boat from Buenaventura to Juanchaco (should take 40 mins but took almost 2 hours as the motor broke a couple of times), then a motorbike to Ladrilleros, then walk down to La Barra. The road was so muddy because of the rain that we had to keep getting off the bikes to walk, while the motorists ploughed through the terrain. In the end we thanked them and walked the rest – it was going to be a lot quicker.

We finally got to La Barra, a black sand beach with a population of about 500 people. It’s a fishing village and the pace of life is SLOW. In fact there was a film made about this place and I think it sums up the life there perfectly. It’s in Spanish, but the cinematography is beautiful and it’s worth a look. It’s called ‘El Vuelco del Cangrejo’ and features ‘Cerebro’ one of the locals there who took us out on his boat.

Trailer with English subtitles is here if you want to get an idea of the landscape and people:

And the whole film is here

As soon as I got onto the beach a tiny kid ran up to me and hugged my leg and just wouldn’t let go. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen! Later a girl came up and held my hand and walked along with me for a bit. Then she bit it so I gave her my teacher’s glare and she walked off (still got it!) There were kids everywhere, all running up to us offering us accomodation at increasing prices. We walked though a bit of jungle, then onto the beach again. There were wood fires cooking almuerzos and a few fishing nets strewn along the sea front.

After walking and sweating in the humidity and midday sun, we settled for the cabanas Donde Alex, a young chap who proudly told us he’d left home at 16 to set up a life of his own. (But his family still lived in the village, about 3 minutes away, and they brought him a lot of meals.)


The concept of time and distance here was really funny. We went into a shop and asked where the bakery was. The guy looked horrified ‘oh, muuuuuuy lejos!!!’ (really far). Ruben asked how long ‘like 5 minutes away! Or LESS!’ (It was or less that I loved. As if that was even further.) It was about two minutes away. Shall we all just chill out a bit.

I told this story to Alex, because I thought it was quite funny. He went serious. ‘My parents live three minutes away and it feels like FOREVER.’ Wowza. Never EVER move to work in London, Alex. Just stay clear.

So far in La Barra I had not seen a lot of music so I asked Cerebro, the guy from the film if there was anyone in the village who played anything.

‘I’m a musician,’ he said. ‘I play the marimba, drums, guitar….’

‘Great! Maybe we can have a jam later!’

He made a non-committal face. ‘Maybe… there isn’t really much tradition of that anymore around here. We play when the tourists come in December, when they pay us. But otherwise no-one really plays.’

I thought this was so sad. As we walked off, Ruben told me that this was happening in many places in Colombia. That Toto la Momposina went back to Mompox and cried because all the musical traditions had been lost from her village…

Alex later told us that up until a few years ago, Cerebro used to host bonfires on the beach and everyone from the village would come and listen to him play music, tell stories, jokes. And why have these stopped? The village got access to television. Now the only music you hear is the sound of the gameshows, or the music videos. As you walk through the village everyone is sat looking at a TV screen. This whole tradition is lost. (If you click on the film link, you see these bonfire parties at 24 minutes).

I spoke to Cerebro about these bonfires the next morning before he took us out in his boat through the manglares to visit the aguas dulces, natural pools of clear water. As he talked he seemed to be far away, remembering a time when things were different. I suggested that we had a bonfire that night, Ruben could bring his guitar, me my uke, we could share stories. He laughed: ‘maybe…’


As we went on the boat deep into the jungle, Ruben tried to get him to tell us some of his stories. ‘I can’t remember any.’

‘Or a verse or a song?’

As he rowed he told us some verses, they were all there, and he started to loosen up.

The tide changes so quickly in La Barra. In the early morning the sea is completely still, but by midday when we were returning the waves were getting quite lively and the strip of beach that links the jungle to La Barra was almost completely underwater. We picked up a guy who was standing on the last few square meters of sand in his wellies waiting for a ride. Not sure what would have happened if we hadn’t been passing! Don’t think he knew either.

The bonfire didn’t happen. And we didn’t see any music. But I think I learned a lot about the traditions of this place. In December ‘when the tourists come’ the town comes to life. In some ways I am glad I got to learn the hard truth, rather than have some romanticised version of life in La Barra.

