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Music, Parties, Colombia

In the background, famed Vallenato accordionist Alfredo Gutierrez was hammering out a tune with his foot whilst held aloft on the shoulders of five of his band members. Rock and Roll! In front of me, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper was handing me a pork scratching that I had just seen him retrieve from the floor.

“Are you hungry, have a pork scratching?”

“No thank you.”

“You can’t refuse this. This is a Presidential pork scratching.” Wise words uttered by the former President as he waved a Cuban cigar wand-like to illustrate the importance of his gift.

I politely declined.

This spectacle was complete and absolute mayhem – Colombian style - all seen through an Old Parr whiskey-induced haze. For whatever reason, it was seemingly the only drink to be had during the 40th Vallenato Music Festival in Valledupar, an aesthetically underwhelming city of half a million inhabitants located very close to the border with Venezuela and a bone jarring 16-hour bus ride north from Bogotá.

Having never listened to Vallenato music prior to coming to the festival, I was now undertaking a rigorous five-day introduction. From what I could tell, the festival brought numerous troubadours from the Colombian interior together to narrate tales of love, myths and (more interestingly) politics through the medium of this particular music.

Vallenato could be loosely interpreted as folk music, though it is free from any uncool stigma attached to folk. Children, adolescents, parents and grandparents alike can be found dancing to the four strains of Vallenato music: puya, son, paseo and merengue. More aggressive than the Ranchera music of Mexico and far less sexy than the Tango of Argentina, Vallenato music is reaching an international audience spanning from Venezuela and Mexico to parts of Germany and Eastern Europe.

Festival organizers and record companies are keeping their fingers crossed that this musical phenomenon continues to grow and, given its inclusion as a category in the Latin Grammy’s, Vallenato may one day become a worldwide genre. With Colombian artists like newcomer Jorge Celedon being exhaustively marketed by Sony and with internationally renowned pop star Carlos Vives making his mark within Vallenato's musical constraints, it could be that this music hits the big time beyond a Spanish-speaking market. But to the 80,000 visitors present at this five day festival, there is nothing greater than a jamboree initiated 40 years ago in the Plaza Alfonso Lopez by journalist and politician Consuelo “la Cacica” Araujonoguera.

As so often is the case in Colombia, politics and the conflict inherent in Colombian society have interfered in an event that should be far removed from the current state of affairs in this troubled country. Tragically, in 2001, Consuelo Araujonoguera was kidnapped by the leftist FARC guerrilla group and, following a failed military rescue attempt, executed. Every event in this Festival is dedicated to her memory and, some years ago, the Festival was moved from its birthplace in the town's Plaza Alfonso Lopez to the Parque De La Leyenda stadium that was built and named in her honor.

Vallenato and politics run thick in the blood of la Cacica’s family. Son Hernando Molina Araujo is Governor of the Cesar department, another (Rodolfo) is the President of the Vallenato Festival. Her brother, Alvaro Araujonoguera, is also currently in hiding and wanted by Interpol for serving in Andres Pastrana’s government, and her niece, former Minister of Foreign Relations Maria Consuelo Araujo, and nephew, Senator Alvaro Araujo Castro, are currently embroiled in a scandal linking the current government of President Alvaro Uribe to right-wing paramilitary groups and a suggested kidnapping and extortion of Valledupar’s former mayor.

Speaking with Maria Mercedes Molina Araujo, daughter of la Cacica, in her family’s home that looks out onto the Plaza Alfonso Lopez, she pointedly asked me whether her house appeared to be the last refuge of paramilitaries and kidnappers. Certainly this delightful colonial house where the brother of Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a Vallenato fanatic and able singer who once described 100 Years of Solitude to be nothing more than a Vallenato song of 450 pages - was enjoying a sun downer looked far from a paramilitary haunt. But how could we tell? Steering the conversation back to the music, Maria Mercedes continued:

“Classic Vallenato is like an ordinary Costeña (lady from the coastal region). Pretty with a good body but nothing overwhelmingly special. Vallenato music as played by Carlos Vives is like a Costeña dressed in an Armani outfit adorned with jewelry and makeup.”

