Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Wire

As mentioned in a previous post, I went to Valledupar for the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenta, and I subsequently wrote an article on it for The Wire magazine. There is a jpeg of the article above, but I would recommend purchasing the mag as there are some other really cool pieces in there, including an interview with The Bug.

Sandwiched between the verdant peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serrania del Perija mountain ranges in north-eastern Colombia, Valledupar is the capital of the Cesar region and spiritual home of vallenato, an idiosyncratic form of Colombian folk music that is typified by its use of the German accordion. For the last 43 years, the town has annually thrown open its doors to all and sundry in celebration of its best-known export. The Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata is a four-day vallenato bender that brings an influx of well-to-do tourists from across the country who come to sample the delights not only of the music, but also of the entire vallenato culture.

Given the disregard that some Colombians show towards vallenato (although this is changing), it can be surprising to learn how deeply calcified the genre’s mythology has become. According to local legend, the first vallenatero was Francisco Moscote Guerra, or “‘Francisco El Hombre’, as he is most commonly known. Whilst he travelled the region reciting local lore, much like the French troubadours of the Middle Ages, he came across the devil, who challenged him to a duel. After hearing the devil’s rendition, Francisco replied by playing the Lord’s Prayer in reverse, confusing the devil and causing him to explode in a puff of sulphur.

In more historically accurate terms, vallenato is a product of wave after wave of immigration. The three basic instruments – the German accordion; the caja vallenata (a skin drum of African descent); and the guacharaca (a ridged, hollowed-out stick that is scraped with a wire fork) – perfectly represent the fusion of cultural influences that vallenato encapsulates.

The first accordion arrived in the region in 1850. At that time, Riohacha, the capital of Cesar’s neighbouring Guajira region, was a more important port than either Cartagena or Barranquilla, and was used as a base by Austrian, German and Dutch pearl hunters. In need of an easily transportable instrument for their long sea journeys, these adventurous sailors brought the German Schifferklavier accordion (usually made by Hohner) with them, and it soon spilled over into the local communities, a hybrid mix of black slave descendents, Kogi, Aruhaco, and Wayuu indigenous peoples, and mulatto Spaniards.

By all accounts, the accordion hit the Colombian coast like a plague, but as Félix Carrillo Hinojosa, a local folklorist, vallenatero, and the man responsible for getting vallenato recognised at the Latin Grammys, points out, “it was the only invader in our history that hasn’t done us any harm”. Within a couple of years, there were three official Hohner outlets along the coast, but despite the interest, it remained an instrument of the proletariat, the perfect complement to the lackadaisical myth making tendencies of Gabriel García Márquez’s otherworldly land.

Yet for all the lack of specificity surrounding vallenato’s origins, the rules for those competing at the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata are strictly codified. One of the striking things, particularly for a European, is how analogous vallenato practices are with the culture of the pre-Renaissance and even Hellenic worlds. The Dionysia was the largest of the Greek tragedy festivals, during which playwrights would present three tragedies they had composed especially for the event, often followed by a shorter, comic satyr play. Most of the choral parts were sung, and the winner was chosen by the public. The Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata also partakes in this competitive cultural agenda: the prize, for accordion players at least, is to be crowned Rey Vallenato, literally the king of vallenato. In order to win, they have to excel in one of each of the four aires or rhythms: the paseo, the merengue, the son and the puya. The finals take place in a specially designed amphitheatre.

Another key part of the competition since the time of Francisco El Hombre’s confrontation with the devil has been the piqueria. Much like hiphop MC battles, the themes explored in these lyrical jousts can make or break the reputations of aspiring vallenateros. In Valledupar, the the official business is split between the Plaza Alfonso López , a shady colonial square in the heart of the city, and the specially designed Parque de la Leyenda Vallenata "Consuelo Araújonoguera", but every street corner is littered with parrandas, hired musicians who serenade the whiskey-guzzling drug dealers and their bored-looking women. Throughout the city, the squawking tones of the accordion are an incessant accompaniment, with the tinny speakers of passing taxi cabs distorting the yodel-like choruses into something eerily dulcet and foreign. In these uproarious surroundings, vallenato can be hard to love, but it’s difficult not to enjoy.

The 43rd Festival was a homage to the life of Rafael Escalona, the founder of the festival and lifelong friend of García Marquez, who once told him that his novel One Hundred Years Of Solitude was little more than a 350-page vallenato. Accordingly, all aspirants to Rey Vallenato were obliged to play one of his compositions.

Julián Mojica grew up under Escalona’s influence, and he is testament to the growth of vallenato in recent years, not only in popularity, but also in credibility. Hailing from the mountainous region of Boyacá, this young accordion player came third in the Rey Vallenato competition this year, but his dedication to the genre is unwavering, despite its relative lack of popularity in the interior of the country.

His supporters however, sum up much of what the festival is about. Gorging on Old Parr, a blended Scotch whisky that is sold almost exclusively in Colombia and which is the drink of choice for most festivalgoers (leading some to rebrand the town ‘Valldeoldparr’), they represent a growing sub-section of the Colombian population: financially independent, free to travel safely domestically, and keen to celebrate their cultural heritage. With their artisanal hats and their flash, imported pickup trucks, they are the modern face of vallenato, both agrarian and moneyed, simple yet sophisticated. As Hinojosa acknowledges, this frisson between high and low culture is integral to the genre’s genetic composition, and part of its enduring charm: “Vallenato is a generous music; noble, humble, simple, but above all generous.”

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