We did see a lot of kids though: running around swinging machetes like they were yo-yos, cutting down coconuts ‘pipas’ from the trees to give us to drink, playing hopscotch outside their houses or just sitting outside the empty disco listening to very loud reggaeton. One girl was doing her homework and just sat there painting each page of her cuaderno with bright green paint. She then decided to paint me so I let her do a manicure. To be fair, it was probably as good as I could have done! I saw a little drummer boy of about 2 years old who had a tub and two sticks and was a born percussionist.ImageImage

There was no internet at this place and when I got back to reality I had quite a few panicked emails from my family asking if I was okay. I felt very touched that they cared so much but also slightly worried that 3 days off facebook and my parents were about to send out a search party…

Todos Somos Pacífico – a beginners guide to Colombian music from the Pacific Coast

I can´t believe that less than two months ago I had no idea about the music from the Pacific coast of Colombia: now it seems to be all I am listening to!

The Petronio Álvarez music festival back in September was my initiation and since then I have had the opportunity to interview and watch in rehearsal some of the influential musicians in this Pacific music scene, and more recently I got to travel to the Pacific coast itself.


                The festival in Cali in September. Todos Somos Pacífico has a double meaning. It means ´We are all from the Pacific´ but also ´we are all calm, tranquil, peaceful.´

In the next couple of posts I will be leaving you with lots of beautiful music to listen to to help get you through the winter months with a bit of Colombian spirit!

Where? What?!

I thought first it might be an idea to give you a sense of the size of the Pacific region of Colombia: as you can see it covers four different departments from the border of Ecuador right up to Panama. 

A rainy morning in Cali with GRUPO BAHíA

Back in October I got the chance to visit Grupo Bahía in rehearsal, led by marimbista extraordinaire Hugo Candelario. Hugo is one of the pioneers in bringing Pacific music out of the pueblos and making it heard across the rest of the country, and across the world. His group have won the Petronio Álvarez festival  numerous times and this year the festival was actually dedicated to him! So it was a great privilege to be invited to his house to watch the group in rehearsal in Cali. Hugo has such an incredible energy and charisma and it is impossible not to start bouncing around to the music. Their songs are all his own compositions but firmly based in the traditional music.

After the rehearsal I was fortunate enough to have time to interview Hugo, just as a huge rainstorm was starting. In fact, I struggled to listen back to some of the recording because the wind was so loud! When the storm broke out, we abandoned the interview and instead Hugo taught me a few simple tunes on the marimba. Jamming with a marimba legend, on a rooftop in Cali with the rain crashing down around us has got to be a highlight of this musical adventure…


Linda Caldas, singer and Hugo Candelario, marimbista and director of Grupo Bahía

Hugo was born in Guapi on the coast of the Cauca region which was a town rich in folklore so he grew up playing music. This is something that has struck me about this music; it is very accessible. Children are exposed to the melodies and rhythms and have no choice but to have music in their veins!  His studies took him to various parts of the country but he finally settled in Cali, which is where Grupo Bahia is based.

The group started back in 1992 with only 2 people and had their big break in 1995 when they won the first ever Petronio Álvarez festival which meant they got the chance to make a CD and get their music out there. He is now working with 3 different additional groups: the Bahía Trio (chonta, tambor and singer) which is more experimental, working with orchestras (tropical music) and The Bahía Ensemble which is more latin jazz.

You can see some clips here:

  • Bahía Trio:
  • Grupo Bahía with the Orchestra Sinfonica del Valle   (San Antonio is a traditional song which is sung at the funeral of a child)

What is so special about these recordings is that this is a music that until very recently was not recorded, not written down but simply passed down aurally from generation to generation. Bringing a marimba out of the pueblo and putting it on a stage was a big step but an important one:

´Hay que sacar los instrumentos más tradicionales (como la marimba) y hacerlos conversar con los instrumentos más orquestrales sin miedo.´

(We have to take the most traditional instruments (such as the marimba) and put them in contact with the most orchestral instruments and we have to do this without being scared.´)


Percussionists in Grupo Bahía

Regional variations

Hugo explained to me a bit about the different regions of the Pacific. In the north region, Chocó, the music is much more upbeat and ´bailable´ (easy to dance to). The main genre there is the Chirimía which uses a clarinet, a tambora and platillas – like a jazz band but with a much simpler musical format. The following video is one I took at the Fiestas de San Pancho which were brought to Cali one weekend in October. The influences up here are still quite European and lots of rhythms such as polkas, mazurkas brought over by the priests still exist in the music.

