This is the latest post in the Colombia Blog Series by Kike Calvo, which profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on Colombia related to journalism, ecotourism, visual anthropology, exploration and photography. This article belongs to the author’s lifelong series The Güepajé Project.
For the past few weeks I embarked on a rather remarkable music exploration around Colombia with Colombia Photo Expeditions. Most people have probably heard of, and hopefully danced to, international hits by artists like Shakira and Carlos Vives. But fewer are familiar with other of the many folk rhythms, which are as vibrant and fascinating as the interconnection between music, literature and daily life in this country. Through my field notes, audiographs and conversations with locals, this article explores the diversity of musical expression in some of the musical hotspots in Colombia, ”the country of a thousand rhythms”, which are actually calculated at 1,025. Not too shabby.
A visit to San Basilio de Palenque is a trip back in time. Its insularity from mainstream Colombia is one of the reasons it was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The village is also considered the first free town in the Americas.
On arrival, travelers will be welcome by high temperatures and dusty streets. Maybe not much to this town after all? Wrong. The strong and proud Afro-Colombian spirit in this town tells the story of human tenacity and is likely to touch your heart. Four hundred years ago, when ships transporting African slaves arrived to Cartagena, many escaped and settled in then remote and hard to access Palenques. A statue of Benkos Bioho, who established Palenque in the early 1600s with other runaway slaves (cimarrones), embellishes the main square. Language of choice, Creole, celebrating their African roots.
I separated from my group trying to capture the essence of this town and I arrived a little late to Kombilesa Mi studio. When I entered I was blown away by the energy and the rhythms of resistance of this group. Lead by Afro Neto, their music combines the sounds of hip hop with Afro-Colombian roots. The new genre is called RFP, which stands for Rap Folklorico Palenquero. There is no doubt to me that this new generation of Palenquero musicians have a very distinctive vision and voice of their own.
“When I feel something, the first thing that I do is think about music,” said Jose Valdes Torres, member of Kombilesa Mi. “Music is a universal way to express all our feelings. The hardest thing here is that we are all farmers. We live from what the land gives us. Also from music, and from Las Palenqueras who visit Cartagena daily, in an attempt to sweeten the life of all Colombians (selling traditional sweets).”
“Here in Palenque we grow up by cuadros,” said Kombilesa member José de Jesús Valdes Sala. “The term refers to any kind of social organization. Whether your group of friends or a corporation you belong to, you share this friendships until the end of your life cycle.”
At Palenque´s Cultural Center I experienced being immersed in the rhtyhms of 15+ drums playing a symphony of color and sounds. ¨For us, drums are a key element of daily existance and culture in Palenque,¨said Andreus Valdes Torres, director of the Casa de la Cultura. “It is through them that we share our feelings, happy or sad. We use drums to say goodbye to our deceased during funerals. But we also use them to transmit happiness during our joyful celebrations. In Palenque you can listen to many rhythms including lumbalu, bullerengue, la chalupa, mapale, puya, catalina and culebra.”
Our Palenque experience continued with sampling of local cuisine delicacies near a banana plantation. We shared lunch with some local celebrities, such as musician and composer Rafael Cassiani, leader of El Sexteto Tabalá, known as Kings of the Son Palenquero. To understand the history of this place it is key to listen to songs such as Las Orillas de un Río and Clavo y Martillo. Tabalá means war drum in the local tradition.
AUDIOGRAPH: Son Palenquero sang by Rafael Cassiani. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo in a banana plantation. San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Headphones are recommended.
Emelia Reyes Salgado, La Burgos, and her group “Alegres Ambulancias de San Basilio de Palenque” showed up to this gathering. As the heavy rain adorned the atmosphere with background noise, La Burgos sang songs that are living proof of the espiritual bond of Palenque with Africa.
AUDIOGRAPH: “Graciela, Apaga la Luz” sang by La Burgos. Sound recorded in a banana plantation, San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Audio by Kike Calvo. Headphones are recommended
On departure, a strong rainstorm began in the area, with lightening striking not far from the roofed space where we had lunch. Then our van got stuck in the mud. As we pushed the van out of the mud I kept thinking about their Bantoo sounds and the cantos de Lumbalú. These Afro-Colombian funeral songs have remained intact for centuries, honoring the dead with rum and music.
As we drove away, Bullerengue sounds faded in the distance. A slow and emotional dance from the Caribbean Region, Bullerengue is a cumbia-based style traditionally sung exclusively by women.
For those who love Latin American music, Cali needs no introduction. Cali is considered the Salsa capital of the world. My first thought? I may have arrived to the right place.
For the locals or caleños, salsa is a native sound, a musical style to be proud of, and this clearly permeates the Cali culture. There are dozens of salsa schools in the city, Swing Latino, Rucafé, or Tango Vivo & Salsa Viva just to name a few. You could potentially dance salsa everyday of the week, which may actually be a dream to many.
