Vallenato: Colombia’s Inexplicable Accordion Music

Posted on 04. Jun, 2012 by in colombia

I’ve wanted to publish a piece on Colombian vallenato for a long time. The problem is that I can’t stand it. I never listen to it on purpose, and if a bar or liquor store is playing it I keep walking. My main complaint with vallenato is that most of the songs are some guy crying about his girl cheating (evident in the playlist). Overall I’d say vallenato is the corniest shit on the planet.

Colombians, on the other hand, love vallenato. If a fish house or other restaurant plays a vallenato dance song, you’ll see a Colombian fella unconsciously do a little dance strut in his seat.

I asked an expat buddy in Bogota, who I knew liked vallenato, to write this piece. Daniel Brody writes about music at Bogota Rocks. He says vallenato is an acquired taste (one I still haven’t acquired). One Friday night Daniel and I had plans to hang out. I brought a group to the Zona Rosa corner where we were supposed to meet. Daniel sent me a text saying something like:

We’re at [insert name of vallenato bar].

It was easier given I was already with people, but even if I were alone I wouldn’t need a moment to consider what to do. That small bit of info was enough to cancel. It was an instantaneous decision.

Before Daniel’s intro, I want to highlight the only vallenato songs I tolerate: corridos prohibidos (gangster vallenato). Here’s a NY Times piece on Colombian corridos prohibidos and a NY Times video on the genre. According to the article, singing about the “exploits of guerrilla commanders, paramilitary warlords, lowly coca growers and cocaine kingpins” comes from Mexico. Many Mexican genres use accordions and cowboy hats, so doing it in vallenato wasn’t much of a stretch.

Jimmy Gutierrez – Patron de Patrones
(Boss of Bosses)

I found this track when some deported guys were telling me about the real-life narco in the video. He hired Jimmy Gutierrez to shoot it at his finca. The fella in the passenger seat of the SUV is a real-life narco patron, with his real-life narco staff. The guys told me he was targeted and locked up after this video went public.

Uriel Henao – Prefiero una Tumba en Colombia
(I Prefer a Grave in Colombia)

Uriel Henao, the most famous singer of corridos prohibidos, singing a phrase uttered by Colombia’s most famous narco.

Daniel’s Intro to Vallenato

The most popular music in Colombia, more than salsa or reggaeton, is a strange accordion-driven music known as vallenato, which comes from the Caribbean coast of the country, specifically the town of Valledupar. Vallenato is the only genre that is equally beloved in every region of Colombia. It is the music that Gabriel Garcia Marquez danced to when he celebrated winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, and he even described his most famous novel, 100 Years of Solitude, as a 400-page vallenato.

Vallenato instruments

Basic vallenato consists of three instruments:

  1. The caja, a small drum played with bare hands like a bongo (which arrived along with the slaves from Africa)
  2. The guacharaca, a small, ribbed stick that is scratched with a fork, making a sound similar to maracas. The guacharaca was originally used by indigenous Colombian tribes to hunt birds.
  3. The accordion, of German origin. Stories vary about how this Teutonic instrument made its way into Colombian music; my favorite is that a ship full of accordions headed to Argentina sank off the Colombian coast.

Vallenato developed through cattle farmers who travelled from village to village selling their livestock. The distance between towns was long and boring, so the farmers played music to pass the time. These cattle farmers became a sort of town crier, relating news of neighboring villages in song like medieval troubadours. Eventually, the music became popular at parties and celebrations, and it remains one of the basic staples of any Colombian fiesta.

The music can be frustrating to American and European ears that are used to associating the accordion with nerds like Weird Al Yankovic or Steve Urkel. It took me a good six months to appreciate and distinguish different songs and artists.

Diomedes Diaz – ¿Que hubo Linda?