Music from Chocó


Chirimía musicians in the Fiestas de San Pacho

In the south the music tends to be much more slow and spiritual. One of the styles here is called Aguabajo (downstream) which are songs that the fishermen sing as they row home down the river. The Pacific coastline has no roads so you can only travel by ´lancha´. Here is one of Grupo Bahía´s aguabajos called Te vengo a cantarAs you listen to it try and imagine you are rowing downstream after a long travel from another fishing village on the coast…

I asked Hugo what his music meant to him culturally, and if there was a deeper message.

´Implícitamente hay un lamento por la historia de la esclavitud. Hay un lamento fuerte, cada vez menos, pero el lamento es allí. La música es un anhelo y deseo de libertad. Vas a una discoteca y esta sonando salsa y de repente suena un tema del pacífico y el ambiente cambia, la gente siente algo…´

(Implictly there is a sadness for the history of slavery. There is a really strong sense of sadness, increasingly less, but it´s there. The music is  a longing and desire for freedom. You go to a disco and they´re playing salsa and then suddenly a song from the pacific comes on and the mood changes, the people feel something…´)

(I saw this happen in a salsa club in Cali – it was the Colombian equivalent of Three Lions coming on during the World Cup.)

Grupo Bahía in rehearsal

Here is a video I took during the rehearsal. The style of music is called Currulao and one of its distinguishing features is the two time against three time (or the hemiola for you technical musos). The music is in 6/8 but it means that sometimes you seem to be counting in 2, and then suddenly in 3, and then both at the same time.

In the following clip at about 1.20 you can hear the music change very clearly into 2 and then at 1.27 the 3-time layer is added producing a pretty complex rhythm. The 2 against 3 is an African influence. According to Hugo you see a real fusion of culture in Pacific music: the rhythms are African, the melodies are indigenous and the text is usually European.

It´s worth noting that the instrumentation in this band is not wholly traditional. The key elements of Pacific music are the marimba, the bombo and the guasá (what Linda the singer is shaking) but the drum kit, piano and guitar are later editions to the group.

Leaving a legacy

It´s safe to say that over the last 20 years Grupo Bahía has become a tradition and musical reference in itself. Hugo describes the group as an ´escuelita: una famila´ and many emerging artists have passed through him. Choc quib town and Herencia de Timbiqui are two such groups, the second of which I also was lucky enough to see in rehearsal.

  • Listen to Cho quib town´s modernised version of the traditional song San Antonio here
  • Herencia de Timbiqui are another group who have been rising to fame through the Petronio Álvarez festival and who I maganed to catch in rehearsal. Here you can see one of their most popular songs, another aguabajo.


Herencia in rehearsal last month

  • And this is Herencia working with Quantic, Colombia based UK DJ who has been doing some incredible productions of Pacific and Tropical music.
  • And one last track, the incredible Nidia Gongora singing on a Quantic track. I saw her perform in Cali and she is just incredible! 

As I was leaving I asked Hugo what he thought of the idea of bringing this music to the UK. What did he think about young people in our schools dancing and singing music from the pacific?

´Pues qué rico que se dejen contagiar de esa espirtualidad, de ese ritmo, ese sabor, esa fuerza, esa dulzura, esa nostalgia. Es una música muy limpia, muy sencilla, muy verdadera.´

UK classrooms – ¡prepárense!

The Day I Became An Expert On Welsh Bilingual Education (and other stories)

Dicen que los Colombians dejan todo hasta el último momento -¡¡ hasta tres goles!!

(They say Colombians leave everything until the last minute – even three goals!)