But what stole my heart about music in Cali was the Viejotecas. In 2001 Popular Music magazine perfectly described the viejoteca phenomenon in Cali, referring to local discos that began holding afternoon dances, Old-theques, catering to the young at heart or 50+ crowds.
I visited La Matraca, in the Obrero Neighborhood to attend a private performance from Ensalsate, a dance cabaret type show, that fusions genres and musical rhythms, in a perfect combination of sounds, color and music.
When in Cali you will probably pass by a giant golden sculpture in the shape of a trumpet that reads the word Niche. It was created in memory of Choco-born musician Jairo Varela, creator of the salsa group Grupo Niche. Each of the bells plays the rhythm, harmony and melody of a different song. This landmark will point you to the entrance to the Museo Jairo Varela. Cali and Varela were forever immortalized in the nation’s rich musical history thanks to his nationally acclaimed song ¨Cali Pachanguero¨.
But Cali goes beyond salsa sounds. Each year, rhythms such as Currulao or Chirimia infuse the breeze that descends from the Farallones mountains. The city hosts the Petronio Alvarez Music Festival, where the Marimba de Chonta and other instruments are used to play the traditional music of the Colombian Pacific Region. Mesmerized audiences come to pay homage to the Afro-Colombian culture year after year, listening to local and international bands that play Pacific indigenous music.
Grandson of the iconic Colombian composer Petronio Alvarez, Esteban Copete, born in Choco, is one of the members of Kinteto Pacifico. Copete has explored the musical tradition of the Pacific Region, and now combines Currulao and other Pacific traditional rhythms with Jazz, Bossa Nova and R&B.
AUDIOGRAPH: Agua Abajo played on a Marimba de Chonta by Esteban Copete. Sound recorded in Cali, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo. Headphones are recommended
For musical explorers a visit to Bongo master José Ovidio Quinonez Workshop, locally known as Billo, could well be a treat. He integrated orchestras, which accompanied the different iconic singers such as Daniel Santos, Celia Cruz, Miguelito Valdez, Maelo Ruiz, Roberto Lugo, Luisito Carrion, Tito Nieves or Santiago Ceron. Today he works from his space in Barrio Villa Colombia, and teaches percussion to new generations.
“I arrived to this same house in 1962,” said Billo. “I never thought I would raise my family being a musician when I played Guarachas as a kid using old food cans. But it came true. My parents had to hide my drums so I would focus in my studies. But whenever I had the chance I would bring the rhythm out of those cans, Tiki tiki taka ta Tiki tiki taka ta.” His first recording was “Atiza y ataja” around the year 1971 with composer Edulfamid Molina Díaz, aka Piper Pimienta.
When asked what makes the Salsa from Cali so special he quickly answered. “It is the magic we as caleños bring to the stage when we perform,” said Billo. “A way of playing that people really enjoy, a special spice.”
As I arrive in the land of troubadours, Valledupar, a city in northern Colombia known as the capital of vallenato music, the snowy peaks of the Sierra stare at us. The word vallenato means native of the valley. The expression was later used to refer to the music created in this region. Every April, Valledupar hosts one of the most important music festivals in the country, The Vallenato Legend Festival.
Minutes after my arrival I decide to go for a stroll. Soon I see a big crowd gathering around a bright yellow bridge. As I get closer, young locals are cliff diving Acapulco-style, passing close to giant rocks, into the Guatapurí River. The pure water glides down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains all the way into town. My heart stops for a second when I approach the railings as the bridge is quite high. Then I raise my camera to compose a scene including the golden statue of Rosario Arciniegas, a little girl that according to legend, turned into a mermaid after swimming in these waters. Folk stories like this and daily life scenes fuel the Vallenato genre.
For any musical explorer, the Academia de Musica Vallenata Andrés Turco Gil is a must. Even the uninitiated will have their foundations rocked. Each classroom has the names of deceased “juglares” or singers. Alejo Duran, Colacho Mendoza, Juancho Rois surround in spirit pupils as they practice. The place is the alma matter of the talented Niños del Vallenato, who have performed for people such as Bill Clinton, Hugo Chávez and even the Emperor of Japan. “I don’t know where we would be without this music,” Gil said to the New York Times in 2004. “A pure vallenato tastes like the mountains, like the forests.”
Since 1979, master Andrés Eliécer Gil Torres (nicknamed “El Turco” by his grandfather), began teaching accordion under the shade of the trees in the patio of his house in the Primero de Mayo neighborhood. It was not until 1985, that “El Turco” Gil formally founded the music school. Bill Clinton, in his book “Giving: How each of us can change the world”, describes in one of his pages “I wish every conflict area had a teacher like Maestro Gil and children like Los Niños Vallenatos.