The undisputed king of modern vallenato. The man deserves his own biopic; he partied hard, so much so that is brain has turned to mush. A friend who saw him in concert said Diomedes spent more time hugging people offstage and babbling on about friendship and love than singing. In 1997, Diaz was partying with some ladies in Bogota when one of the women died, and the body was dumped several hours north of the city. Diomedes was charged with unintentional homicide and placed under house arrest. When a judge decided he needed to be transferred to a jail, Diaz escaped and took refuge with paramilitaries near Valledupar. After a year and a half, Diaz turned himself in and got a reduced sentence.

Diomedes Diaz – El Jean

This is a more recent hit, which describes the kinds of women who like to please their men, and those who don’t.

La mujer que no quiere a el hombre se acuesta con un jean
En cambio cuando lo quiere no se quiere vestir
Yo no se porque será, No se porque será

La mujer cuando quiere al hombre lo espera con baby doll
En cambio si no lo quiere se pone un pantalón
Y se acuesta boca abajo y se inventa algún dolor

A woman who doesn’t love a man goes to bed with jeans on
But a woman who loves a man doesn’t want to get dressed
I don’t know why that is, I don’t know why that is.

When a woman loves a man, she waits for him in lingerie
But if she doesn’t love him she wears pants
And goes to bed with her face down pretending something hurts.

Yes, the word for lingerie in Colombian Spanish is baby doll.

Carlos Vives – La Casa En El Aire

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s39J0eLsFPg

This song is written by Rafael Escalona, the composer who is largely responsible for taking vallenato mainstream. He was a strange composer in that he didn’t perform or play any instruments, but his songs are remembered as the original vallenato classics, and are still played today. Carlos Vives played Escalona in a Colombian soap opera depicting the composer’s life, and recorded several albums of his tunes.

Carlos Vives – Alicia Adorada

Once the Escalona soap opera made Carlos Vives a star, he began experimenting with vallenato and mixing it with rock, bringing him fame throughout Latin America. Purists are not big fans of Vives. Many of his songs barely reference vallenato, in some cases disregarding the accordion entirely.

Silvestre Dangond – Me Gusta, Me Gusta

When I first moved to Colombia, this song was EVERYWHERE. Silvestre Dangond is easily the biggest superstar in Colombian music, although he is not well-known outside of Colombia and Venezuela. He is a major representative of the nueva onda (new wave), which combined vallenato with contemporary latin pop rhythms.

Silvestre Dangond – Cantinero

This song is about a guy who cheated on his girlfriend, who subsequently left him. He is talking to the cantinero (bartender), telling him to bring him more drinks, pump up the volume on the jukebox, and drown his sorrows.

Silvestre Dangond – La Tartamuda

This song is about a guy who catches his girlfriend kissing another guy. When he confronts her, she is in such shock that all she can do is stutter (tartamuda is Spanish for ‘stutterer’).

Jorge Celedon – Ay Hombe

Ay Hombe is a popular expression in vallenato, said when emotion overwhelms you, both happy and sad. The accordion player on this song, Jimmy Zambrano, is a madman live, almost like a Carlos Santana of the squeeze box.

Los Gigantes del Vallenato – Yo Te Vi

This Medellin-based band is as poppy Vallenato gets. I am pretty sure all of this band’s fans are teenage girls.

Los Embajadores Vallenatos – Se Le Moja La Canoa

This funny song and video is about a man who se le moja la canoa (gets his canoe wet), which in Colombian slang means when a man starts acting gay. In the song, the protagonist can’t help flirting with men when he drinks too much.

Los Embajadores Vallenatos – El Santo Cachon

This song is about a guy who has heard rumors that his girlfriend is cheating on him and confronts her. She claims she was hanging out with a cousin, even though witnesses said the couple were sucking face. She begs for forgiveness. The song refers to another Colombian slang expression, poner los cachos (put on the horns), which means to cheat on a partner.

