Subjected in my rural office, to two nearby riverside kiosks intent upon drowning out one another and inflicting the rest of us to raucous, skull splitting and above all tedious strains of romantic vallenato music at all hours of the day, you could say that I’ve had some time to establish a profound dislike for this Colombian popular music genre.
And what better time to compose a rant than with the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata taking place in Valledupar this week. No, this is not an attack upon the festival; in fact, I attended the 40th edition in 2007. My journalist sidekick from Barcelona, Joan, and I, interviewed notable characters and personalities, rocked out to forced musical descants in lively settings and survived in a permanent 90 degree heat fug of whisky-induced post hangover blindness and incoherency. It was a riot and the good people of Valledupar took me in as one of their own, chewed me up to the soundtrack of Alfredo Gutierrez compositions and spat me out mercilessly but not before recuperating me with an essential sancocho by the famed Guatipuri river. I was even hugged by a sweaty ex-president who then offered me a pork scratching swept up from the floor.
And before I am discombobulated by online hecklers and hardcore vallenato aficionados, I’ll cover my back in saying that I can fully abide any live music, vallenato or otherwise. I am not attacking the ubiquitous conjunto vallenato at a wedding, birthday party or some other celebration. This is meant to be a critique of the current of romantic vallenato and what I will explain later as a cultura vallenata.
Now, the fact that Colombia has a genre of music that is the perfect metissage – as the French would say – of roots, blending the African with the Indigenous and the European is a remarkable testament to the creation of the modern-day nation. And for a greater insight and understanding of this music, look no further than the poetic compositions of the troubadour Rafael Escalona who was one of the first true vallenato poets.
Escalona represents vallenato music at its most pure; this is the music of which Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes when he mentions the genre in his literature. Far removed from the chanel prints donned by the ostentatious yet harmless vallenato pop star Carlos Vives and even further from the excesses and vulgarity blasted upon us through distorted speakers by the likes of Diomedes Diaz and Silvestre Dangond.
Romantic vallenato is perhaps the perfect example of the excesses of modern-day Colombia, the almost fetishistic desire for increased consumerism and vulgar displays of wealth. It is bright, loud and in your face and makes no excuses for the brash and unrepentant populism of the idiosyncracia costena. The more labels on your clothes the better. Splash some Old Parr whisky or Chivas Regal at it and you’re almost there.
This romantic vallenato is all about self-promotion and womanizing and is like so many things a blatant misnomer. And so, with this blaring out of pretty much every speaker in the Caribbean coastal region, it provides the male population with a reason for misogyny and machismo, because after all, their role models are seen and heard not only condoning the behavior but also encouraging it through their lyrics. You could say that romantic vallenato promotes an attitude that here in Colombia is referred to as “guache”. This translates as: rustic, peasant, hick, uncouth, layabout and loafer.
Why do I harbor this thinly veiled contempt for romantic vallenato? I guess it comes down to the lyrics and the punishing accordion riffs. My beef does not lie with the accordion as an instrument as such, find me on the left bank in bohemian cafe, sipping a pernod and within earshot of an accordion player in a stripy top and beret, I am most content. I think it has something to do with the nature of how the vallenato accordion has been tuned and then the notes are pushed pregnantly as if forced from the detailed entrails of the device.
I find the music, in particular, the songs of Silvestre Dangond to be navel gazing:
Y me gusta, me gusta, me gusta, me gusta
Llevarte a la disco y bailar contigo
Las canciones de Diomedes y las canciones de silvestre
And then Diomedes Diaz, celebrating “the good life”:
“Yo trabajo es pa’ goza, parrandear y mujerear”
I don’t know, but after one too many afternoons of involuntary vallenato appreciation in Mompos, I began to actually start to observe those out there in the kiosk enjoying the music. Necking down beers, in a group of three no one spoke, one patron moved only to wipe the sweat from his top lip with his ruana. Another just flicked up his fingers to signal two further beers, while a third asked for the music to be turned up. How they could possibly endure such a racket is clearly a question of taste. But, at no point did they have a conversation. A girl walks past and quite clearly is unnerved by what must have been an inappropriate comment from one of the three. When two crates of beer were filled they left, two perched precariously on their motorcycles and the last in his Toyota Hilux. This is what I refer to as the cultura vallenata, is it anything different from country music in the mid-west of the United Sates, I don’t know?
My recommendation on the best way of enjoying the worst type of Colombian music is to head out to Valledupar and enjoy the mayhem. Otherwise, avoid nightspots in Bogota such as La Trampa Vallenata and so on. It’ll be raucous, it’ll be rowdy, it’ll be aggressive and macho. Or, spare yourself and listen to some salsa or cumbia!