This is a quote that has been flying around after the qualifying world cup match against Chile a few weeks ago… 3-0 down at half time, they managed to recover 3 goals in the 2nd half, qualifying for the world cup for the first time in SIXTEEN YEARS. Only Colombia would be that energised by last minute pressure. 

So when I was asked, three days in advance, to do a short lecture on the bilingual situation of Welsh in schools to a group of students at San Andres University, I was quite pleased for the notice! 

Let me explain how the hell this happened. 

Alberto, our family friend in Bogotá, is an academic specialising in bilingualism and he was going to be in San Andres for three weeks delivering a course to some teachers about the state of bilingualism there. Being the languages geek that I am, and realising this tied in perfectly with the my visit to the island anyway, I asked if I could tag along to the course for a few days…

So I get this email.

How would you feel about doing a presentation about the bilingual situation of Wales, including the topic of bilingual education there? How does it work? We don´t know anything about the topic here. 30 mins okay?


30 mins? I don´t know if I could talk for 3 minutes about Welsh. My incessant Gavin and Stacey quoting was rusty, I couldn´t remember even one of Nessa´s catch phrases. But I didn´t think that was quite what he was looking for.

I replied saying that he probably knew as much as I did and asked for confirmation about whether this was actually happening. But infrequent computer availability on both sides meant it was 20 minutes before meeting Alberto to travel to the university that I finally got confirmation of the lecture.

I frantically googled a few things and took some illegible notes on the back of various business cards, having forgotten my notebook, and ran to meet him, still not believing it was actually happening. I new slightly more than I had known 5 minutes before, but that still wasn´t very much. Not much at all. 

We had some time to spare before the class started and so I took a walk in the evening sunlight along the beach, soaking my trousers and wriggling my toes in the sand like I was five years old again. I felt so relaxed and at peace… until I realised two massive dogs were following me. Everything Abel the dog-whisperer taught me in Buenos Aires about staying calm with dogs came flooding back – no eye contact, don´t run – they think you´re playing, just stay very calm… but as one went to bite my leg I panicked and turned sharply to take a short cut when I was certain the dogs weren´t looking. I thought I was safe but suddenly heard barking again and realised that they´d sniffed me out, and had made some mates along the way. I zigzagged the main road, dodging the motos and buses and constantly changing direction until I was sure they couldn´t keep up. 

Eventually I arrived: red-faced, soaked in sand up to my knees and heart racing. They were all waiting for me to start. This is how I learned that in San Andrés things start on time. 

´So…. Welsh,´ I started, feeling like Tamsin Greig in Black Books when she has to deliver a staff training day for a company she doesn´t actually work for.

´Welsh is an interesting phenomenon.´

Where was I going with this? I stopped and took a look at the group of adults, who, pens poised, were clearly hanging on to my every word. 

I stopped and tried first to learn their names to use up some time but this backfired as I couldn´t understand their accents and one slightly larger lady in the front row kept tutting and shaking her heard… I was not making many friends with this ice-breaker.

I settled for a quiz with one of the few stats I had picked up off the internet but I realised pretty quickly that these guys didn´t even know where Wales was. So I relaxed a little – this was going to be like doing 100% target language with Year 7 German – JUST MAKE IT UP, THEY´LL NEVER KNOW! (What´s that, Aisha, you used to live in Germany? Until you were 8? F**k!!)

I drew a somewhat phallic map of the British Isles which I think completely wiped out the South East and made Devon look like a separate nation. I labelled Wales and then began to explain the little I had picked up from WickyP: 25% of children in Wales receive a 100% Welsh education, and ooh did you know that there are no private schools that only teach in Welsh? What do you think that says about the prestige of the language?

Man, I was good. And I could tell by their faces that this was one of the most structured lectures they´d had in a while. I mean I had a map and everything! I managed to blag the education bit but then they wanted to know about Welsh itself. Where do you see it? I closed my eyes and pictured the train station in Cardiff which I had last visited on an open day in 2002. ´The signs are bilingual.´ I said confidently. ´And newspapers. And radio. Yeah. And it´s usually in the smaller towns and communities that people speak only Welsh. Yeah – there is quite a struggle to get the younger generation engaged…´ This was definitely not on Wicky P. I was freestyling here. 

