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.
Basic vallenato consists of three instruments:
- The caja, a small drum played with bare hands like a bongo (which arrived along with the slaves from Africa)
- 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.
- 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
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!