Dispatches from Colombia: Hot daze at the Vallenato Festival

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Dispatches from Colombia: Hot daze at the Vallenato Festival

Like a cowboy in a Hollywood Western, I’m surrounded by Indians. I’m part of an indigenous peoples’ parade, to be more precise. Shuffling along around me down a hot street in northern Colombia on a Saturday morning, Native Americans, all ages, all sizes, move haltingly in white robes and black braids.

Braiding in and out of the throng behind a little black knot of religious authorities, players in an unpracticed brass band sweat like horses. Everyone sweats like horses. Imagine an August New Orleans funeral … with no corpse and a silent, sweltering Native American retinue all in blanco.

The procession, including scores of adorable local kids costumed as Indians, departed the cathedral of Valledupar at 10 a.m. It’s already near 100 degrees Fahrenheit in this town near the Venezuelan border. That’s not news here. Valledupar’s daily high temperature tops that of Death Valley, California, about 300 days of the year.

The blistering heat doesn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things. Along with the church mass and the Indian parade, scores of musical venues burst into sound in Valledupar as part of the annual Festival de las Leyendas Vallenata (Festival of the Vallenato Legend).

I have come in 2017 to this small, historic city (400,000) in a valley between Andean ranges for a special version of the festival—its 50th anniversary. The vallenato, a beloved form of Colombian roots music, originated here. (Think Mama Maybelle Carter, if her music made hips move like Shakira.) Its characteristic instrument, the accordion, makes even murder ballads cheerful.

Aficionados stream into Valledupar from all over the globe, driving flight prices to five times normal rates and making the saddest hotel rooms available only at Ritz-Carlton rates.

But who cares? With vallenatos squeeze-boxing from every car radio, every shop, and every performance space, people get their money’s worth. They see juvenile accordion-playing contests, unpublished vallenato song-writer contests, and a piquería, a kind of shoot-out by dueling vallenato lyricists working a theme (love, hard times, cockfights, etc.) and inventing, on the spot, verses to accordion accompaniment. The festival’s magnum opus? Professional accordion players battle it out to become El Rey, the king, of the Vallenato Festival.

This 50th anniversary festival draws many to witness a rare competition for El Rey de Reyes: the king of kings.

It works like this. Each 10 years, all 10 previous festival kings have a play-off to become king of that decade. For this 50th anniversary, all the reyes of all the decades compete to be crowned. In effect, judges choose the best vallenato accordion player of all time … El Rey de Reyes.

As at South-by-Southwest and other spectacle festivals, the whole city turns into a stage. Musicians gather for private parties in houses, play local clubs, and hit formal concert venues like the city coliseum, where international star Marc Anthony performed through an apocalyptic rainstorm, with free bolts of lightning and thunderous bass notes. Club Campestre hosted a “Tsunami Vallenato” featuring several younger rising vallenato stars.

I witnessed a wild concert—advertised as a Noche de Bohemia—at Rio Luna International, the family compound of the Castros. It featured nine vallenato composers, several famous in Colombia. The venue seats 2,800, and chairs ran out … but not the Old Parr, a distilled spirit preferred by the citizens of Valledupar. (Castro family members tell me on good authority that the per-capita consumption of Old Parr ranks highest in the world in this swinging little hotspot of the globe.)

A real vallenato band always includes an accordion, an African drum, and an Indian rhythm stick (guacharacha). As each Rio Luna performer hit the stage, concert-goers bawled along passionately and danced in ways that would send Southern Baptists scuttling to therapists. I had a catbird seat on a balcony of one of the Castro family houses. The humid night air tingled with Old Parr, perfume, and pheromones. A group dancing in the shadowy back rows celebrated 50 years of the vallenato festival with something close to a Roman orgy.

Rio Luna’s featured composers cast this mad enchantment with impassioned voices and the emotional stories-in-song of vallenato. They deserve to have their names mentioned: Deimer Marín. Roberto Calderón. Yeyo Núñez. Fabián Corrales. (How could you not be a performer with a name like that?) Rafa Manjarres. Wilfran Castillo. Chiche Maestre. Adolfo Pacheco. Gustavo Gutiérrez.

The Castro family history runs deep and wide in Valledupar. The event that brought these performers to the family place also reconnected happy threads of the past. Adela, my Castro fiancée, tells of her 15th birthday, when her father brought Gutiérrez to serenade her with a song he wrote to commemorate his own son growing into manhood. And the first composer of the night, Deimer Marín, holds down a day job. He’s a physician. When Adela worked a rural year just out of med school, she and Dr. Marín saw patients at the same hospital.

But back to the Saturday morning parade.…

The procession commemorates a miracle wrought by the Virgin Mary. During an Indian uprising in the colonial era, Spanish soldiers drank from a lake poisoned by their crafty indigenous foes. Christian soldiers lay dead, but the Virgin swooped down and resurrected them. The Indians saw the handwriting on the wall. They threw down their weapons and converted to Christianity. The next few centuries gave them slavery and near-total cultural dismantlement.

All in white, the Indians in the Saturday parade—and the collection of Indian wannabees—suffered this century in tropical heat.

Then, on Sunday night, a different white parade passed through the streets.

Rain thundered down, drowning the last events of the festival. Opportunistic street vendors produced thousands of white plastic parkas from some hidden trove. They sold like hotcakes. Two parades in white … and people in both drenched.

On Sunday night, it was rain, not sweat. And faces looked exhilarated. The tens of thousands attending the 50th Vallenato Festival departed in a singing-in-the-rain mood.

Image: Policía Nacional de los colombianos, 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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