´Is it like English?´ someone asked. 

Oh, they wan´t to learn some Welsh.  What the hell was I going to do? I racked my brains. Bore da. That was a dead cert. Iachhi da for cheers? (so glad I have a Welsh friend who likes her vino…). Ali G´s trip to Wales sprung to mind – Dwee Hoffee Coffee? I wrote it all up, resorting to language teacher extraordinaire with visuals and everything. It felt good to hold a board marker again after so long…

They seemed pretty happy with my beginners Welsh course. Then the question round started and I began every answer with, ´now this is an area of the topic I am less of an expert on…´ Who did I think I was? 

They bought it and I felt a bit bad, but also secretly quite chuffed. ´That was really good,´one girl said as I sat down, still covered in sand, still not sure what the hell had just happened.

After this and the Suzuki lecture I feel a little bit like a lecturing version of Leo De Caprio in ´Catch me if you Can´… or maybe it´s just the product of far too many last minute essays and lesson plans over the years. This is what a university education and a PGCE give you these days – the art of last minute preparation. And what better place to do it than in Colombia?Image

The aftermath of my lesson




”Beautiful San Andrés”

‘So what are you doing in San Andres Island?’, a friend’s sister asks me as she drops me back to my posada.

It’s my last day on the Colombian-owned, but Caribbean-situated island and I’ve learned over the last week to adapt the aims of my project slightly. ‘I’m researching traditional music from the Spanish-speaking world,’ I say, deliberately avoiding the word ‘Colombia.’

With everything I have learned about local music here, I have learned double the amount about politics. Every musician I have interviewed has been determined to get clear that they do not feel Colombian: They are Raizal, Rastas, Caribbean, even British before they are Colombian. And I start to see why: schools are phasing out English Creole replacing bilingual education with only Spanish; the island is seriously overpopulated by Colombians and tourists; their coconut export, previously the 2nd largest in the world after Indonesia, has ceased to exist after trees were cut down to make room for new housing and hotels; the islanders don’t see a penny of their rented airspace; and although tourism should be boosting their local economy, large amounts buy into all-inclusive holiday packages and barely leave their hotel complexes. Most recently Colombia sold most of the surrounding ocean to Nicaragua. They feel exploited and they certainly don’t feel Colombian, even though the island has been a colony for nearly 200 years. The talk of freedom in their reggae music has much deeper connotations here. Some musicians told me they don’t even like to speak Spanish (ironically here English is the endangered language).


One of the beautiful beaches in San Luis

I was treated very well here as a Brit (San Andrés was British territory for a long time and uses the Scottish flag – San Andrés = Saint Andrew). One guy in a hostel kept calling me ‘British’ as if it was my name. ‘Hey, British – I like you, I like your people, I can get you a room – relax.’ He was a bit odd; I didn’t go back there.

Musically, San Andrés has been really interesting and because everyone knows everyone (the whole island is like the size of Exeter) you can just knock on peoples’ doors and have a chat. (Although, I probably wouldn’t do that in Exeter: ‘Hi, Joss Stone!’)

The first day I met a woman who seemed to work in the arts and she told me that I must meet her the next day so that she could take me to the authority on music in the island – Miss Cecilia Francis. When I arrived there was a film crew there. I was flattered; I didn’t think my visit to the island was that important.  But they weren’t there for me, they were doing a documentary on traditional music and culture of the island. BULLSEYE!


So I got to sit and watch the professionals at work, and brush up on my knowledge of the San Andrés music scene before getting some time on my own. Cecilia told me that for a long time music and dance was banned by the church and people had to meet in secret. She was one of the leaders in the revival of traditional music and dance during the 1970s and toured all over the world.

The traditional music is complex. It’s a mixture of styles brought over from Europe (Polkas, Waltz, Scottish dancing) and then the Calypso, Mentó, Souk from the Caribbean. The instruments include the jaw bone of the donkey ‘jihada’ and a washing up tub with rope attached which is the bass. And that is even before we start on the reggae and dance hall – brought over from Jamaica. All this makes up a very rich musical tapestry, and a complete contrast from what I have experienced in mainland Colombia.