AUDIOGRAPH: Vallenato by country-side blind accordionist Juan David Atencia, student of the Academia de Música Vallenata Andrés “Turco” Gil. Valledupar, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo. Headphones are recommended
It doesn’t take long before the visitor realizes that valduparenses love their roots and make a conscious effort to show it. Multiple monuments around the city celebrate their roots. One hour north, in a small town called Patillal, the Parque de las Monedas is a fun outdoor monument that displays one meter golden coins portraying the faces of musical masters such as Rafael Escalona and Freddy Molina on one side, and lyrics of their songs on the other. And if you didn’t realize it, the name of the town comes from the delicious patilla fruit (watermelon).
Hidden in San Joaquin neighborhood we visited a music gem, Beto Murga’s Accordion Museum, that boosts a collection of accordions and bandoneons carefully curated. Hosted by Beto and his wife Rosa Duran, the couple charmingly shared with us the stories behind the collection with pieces originally from as far as Germany, Italy, Russia or the Czech Republic.
“This collection began from the nostalgia of a father,” said Murga. “When my son was five years old, I bought him a accordion. As he grew up, I kept it in my studio. What happened was that years after, Colombian vallenato composers Emiliano Zuleta Baquero (The Old Mile) and Moralito (Lorenzo Morales) visited my studio, and immediately they were drawn to my son’s accordion, starting to share stories about their early beginning. That is how I started doing field research about the world of the accordion.” Needless to say that from a musical controversy between the two in 1938, the Vallenato masterpiece of La gota fría emerged.
“Acordate Moralito de aquel día
Que estuviste en Urumita
Y no quisiste hacer parranda
Te fuiste de mañanita
Sería de la misma rabia …/…”
Before my day ended, we visited the headquarters of the Festival del Vallenato. Every year, The Festival features a vallenato music contest for best interpreter of accordion, caja vallenata and guacharaca, as well as piqueria (battle of lyrics) and best song. Its origin dates back to 1968 when the celebrated vallenato composer Rafael Escalona, Alfonso López Michelsen, and the writer Consuelo Araújo, came up with the idea of organizing a festival that celebrated vallenato, a musical genre that’s autochthonous to Colombia’s northern Atlantic coast.
As the breeze refreshed the starry Colombian night, Arahuaco singer and composer Jose Ricardo Villafañe joined us in a traditional parranda. With the arrival of the accordion in the 20th century the indigenous gaita pipes, which had been used since pre-Columbian times, was replaced.
AUDIOGRAPH: “La Casa en el Aire” sang in Arahuaco indigenous language by Ricardo Villafañe with Alvero José Lima. Valledupar, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo. Headphones are recommended
“In Valledupar the traveler will find sources of inspiration,” said Murgas. “Here we have singed to the mountains, to the flatlands, to the Rio Guarapuri, to our girlfriends. Here you will find friend gatherings or parrandas, were locals gather to listen to music and to sing songs pleasing their friends. This is why Valledupar is the Vallenato capital of the world.”`
In Los Llanos things still remain the way they used to be in many parts of the world. Cows are milked at dawn to accompany the morning coffee and gain energy for the daily chores. Daily tasks are accompanied by an oral tradition known as cantos de vaquería. Songs from the soul, and spread by the winds, that are still heard across the flatlands of Vichada, Arauca, Meta and Casanare. With masterful skills, locals milk the cows to the rhythms and whistles learned from their parents, in an improvised expression of identity and love of daily life.
There are four types of acapella songs: milking songs (canciones de ordeño); cattle driving songs (canciones del cabestrero); calming songs before sunset (canciones de vela); and taming songs (canciones de domesticación.) Each cow has a name, and a song is created for her.
AUDIOGRAPH: Canción de Vaquería by local llaneros. Villavicencio, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo. Headphones are recommended.
For those interested in venturing in the Colombian flatlands for a day, an option is to visit Gramalote Campo Ecologico on the outskirts of Villavicencio. This allows travelers to become llaneros for a day: from attempting to llaso, saddle and ride their new faithful steeds inside the ¨manga¨ to play rejo, made of the last sacrificed maute where the cowboys will capture a partner of the opposing team. For those interested in exploring the surrounding areas, horseback riding will get them to beautiful places such as “Salto del Angel” waterfall.
AUDIOGRAPH: Canción de Vaquería by local llaneros. Villavicencio, Colombia. Audio recorded by Kike Calvo. Headphones are recommended.
At the rhythm of Joropo, moving my feet in a zapateo motion I think about how Los llanos preserve not only natural beauty, but also the voices and identity of those Colombian cowboys fighting hard to preserve ancestral knowledge and vanishing traditions. Today these oral expressions are UNESCO´s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
There is something intrinsically musical in Colombia. I can’t easily describe it. Maybe it has to do with its isolation due to the political conflict in the last six decades. It could be the resilience of its people, or the sheer creativity of its artists, dancers and musicians. What I can say is that any musical exploration in Colombia echoes in us, travelers, when we venture beyond our fears of discovery. I would dare to add that Colombia is a culture that is best understood through its sounds.