With this image buried deep in my conscious, we were off to hear Carlos Vives in concert on the outskirts of town. Not for the first time or the last, our taxi driver inquired as to whether we had yet bathed in the waters of the river Gautipuri. It is said that those who feel the cool waters from the glacier melt from the mountains of the Sierra Nevada will return to Valledupar. There was no time to take a dip right now, but a mental note was made.

How the people danced and sang along with every one of Carlos Vives’ songs. To the left of the press area, Maria Consuelo Araujo put her political woes aside for the evening and danced. The crowd heaved to the rasping noise of the traditional guacharaca, the hammering of the caja drum and frenetic accordion. Behind us a banner was raised, “Alvaro Araujo es Inocente.” Politics and music in Valledupar are incontestably linked.

Before leaving Bogotá for Valledupar I spoke to as many Colombians as possible about the Festival and the music. The only response I could gather was one of regret that they were not attending the unstoppable parrandas. These Parrandas – best described as booze-soaked parties that run past dawn - are both public and private parties thrown during the duration of the Festival with live music.

To put a Parranda into context, I arrived home one morning around 6 a.m. exhausted from a full day of interviews, networking and whisky. Next door my neighbors were just setting up for their party. It ran until mid-day when, as I surfaced bleary eyed and weak of stomach, I could tell by all the scattered containers on the law, they had run out of alcohol.

Very often the stars make their turns here, and take copious amounts of Old Parr whiskey. It was at one party at the upmarket Callejon de las Estrellas restaurant that we were able to interview former President Ernesto Samper, coax him into singing on camera for the documentary and see Carlos Vives sing to an intimately small audience.

Vallenato music itself works here when performed to a small crowd. I am doubtful of its stadium appeal if it is not to be dressed up like a “Costeña in an Armani outfit” like Carlos Vives’ music, but there is no doubt that it is an integral part of the makeup of the Colombian identity. At this parranda, in the company of famed Vallenato artists, the brothers Ciro and Alvaro Meza, I would learn of the origins of Vallenato music.

The three principal instruments represent the different facets to the Colombian identity. The accordion, brought to these shores in the pirate ships at the latter end of the 18th Century, represents the colonial and therefore European background. The guacharaca, an instrument delivering a similar sound to a washboard or spoon along a cheese grater, is a traditional indigenous instrument. And the caja drum is something directly from the slaves hauled to this continent from African countries such as Guinea. All of these instruments mixed together in a pressure cooker like Valledupar and accompanied by a vocalist perhaps go some way to explaining the complexities and paradoxes of the continent.

The reality here is that, despite the conflicts wrought between politics and music, at no point was I threatened in my investigations. Every door was open to me, everyone found time to share a word, including furiously busy musicians such as Beto Jamaica, who saw fit to try and teach me a few notes on the accordion.

The human warmth that accompanied a Festival of this size was nothing short of astonishing. Reflecting on this, I made sure to bathe in the river to assure my return. I clambered back up the river bank. Entire families were cooking sancocho soups on open fires, slumbering in hammocks, seeing two foreign faces, and repeatedly inviting me to sit with them, lunch or toast with a whiskey. This is Valledupar and the wonder of the Festival de la Musica Vallenata.

Further Information

Travel tips: get in touch with any and every Colombian you know to ask them if they have family here in Valledupar. The city is short on hotels and hostels and during the festival, the only place to stay is to rent a room in a private house.
Must see/do at this place: Go and bathe in the Guatipuri River
You should avoid here: The heat!
Other helpful information: This is a truly Colombian fiesta and at some points it was noted that increased publicity from foreign journalists may be taking the Festival away from the people.



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By Richard McColl
With over five years travelling and working in Latin America, Richard feels most at home here in the big Continent. From the former Scottish...
28 Jan 2010


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