Jaw Bone


Felix Mitchell on the Tub

Cecilia was very modest about her achievements and I only found out after the interview that she had written the island’s national anthem! Here it is being performed by one of the island’s most influential bands: ‘REBELS’.

One of the lads in the film crew, Amenvois, offered to pick me up the next day and whizz me around the island on his moto to meet some of the other musicians in the documentary. Every house we got to no-one was in. I thought it was strange they hadn’t kept to their arrangements until at door number 3 Amenovis said, ‘for things like this, you really need to call in advance…’. So there was actually no arrangement – just cold-calling some local muso’s house!

At this point it began to rain. Heavy tropical torrential rain. We were still standing outside this musician’s apartment: a bit weird, but there was nothing we could do! I asked Amenovis how long the rain usually lasted for.

‘uuuuuuuuuuh!, usually for HOURS! – this will go on all night!’

I looked around for other shelter options other than the musician’s front yard… ‘and meanwhile?’

He shrugged, ‘we wait here!’



The storm eventually thinned to a mere heavy rain and we managed to get out onto the road again to visit guy no.4 – not a musician but a teacher, writer, politician and music enthusiast who regaled me with his childhood memories of music – similarly also a lot about going to secret dances which risked being thrown out of the church and disgracing the local community.

The evening was the Green Moon Festival where I had managed to blag a VIP pass, although VIP basically meant the privilege of being closer to the very loud and sometimes very bad sound system. But it also meant that at 2am which the rain came back that we could hide UNDER the stage as the band played. After a while though I donned my cagoule and danced in the rain, proudly telling all confused onlookers that us Brits are more than acquainted with rainy festivals. Besides, at least this rain was warm!


Interestingly 200 years of Colombian rule in San Andrés has not affected their time keeping: British punctuality has held on strong. Its really hard to adjust back… I took a couple of appointment times lightly at the start and was embarrassed to see people waiting for me! However the festival had quite a few sound issues and late starts ‘you can tell this festival is run by Colombians!’ people tutted, disparagingly. The main act did not come on until 4am! We had fun though, dancing to caribbean, reggage, souk, dance-hall – some new sounds fro me! And the people were great too. All the artists mingled with the punters after their sets and one reggae singer started free style reggae rapping to me. Others shared their aguardiente. Generally I felt very welcomed there coming from the UK.

One band only got 3 songs in when the sound system went again. When they got it working again (about an hour later) the organisers told the next band to go on. The lead singer was convinced it was a a scam against his political anti-Colombia lyrics. I think it was just a really cheap sound system.

The next day, still heavy rain, Amenovis picked me up and we did another round of the artists, this time pre-arranged. I met Jimmy Archibold, from Providence Island, a really interesting guy who has been doing music work in prisons. I also met Felix Mitchell, lead singer of Creole, who spoke passionately about how music for him goes far beyond just playing – it’s a preservation of their English Creole culture.


Jimmy on my uke

When the rain finally stopped I managed to take a boat trip to another island with some tourists doing snorkelling and drinking beers in the sun. After speaking to the locals, I saw this overcrowded tourist side of the island in a completely different light. So many people come to San Andrés and don’t venture beyond the main street. I am seeing more and more how music is a key to understanding the real culture of a place…

The most hilarious part of the whole week was appearing on local TV! Amenovis works at the local TV station so he invited me on the show on my last morning. I was asked about my project, what I thought of San Andrés and the festival. I taught the presenter a few chords on the uke and sang a Calle 13 song. I don’t think anyone watches this show, but it was still a really fun experience. Thank you, beautiful San Andrés!


Tourist central

Rituals and Recitals

It was about 11pm at night and the bus suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere. ‘This is us,’ Ruben beckoned to me.

