Colombia’s cowboy music: vallenato steals the present in Valledupar | Travel

Plaza Alfonso Lopez shook to its 16th-century foundations as I squeezed by means of the whiskey-drinking, sombrero-wearing crowd. On stage, a fast-fingered accordionist performed, a sweat stain spreading throughout his chest. The crowd held aloft framed pictures of their accordion heroes and roared approval as musical scales swooped and soared within the sultry air.

Valledupar, Colombia map.

Valledupar is the religious home of vallenato music. Vallenato interprets as “born in the valley” and is the music of the north Colombian countryside. Typically, it’s carried out by a trio: an accordionist, bongo participant and somebody enjoying a guacharaca, a rasping stick not in contrast to a cheese-grater.

Originating from farmers who blended Spanish and West African rhythms, vallenato was lengthy derided throughout Colombia as unsophisticated cowboy music, earlier than it was championed by the nation’s intelligentsia, amongst them Gabriel García Márquez, who as soon as described his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude to be a 350-page vallenato. More just lately, it has develop into spearheaded by commercialised pop reinterpretations, notably by Latin celebrity Carlos Vives.

Crowds at Plaza Alfonso Lopez

Since 1968 Valledupar has hosted the annual Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata (25-30 April 2018), which options the style’s best accordionists competing to be topped King of Vallenato. Every 10 years these winners compete in opposition to one another to be topped King of Kings. The final of these was final yr, and was additionally the 50th anniversary of the competition – so any earlier winner might enter. I watched one of the best of the vallenato accordion greats alongside 150,000 different spectators on the four-day competition.

Paseo is joyful, the merengue sensual, son is melancholic however the quickest and most technical tempo to play is puya

Jose-Ricardo Villafane, vallenato performer

Valledupar, home to 450,000 individuals, is an unremarkable metropolis on a scorching flat plain; to the north, cattle-rearing pasture offers solution to the La Guajira desert. The metropolis does, nevertheless, have an agreeable previous centre of whitewashed lanes that offered shade from the arid warmth whereas its Spanish colonial plazas characteristic ornate church buildings with big wood doorways.

My base was Casa de los Santos Reyes (doubles from £40 B&B), a transformed service provider’s home with a number of patios adorned with pot crops behind the property’s thick 18th-century adobe partitions. The guesthouse is in Cañaguate – a district named after the blossom timber that sprint Valledupar yellow every spring – and some blocks from the heartbeat of the competition at Plaza Alfonso Lopez. I arrived in time for a standard breakfast of cheese-filled arepas and hen soup – the latter an area hangover treatment for a competition hangover.

Whitewashed lanes in Valledupar’s old town.

Whitewashed lanes in Valledupar’s previous city

That morning the lodge had invited native vallenato star Jose-Ricardo Villafane to play accordion to company. He demonstrated the 4 vallenato tempos (also referred to as airs) that each one opponents should carry out, his fingers fluttering over his keys.

“Paseo is fast and happy, the merengue is sensual, son is deep and melancholic but the quickest and most technical tempo to play is puya,” he mentioned.

Musically, the competition formally began that night with a concert for a number of thousand spectators at Ronda del Concurso, a soulless sports activities stadium on the outskirts of city. I watched a efficiency that includes vallenato’s largest industrial stars, together with so-called new wave artists, corresponding to Churo Diaz and Carlos Vives, with their pop infusions and massive band backing.

Crowd at the Ronda del Concurso stadium, Valledupar, Colombia.

Crowd on the Ronda del Concurso stadium

The concert was too slick and industrial for me. I didn’t really feel the eagerness that impressed a preferred vallenato delusion: a few legendary accordionist referred to as Francisco el Hombre who had slain the satan by enjoying vallenato.

By night time the town lanes felt much less like a furnace however the music by no means abated, as road events had been in full swing

It all started to make sense the following morning when the competition exploded into life on the plaza, the place the early elimination rounds to search out the King of Kings was held. This was unadulterated vallenato – simply the trio of instrumentalists with no showy theatrics. It was mid-morning however already the group was downing the ever present competition tipple: Old Parr Whisky. As a gringo I stood out (I noticed few different foreigners) and plastic cups of Old Parr had been jammed into my hand by different festivalgoers. But I resisted one other competition delicacy bought across the plaza – grilled ants eaten as an aphrodisiac.

The tempo that actually acquired to me was the hectic puya. The maestro accordionists performed it at a dervish tempo that quickened my pulse. I found myself chanting names of artists I’d by no means heard of the day earlier than. Sometimes the gamers sang, thought-about a supreme talent whereas doubling up on accordion. The lyrics are as passionate as they’re bittersweet.

“And I saw your brown eyes for a moment /And the sun was dying of jealousy …” crooned one performer, belting out a soulful music about tragic love.

Spectators clap to the rhythm of vallenato as played in the city’s streets and plaza rather than its huge sports stadium. Valledupar, Colombia.

Spectators clap to the rhythm of vallenato as performed within the metropolis’s streets and plaza fairly than its big sports activities stadium. Photograph: Alamy

By night time the town lanes felt much less like a furnace however the music by no means abated, as personal parrandas (road events) had been in full swing. The locals had been well-oiled and performed well-known vallenato tunes to howling crescendos.

“My two sons are accordion players and my three-year-old grandson already plays bongo,” mentioned Javier Alvarez-Orozco, an area who invited me be part of his parranda for evermore whiskey. “Vallenato is in their blood,” he mentioned.

Later I got here throughout one other gathering that includes a up to date offshoot of vallenato referred to as piqueria, a freeform rap battle backed by accordion and that includes two combatants utilizing humorous improvised verse.

There had been sober interludes, too, as I sought out Valledupar’s different sights, corresponding to Casa Beto Murgas Museo del Acordeón (free, recommended donation £5, guided excursions obtainable), which has a group of 200 historic accordions – together with stunning machines inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The Guatapurí river flows by means of the centre of city straight from the Sierra Nevada’s icy headwaters, providing a bracing dip.

One of my favourites grew to become the day by day artisanal market that bought oddities corresponding to hand-painted Panama hats, whereas I additionally noticed an area spiritual procession celebrating the miracle of the virgin of Santa Rosario.

Procession and re-enactment celebrating Santa Rosario, Valledupar, Colombia.

Procession and re-enactment celebrating Santa Rosario

The grand accordion last got here after 4 days of competitors and was an intoxicating affair of musical wizardry that noticed a competitor referred to as Alvaro Lopez topped King of Kings. The good efficiency was a little bit lost within the cavernous stadium however I used to be nonetheless being sustained by the magical morning I’d had observing vallenato’s subsequent technology beneath the tutelage of famend accordionist, El Turco Gil at an area music academy.

His youthful proteges entranced me throughout a public concert showcasing their abilities. A younger woman performed a doleful ballad about unrequited love with Tina Turner-esque swagger whereas a puya, carried out by Juan-David, a blind accordionist from the countryside, blew me away with its ferocious tempo. “I saw his genius from an early age,” mentioned Gil. “He can’t see but he ‘feels’ vallenato and will be a maestro someday.”

“People question whether pure vallenato will lose its soul as the music gains commercial success. These children suggest not.”

• Specialist Colombia operator, Amakuna has a week-long Origins of Vallenato itinerary in Valledupar and La Guajira from £1,495pp, together with B&B lodging, guided excursions, transfers and inside flights. Direct worldwide flights with Avianca begin from £600 return. For extra data on Colombia go to

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