From Alabama to Colombia: Colombian Musical Notes

Travel Features Alabama

I’ve just been invited to a kind of South by Southwest—with salsa.

At the end of September, the national tourism agency Procolombia will fly me north to Barranquilla, the major port city of Colombia. I’ll join the visiting press corps at Barranquijazz, one of Latin America’s most important music festivals. (Watch this column in Paste for the kiss-and-tell.)

The invitation to this celebration of Latin music reminds me, painfully, of a blind spot in my travel essays the last six months.

Until now, I haven’t written about Colombian music.

Well … I did write an essay about accidentally killing Ben E. King with karaoke, but that’s not really about Colombian music.

Let me break the drought.

For 500 years now, this amazing country has blended Native American and European and African rhythms, instruments, tunes, and tales. The Colombian musical mosaic could keep a scholar (or an archivist) busy the rest of his days.

Music flowed down the rivers and off the sides of mountains here from the time North American humans first crossed the Panama Isthmus onto South America. (I’m a believer that other early South Americans floated ashore from the Pacific at some point—I see faces here in Bogotá that look as Polynesian as those in Paul Gauguin’s paintings. One historic site also suggests humans may have reached this continent long, long ago … from Africa.)

Whatever the origins, rhythm and song arrived with human DNA. The first South Americans drummed and piped and sang like they breathed.

For millennia.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, this country’s namesake, first sailed the ocean blue. He stepped onto the sugar-white sands of The Bahamas and beheld a landscape he believed in his bones … and to his last breath … to be part of the East Indies.

Spanish music stepped ashore with Columbus, and other European forms arrived with those who followed. African music came too, carried in souls unchained and unshackled … no matter the circumstance of the black bodies.

All these grace notes form the soul of Colombian music today.

Columbus, an Italian mariner sailing under a Spanish flag, had no clue how much exploration and discovery would still be required to apprehend the new world beneath his feet.

I know the feeling. I stand barely at the shoreline of a sprawling tableau of Colombian musical genres (plus uncountable variations from other Latin American nations).

Unlike Colombus, I know what I do not know. I absolutely understand that I really have discovered a new world.

If music is the universal language … it speaks in a million accents.

Three branches of the Andes divide Colombia into an astonishing variety of topographies, microclimates, altitudes, and cultures. The songbirds you hear on the Caribbean coast sound different from those along the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta or in the deserts of Guajira … and those sound different from birds of Amazonia.

So do the singers.

I know something now about an important Colombian musical genre, and I’ll share it. (Expect more on music and other genres in the future, as travels let me march to different drummers.)

In the northeast of this country, in a deep green valley between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and Venezuela, rests a small city called Valledupar.

Think of it as Nashville for Colombian roots music. This hot settlement (daily high temperatures in Valledupar fall just 1o degrees short of daily highs in Death Valley) has produced Colombia’s most famous musical form, the vallenato.

Vallenato music is unmistakable. Someone plays an accordion (or less frequently, a guitar). Someone beats the caja, a drum. Someone scratches out rhythm on a guacharaca, a percussion device commonly carved from palm wood. Caribbean rhythms played on European and native instruments, the songs sung in Spanish, neatly symbolize what Colombia offers the musical world.

In vallenatos, singers with great emotion recount stories from days gone by or sing love songs of triumph or loss. Sometimes, two-part harmonies blend, wax, wane. As I listen to vallenatos, I find moments when the Louvin Brothers or Carter Family come eerily to mind. The Spanish lyrics, honestly, are still mostly lost on me, but the passion and pain of a great vallenato singer come through as surely as when Hank Williams breaks your heart.

Each April, Valledupar hosts the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata. It’s a hot ticket, with tens of thousands of Colombians and international music lovers descending on the sweltering city to dance and sing to the primal music of the nation. People party till dawn, clearing grocery and tienda shelves of a local liquor of choice, Old Parr. They drink more of it in the mornings to chase away their hangovers.

The festival celebrates a famous … or infamous … legend. The story goes that Spanish soldiers hunted local Indians during a conflict. (You’ve heard this story before; by some estimates, 90 percent of the indigenous Colombians died within 20 years of the day the Spanish arrived.)

The Indians poisoned the lagoon of Sicarare (translated “sweet water”) where they knew the Spaniards would refresh themselves and their horses. Then, according to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared after the soldiers had drunk the water, magically healing them from the barbasco poison … and saving them from an excruciating death.

It’s a happy ending for those with Spanish ancestry, and a worthy reason to throw an annual music festival. If you were a Tupe Indian, maybe the ending’s not quite so happy …

Music scholars believe vallenatos actually developed from storytellers who roamed town to town, like the European troubadours, sharing news … and tales like the one about the Virgin Mary sparing Christian soldiers.

Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize laureate for literature (and the pride of every Colombian I meet here) greatly admired the vallenato. The writer claimed his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude to be “one long vallenato” … a woven tapestry of many tales, voices, tempos, and legends.

I have a personal connection with the vallenato … my own personal vallenata.

My fiancée, Adela Castro, comes from Valledupar. The Castro family has played a prominent role in that city for generations.

Growing up, Adela heard the family house fill with voices of the great vallenato singers of the day, friends of her father and family. The famous Gustavo Gutierrez performed for her on the day of her quince años, the ceremonial birthday event that celebrates a young girl’s coming-of-age in Latin cultures. Adela’s relative, now a Harvard professor, composed an award-winning vallenato at age 14. We play it on the sound system here in our apartment when Adela feels homesick.

The musical forms in Colombia tangle and twine like vines in the Amazon. Yet Colombians can tell instantly, just by drums and rhythm, whether they’re hearing cumbia, porro, bambuco, joropo, carranga, currulao, champeta, or some other genre.

As my ear improves, I’ll share more musical notes from this El Dorado of euphonics.

For now, I’m proud I can recognize a vallenato leaping from the radio or pouring out the lamplit windows of a café.

Proud for a lot of reasons.

Photo: Juan Felipe Rubio, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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