We’d caught the very last bus from Pasto on a last minute get away to Sibundoy, deep in the valley of the department of Putumayo (i.e the world music series). We were going to vist Don Juan, an indigenous Shaman, or medicinal healer, who was having a ceremony of yagé in his maloka. We walked for what seemed like forever, every shadow and noise making me jump out of my skin: I am not one to voluntarily take country walks in the pitch black. ‘Are you sure there are no Guerilla hiding in the bushes?!’, I freaked. Ruben kept laughing at me: ‘this is one of the safest parts of Colombia.’ I wasn’t sure how reassuring that was, but wasn’t about to take off on my own, so I just tried to adjust my eyes.

We took a few wrong paths until finally saw a long driveway with a row of candles, and a strong smell of frankincense. In the maloka, a hexagon shaped house decked out with hammocks, were a group of people sat around a fire; heads-bowed. They were all about to go through a night-long ritual taking yagé, a cleansing ritual performed by the Shaman to clear illnesses and troubled minds. They were all locals from the community and for them these rituals are the equivalent of a monthly NHS check-up. We were not going to participate, but Ruben had offered to accompany the ritual music on his guitar, once the ceremony got underway.

After the group had drunk the medicine, they simply lay in hammocks or sat around the fire, waiting for the yagé to take effect. People say that you wake up in the morning with a completely clear mind and there have been some incredible stories. Juan is supposed to be extremely talented, reportedly having cured many cancers with his chants (apparently once he actually vomited a tumour). Ruben had once tried yagé when he wanted to give up smoking. The Shaman had placed a cigarette in his pocket to see if he still wanted it the next day. He didn’t. In fact, the next time he smoked a cigarette he was violently sick and his not touched one since.

One by one the participants were called up to the Shaman and stripped to their boxers as he fanned them with a massive plant and sang unworldly chants accompanied by the unlikely harmonica. 

Out of respect I didn’t take any photos – but this is an example of the ceremony that I found on the internet!

One of the characters we met along their journeys was Andrés, ex-military, part time folk dancer and feeling the effects of having drunk a whole beaker of the stuff. He came and lay down next to us and said, ‘I speak Spanish, English, American, Mexican and Colombian – what you prefer?’ He then talked us through all the animals he was seeing. At one point he freaked out having a seen a lion and then relaxed as he realised it was Ruben’s guitar case. 

I think I fell asleep but woke up in at various intervals during the night, partly from the cold, partly from the chants and music. It was fascinating to be part of. 

In the morning Juan was back in his regular joggers and jumper, as if it had all been a dream. Andrés was building a castle out of the wood in the fire to protect his ‘princess’, which I later found out to be me as he donated many of his belongings to me including a Colombian football shirt and a toy green frog. ‘You have to accept them!’, Ruben said to me as he saw me eyeing the frog as a non-essential backpacking accessory.

As the locals slowly wandered off into the Sunday morning light, back to their communities, Ruben and I performed some of our songs we’d been practising for the gig around the fire. It was well received, and we started to feel a little more confident about the following Wednesday.



From Sibundoy we headed to Laguna de la Cocha, a beautiful lake surrounded by colourful houses and the tastiest trout I had ever had in my life! 


Back in Palmira we had three days to prepare for our gig but it actually went well! Somehow last minute Colombian time keeping worked in our favour. We did start 3 1/2 after we were told we were performing, which made me quite nervous. ‘Is there any possibility this gig might not happen…?’ I asked Ruben tentatively, ‘Everything is possible.’ He laughed. ‘It is possible we may die today.’ (Maybe that sounds funnier in Spanish)

We were finally called to the stage and did our set for about 45 minutes. We did a mixture of English folk songs and Colombian traditional, as well as some more popular tunes. I loved it! We bought some local Santa Elena home grown wine to celebrate, and that same feeling as I had had many a time in Argentina: ‘I can’t believe we actually pulled that off!’



Our gig


Our set list was:

El Pescador (Trad. Colombian Caribbean coast)

High and Dry – Radiohead

Parío la Luna (Trad. Pacífico)

Little Lion Man – Mumford and Sons (The ONLY one the uke was allowed in!)

