History of Vallenato
Vallenato is a musical genre originating from Colombia and more precisely from the Caribbean coast of this country, which will favor its diffusion in Panama and Venezuela.
Traditionally, Vallenato is played with three instruments: the diatonic accordion, the guacharaca (instrument of Tairona origin) and the caja vallenata (small conical drum held between the legs).
Subsequently, the groups of Vallenato introduced the guitar, the reed flute and the typical instruments of Cumbia, another very popular musical genre in Colombia and most Latin American countries.
Origins of Vallenato
The word “vallenato” would be originally an expression to name the inhabitants of the region of Valledupar, a Colombian town on the border with Venezuela founded by the Spaniards in the Valley of Cacique Upar, “Valle de Upar”.
When asked the farmers of this region where they came from, they answered: “Soy nato del Valle” or “Soy del Valle nato”, which means: “I was born in the Valley”, hence the name of “Vallenato” for the natives of Valledupar.
Valledupar has organized every year since 1968 the “Festival of the Vallenata Leyenda”, a festival in Vallenato that attracts a lot of spectators.
But the Vallenato as a musical genre will have its roots in a much larger area than Valledupar since it was born from the songs of cowboys who take care of livestock in an area between the Rio Magdalena, Sierra Nevada Santa Marta and the Caribbean Sea, more than 200 years ago.
It is the arrival of the diatonic accordion which will bring to Vallenato its very characteristic style, an instrument of Austrian origin invented in 1829 by Kiril Demian in Vienna, which is introduced in Colombia by German immigrants on the coasts of the Guajira around 1885. The musicians of Vallenato will then modify it to give it this characteristic sound.
The first musicians of Vallenato were accordionists who created their own songs that could be classified as paseos, merengues, puyas, tamboras or sounds, recounting the latest events singing from village to village.
Among these troubadours history will remember Francisco “El Hombre” (Francisco Moscote) who was considered a real messenger who traveled on a donkey between Sabanas del Cesar and Guajira. Arriving in a village he settled with his accordion on the main square and sang the latest news.
Francisco Moscote is a true Vallenato legend, especially since the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez described it in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” as “an old globetrotter of nearly 200 years who frequently passed to Macondo by revealing the songs composed by himself and recounting with minute details the news of what had happened in the villages on his route “.
The evolution of Vallenato
Until the mid-1910s Vallenato spread throughout the region thanks to solo accordionists like Luis Enrique Martinez, Abel Antonio Villa and Alejo Durán. Then sets begin to be created around the accordionist singer accompanied by players of guacharaca and caja vallenata.
The Vallenato will begin to become known outside its area of origin in the 1920s and 1930s, a period known as the golden age of the Banana Zone of Magdalena Department, south of Santa Marta.
Workers are arriving from all over the country and the Caribbean to find a job at the United Fruit Company and will air the Vallenato tune they have listened to.
In this Banana Zone, the Vallenato will be played in what was modestly called at the time of the “dance academies” but which were in fact only prostibules where some songs saucy put the atmosphere.
It was at this time that Emiliano Zuleta Baquero composed his first song in 1928 and became one of the greatest singers in Vallenato. Ten years later, in 1938, Emiliano Zuleta Baquero wrote “La gota fría”, one of the most popular songs of this musical genre and will be repeated later by many artists such as Carlos Vives and Julio Iglesias.
A second wave of imigration will occur a few years later following the fall of the banana, replaced by the cotton fields around Valledupar which then need manpower. After the harvest, the workers return to their region of origin, taking with them the customs of Valledupar like his music.
In February 1943, another composer from Vallenato will compose his first work, the first of a very long list of songs that will mark the identity of Colombia. This man is Rafael Escalona, to whom Gabriel García Márquez paid homage in declaring that his novel “Hundred years of solitude” was a vallenato of 350 pages, quoting the musician in his main work as well as in “No letter for the colonel “.
In the 1950s, a smaller but elitist migratory movement opened the doors of Bogota’s salons in Vallenato. It is from this time that young musicians from bourgeois families will make this music known on their return from student travel.
From that moment on, the groups started to proliferate in Bogota and the record companies to do good business. The public wants to listen to new songs and groups of 6 to 20 musicians are formed to give more volume to Vallenato which is enriched by congas, electric guitars, tumbadoras, basses, maracas, electronic keyboards, brass and the drums.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Vallenato competes with the Merengue from the Dominican Republic, Salsa that begins to invade the United States and all the Caribbean, and all the rhythms that have spread from Cuba.
The Vallenata Leyenda Festival, whose first edition took place in April 1968, will be Vallenato’s main counterattack against the invasion of Latino music in Colombia.
It is Alejandro Durán, nicknamed “El negro Alejo” who wins this first festival dedicating the new king of Vallenato after having like all the participants interpreted the four rhythms peculiar to this musical style: paseo, sound, merengue and puya.
The Vallenata Leyenda Festival will allow Valledupar to become a major tourist center and every year a new Vallenato king will be dedicated.
Among these kings is the name of Nicolás Elías Mendoza who is crowned in 1969 and who will obtain the title of “King of Kings” in 1987.
Other great composers have become Kings of Vallenato at this festival as Calixto Ochoa (1970), Alfredo Gutiérrez (1974, 1978 and 1986), Omar Geles (1989), Hugo Carlos Granados (1999 and 2007).
In 1976, Israel Romero and Rafael Orozco created the group “El Binomio de Oro de América” which will quickly seduce the Colombian youth with songs like “La Creciente”, “Bonito amor”, “Momentos de amor” or “La gustadera “.
But Binomio de Oro will not be satisfied with its success in Colombia and will do many tours abroad, including Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador and the Caribbean. In October 1987, the group even arrives in the United States and gives a concert at the famous Madison Square Garden in New York.
But the violence in Colombia does not spare the musicians and, on June 11, 1992, Rafael Orozco is assassinated in Barranquilla. The death of Rafael Orozco is one of the events that has hit the world most in Vallenato, whether in Colombia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
Dancing the Vallenato
If the pace of Vallenato is slow, it is usually dance body against body, very quietly. When the pace is faster, the dancers move apart to have greater freedom of movement.
The Vallenato is very easy to dance: two steps on one side, two steps on the other, two steps forward and two steps back, the partner running the same steps in the opposite direction.
Other specialists will tell you that the choreography consists of taking two steps on one side then one in the center, two steps on the other side and then a step in the center and turn around between the partners.
But for many people, the Vallenato is not a ballroom dance but a weekend dance, so everyone does as he feels, depending on his state of the moment.
To better understand how the Vallenato is dancing watch the video below and simply reproduce the movements of the dancers.