For a great film that captures the heart and soul of what vallenato is all about, see Los Viajes del Viento (The Wind Journeys). The movie follows a vallenato singer who travels along the Colombian coast en route to the funeral of his accordion teacher. The movie has stunning scenery of the coastal regions, from salt flats to mountainous indigenous villages to poor fishing towns with shacks on stilts. Check out the trailer:

If you still aren’t convinced that vallenato is fun (Colin), check out the Smithsonian collection Ayombe! The Heart of Colombia’s Musica Vallenata. The music is impeccably recorded, and features lengthy extended jam sessions with each instrument soloing. Check out samples from the album.

Be patient when getting into vallenato. You won’t instantly fall in love with it, and it may require a dozen Colombian parties before it starts making sense. Also, a few bottles of aguardiente or Colombian rum improve how vallenato sounds. Drink up, and ay hombe!

What do you think of Vallenato?

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Also see:

A Gringo’s Guide to Salsa
Chicha: An Ode to Peruvian Cumbia

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18 Responses to “Vallenato: Colombia’s Inexplicable Accordion Music”

  1. Mark

    04. Jun, 2012

    It’s a shame those accordions didn’t make it to Argentina.

  2. jesse

    06. Jun, 2012

    also helps to live with a costena who grew up an hour from valledupar. this one gets a lot of play at my place, like 15 times consecutively: felipe palaez ‘tu hombre soy yo’.

    vallenato is easy to dance to though. good writeup.

  3. Russ

    06. Jun, 2012

    One of the big problems with vallenato is that it’s gone mainstream and lost a lot of it’s soul. You should check out Los Viajes Del Viento, a really great film that deals with some of the myths around vallenato. There’s one great scene where two men want to have a fight, but can’t do so without someone playing accordion in the background.

    I’m currently working on a book, hoping to bring some of these sides of Colombian culture to life, and vallenato is an topic that will feature heavily. You can check out the plans for the book here: http://www.indiegogo.com/sc-colombia

  4. Jimmy

    07. Jun, 2012

    I love the haunting sound of old school Vallenato where a guy is crying about a lost love. Vives looks ridiculous with the trustafarian hair style.

    The accordian based sound of Vallenato is not unlike Norteno or Tejano, but I prefer the touch of Africa that Colombia adds to Vallenato.

    Patron de Patrones is a knock off of “Jefe de Jefes” by Los Tigres del Norte. “Jefe de Jefes” is about the deceased narco, Arturo Beltran Leyva.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKQwOuTiY-A&ob=av3n

    “La Chona” by Los Tucanes de Tijuana is a little happier song where that features the accordian. It is electrifying when played at a Saturday Night dance full of Mexicans.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nHYzCRa118

    Jimmy

  5. Jorge

    08. Jun, 2012

    Corridos prohibidos are not vallenatos!! Corridos are not colombian, they are mexican norteña music.

  6. Like the guest author, when I arrived in Colombia in early 2009, “Me Gusta Me Gusta Me Gusta” was everywhere. It was so catchy, I instantly liked it, but it wasn’t until later that I learned about vallenato as a whole genre.

    Silvestre Dangond is my favorite — I like his music as much as reggaeton’s Daddy Yankee and Plan B, or salsa’s Buena Vista Social Club and Willie Colon.

    I heard a little vallenato in Ecuador, and Peru, but by the time I was in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay it seemed to have disappeared.

  7. Greg

    12. Jun, 2012

    A lot of foreigners’ opinions on the genre are heavily influenced by the fact that they live in Bogotá or Medellin, where “vallenato romantico” is popular. The vallenato you hear in the interior of the country is quite different from what they listen to on the coast (Los Embajadores del Vallenato, for example, are generally looked at with disdain in Valledupar). And then of course, there’s the fact that vallenato has changed quite a bit over the years…generally for the worse.

    Diomedes is awesome, but the songs posted here are more recent and not where he’s at his best. Better, older Diomedes songs are “La Plata,” “Sin medir distancias,” and “por sue razon.”