Velo que Bonito (Trad. Pacífico)

Streets of London

The Parting Glass (Trad. Irish/Scottish)

ooo, ooo it’s the sound of da pastuzo Police!

There was a very strong police presence at the hall entrance which made feel slightly uneasy: what kind of badass part of town was this Andean folk concert in?! I got there an hour late, as advised by everyone I spoke to, even the band members, but seemed I still hadn’t quite cracked the schedule as the soundcheck was still going on and someone was up a massive ladder fiddling around with the lights. Because of the late start (over TWO HOURS), by the time the music started most of the young people were completely smashed, having downed a few bottles of the only drink available – aguardiente – a really strong sugar cane spirit which you could only buy by the bottle. When I saw the band I suddenly understood why there were so many police making up the front rows – the first band was a policeforce Andino folk group! The young crowd went mental, dancing in the aisle like a cross between a mosh-pit and a barn dance.


ooh, ooh, it’s the Sound of da Police!

It is cold in Pasto. People warned me this, but because I am from England I always think I can hack it. But that theatre was very cold. So I had a choice: to warm up I must either drink aguardiente, or take up folk dancing. I decided that the former would probably lead to the latter except that I had no idea how to do the dance. It was quite hectic and I was worried I might get squashed in the proceedings by some heavy-booted juveniles.

Where are all the women??

On the first afternoon in Pasto I attended a university lecture on music research which should have been perfect except that it was shit. Working in teacher training and facilitation for the last two years has made me a bit of a tough crowd when it comes to watching lectures. I saw no learning objectives, point, purpose, investment, and the ppt. was on the right hand wall but all the chair faced the front. I also noticed that in this class of 30 there were no women. (This is a class mainly for music teachers who are completing a masters in order to increase their salary.) But this is a theme I have seen repeatedly through the musicians I have worked with over the last few weeks. Women here are singers or dancers but they do not play instruments in bands. In an entire festival the other weekend I saw 1 female saxophonist. AND THAT WAS IT. When I have questioned men about this they all blame the machista society. One guy even proposed that women would be reluctant to play the drums in case they hurt their hands and then couldn’t do housework. (I met an incredibly inspiring woman in San Andres who pretty much revolutionised the folk music scene and wrote the San Andres national anthem. But I later found out she had no children and had never married – is it either/or?) I can’t understand if women don’t want to play instruments or simply don’t feel it’s right – in any case, it feels like a big gap to be filled.

‘What do you know about the Suzuki method?’

Ruben was supposed to be in Pasto for lectures but we spent most of the time taking advantage of the uni practice rooms to prepare for our imminent gig. He kept popping out to catch his lecturers to explain. They really didn’t seem to mind. Some even came in to jam with us for a bit, delaying their classes even further. Uni here is ridiculously relaxed: ‘If I am 15 minutes late, the lecturer won’t let me in’, Ruben said at one point, like it was the strictest thing he ever heard. He probably could have made it, but walked incredibly slowly to the room deliberately stopping to introduce me to everyone in his path.  On the way to another lecture, Ruben suggested we stopped for a coffee. He was already 5 minutes late. After ordering he asked casually, ‘what do you know about the Suzuki method?’ I confessed that I didn’t know much. Something about playing by ear? ‘Why do you ask?’. ‘Oh, a few of us have got to deliver a presentation on it today in the lecture.’

I looked down at this full coffee mug. ‘THIS lecture?’ He picked up his phone, ‘Sergio, qué pasa con la presentación?’ They exchanged a few words and he hung up, ‘Sergio hasn’t prepared anything either,’ he shrugged and got back to his coffee. I literally couldn’t believe it. I am all for last minute, but this was on another level. While he popped to the loo, I googled Suzuki method and gave him the main facts, then got him to repeat it back to me (even under mega stress I do not forgot my AFL, but if I had had lollipop sticks I would have probably stuck them in his eyes with frustration…) and sent him off to his lecture. Apparently there was one guy who had known a little more than him and they went in order until it trickled into nothing. So Ruben was pretty much the Suzuki expert after an espresso-fuelled information binge. If this kind of lastminute.com gets you a pay rise here, I may consider doing a Colombian masters…