    Excellent, classic composers or singers are Alejo Duran (“039,” “Fidelina,”), Leandro Diaz (“matilde lina,” “La Diosa Coronada”), Juancho Polo Valencia (“Alicia Adorada,” “Shio Shio,” “Si, Si, Si”). And then, of course, there’s Rafael Escalona, whose songs are probably the most well-known (“La Casa en el Aire,” “La Patillalera,” “Jaime Molina”). These are all very different from singers like Silvestre Dangond, whose music only vaguely resembles the folk roots of these composers.

    In the end, it helps to make a little investment in this type of music. It’s folk music, so it’s tough to appreciate unless you know who the singers are, the towns and people they’re singing about, etc. This guy has a lot of good videos that can give beginners some intro to some of the best singers/composers/songs: http://www.youtube.com/user/emccausland

  8. Kevin

    17. Jul, 2012

    “…She claims she was hanging out with a cousin, even though witnesses said the couple were sucking face…”

    –even if she said that, you still have the matter of ‘PRIMO ARRIMO’… Many Colombian men, seem to find no problem being intimate with their cousins, especially on the coast – if the opportunity presented itself.

  9. Jorge P

    22. Sep, 2012

    What about Lisandro Mesa who makes Ecuador his home? That’s old school Vallento.

  10. asdfgt26a

    28. Oct, 2012

    =

  11. Werner A

    31. Dec, 2012

    hehehe ..I may have a comparison for vallenato: rap.

    I like all new music genres, except rap. I see it as a bunch of resented black teenagers telling me how bad their life is and how much they would love to kick my white ass.

    Vallenato is similar in the sense that is about telling stories almost in prose and about a specific group. And at the end you ignore the stories and dance the music, mostly. Also, the stories can be very real, like the real narco in the real SUV with the real bodyguards above.

    The legend goes that it was invented by a guy, Francisco el Hombre, that went from town to town telling the news and sending messages in music “tell onofrio that his wife will forgive him if he comes back, but the creditors still want to beat the crap out of him”.

    Last but not least. You have done a terrific job so far, so good that i have passed part of a 31st december reading your stories about the country of my youth. But you really need to take a look at the Costa. Is a different country, ask “Gabo” if you don’t believe me :) ..and Vallenato is from there.

  12. Zach

    24. Apr, 2013

    I stopped reading once I saw that the author posted a Mexican Norteño while saying he doesn’t like Vallenato. I hate it when stupid ignorant Gringos (and I am saying this as one American to another in a very derogatory sense) can’t even tell the difference between Mexican and Colombian music. You have no credibility and you obviously don’t know anything about Colombian culture. You also give other expat Americans a bad name abroad. I wouldn’t hang out with you if I saw you.

    Vallenato is some of the most soulfull and romantic music around. It takes the accordion and makes it sound lovely. The lyrics are ingenious and original, which is proven by the fact that Bachata and Cumbia singers have been ripping off Vallenato songs for years. It is one of the most original an creative expressions of music out there. Definitely a must listen to.

  13. Juan Pablo

    22. May, 2014

    The guy who wrote this post about vallenato knows nothing about vallenato or Colombia and lives in a fantasy land called Colombia for gringos, which is basically Andres Carne de Res, where he probably spends all his times dancing with prepagos.

  14. Jose

    19. Jul, 2014

    Aniceto Molina, Colombian cumbia player, has borrowed extensively from the classic vallenato to create a blend that has made him popular in the southern United States, Mexico, and Central America. I see it as a genre that continuously evolves as musical tastes, technology, media, personal and worldly views, and the music industry grows/changes.

  15. kero

    09. Aug, 2014

    oh here is the gringo show off to determine who is more ignorant and who still has more gringo accent after living for so many years in south america!!!

    The guy took the time to write a piece for english speakers. And its good enough for someone who is just entering colombia and obviously not so fluent in spanish. If you need real information about vallenato OBVIOUSLY you need to look up sources in spanish.

    Or you can keep on shitting on each other and proving your own ignorance trying to show that you are better than the next gringo.

    By the way, you may realize at some point they like to call themselves AMERICANS over in South America too.

    And by the way, I am pretty sure Guiterrez and Henao are colombian.

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