If T.S.Eliot measured life with coffee spoons, then Jorge Velosa has counted his with couplets. As I recite a line from The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock, “And indeed there will be time…” I wonder how the scheduled interview with the lead vocalist of Los Carrangueros de Ráquira will pan out. Then again, Velosa is a poet, a songwriter, and a revered lyricist of the Colombian existence.
Having warned me that doctor’s orders prevented him from straining his stage voice, Velosa selects each word thoughtfully, plucking them one by one from the inner reaches of memory. He recalls his early days as a student of the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, where he “joined in the student marches” while studying to become a veterinary physician. “I am really bad with dates,” warns Velosa, “but the roots of it all begin in the 1970s.”
As the original founder of a band which made musical history for Colombia during four decades, “Carranga” evolved into a unique musical genre; and one rooted in the many narratives of Boyacá’s farmers. Velosa carefully navigates the conversation, driving the first message home: “I need you to remember that this isn’t about me. It’s about ‘carranga.’”
Born in the pottery-making village of Ráquira in 1949, Velosa’s universe was grounded in a love and admiration for his department, Boyacá and part of the greater hinterland of a “provincia” which encompasses much of cen- tral Colombia: from the rift valleys of Santander to the verdant plateaus of Cundinamarca.
Upon finishing his degree at the National University, this son of an extended Boyacá family takes the decision to return to the “provincial” by assuming a post within the cultural department of the Universidad de Tunja. After a brief personal trip to Central America, Velosa decides to set up his hearth in the green valley of Ubaté: a farming community coupled to Chiquinquira, the bustling commercial hub of Boyacá, and of great religious significance for the locals given the sacred shrine of the Basilica Nuestra Señora del Rosario.
As a gifted player of the ‘tiple,’ an iconic 12-metal string guitar commonly used by Andean troubadours for local gatherings, Velosa “a devotee of both word and song” comes across a regionalism “carranguero” used by farmers to describe a certain type of individual who would pick up sick and injured animals, and “miraculously” transform their hides for human use. Often the innards of these dying creatures would be sold clandestine to city markets.
Ensconced in a green vale, Velosa, heard on community radio that the local Furatena station was inviting musicians to perform for a farmer’s music festival known as the ‘Guitarra de Plata Campesina.’ He asked his University friends, with whom he dabbled in marches and music, to join him representing his “vereda” (county) at the local contest. They composed two songs, and the response was immediate. The newly- formed ensemble was placed “out of contest” for being too “professional.” Velosa’s first compositions, inspired by folk tales of dairy farmers, were played under the band’s first name “Los Hermanos Rodríguez”.
On the heels of the festival, Velosa approached Furatena radio to see if there was an opportunity to launch a weekly segment themed around country music and tales. “The radio station owner didn’t think twice about it,” re- calls Velosa. “Our consign with ‘Canta el Pueblo’ (Let the people sing) was to break stereotypes of embedded notions of our song writing traditions.”
The ‘Hermanos Rodríguez’ name lasted eight days given the impact of the show and the melodic sonority of a group decked in wooly ruanas. They relaunched through ‘Canta el Pueblo’ airwaves as Los Carrangueros de Ráquira. “At the heart of ‘carranga’ is going against all that is convention,” states Velosa. “With the change of name we got a head start on many contemporary rock bands. Our name was semi-clandestine, brazen and the rolling of the letter R caused great impact.”
Chiquinquira became a Carranguero town. On Saturdays when the show was in full swing, locals tuned in and ab- sorbed “everything that had to do with popular culture.” But the band needed to keep the pace. The “social impact” of the music required plenty of song writing. “I knew from the letters we started receiving that we were on the cusp of something big.” Monumental it would become.
The band was in demand and they took to the stage, strumming the tiple, plucking at a requinto (four-stringed mini guitar) and scratching the grooves of a slotted board, known across the region as the guacharaca. Crowds rallied to songs brimming with local folklore, those which celebrated life in the countryside from the tribulations of woodcutters to dairymaids. ‘Los Carrangueros’ were more than four voices with Andean strings, they became a cultural vortex.
The music left Boyacá and band members Jorge Eliecer González, José Fernando Rivas and Manuel Cortés be- came instant folk heroes. After performing one night in Bogotá a repertoire of new songs, which included Boyacá in- spired anthems such as ‘La pirinolla,’ ‘Julia Julia, Julia’ and ‘Rosita de las cartas’, Los Carrangueros de Ráquira were approached by a Mexican producer who wanted to take them to New York City and headline them at Madison Square Garden for the celebration of the 1981 Hispanic Day. Assuming Boyacense respectability, the band took it as a distant, off-the-cuff, proposal.
As gala night approached, Velosa and the other ‘Carrangueros’ realized that the offer of playing in the world’s venue of music was in earnest. They scrambled for passports and assembled bags of a much-appreciated, and very Colombian travel item: dried fava beans. The idea was to share the toasted goodies among friends and fans. It was after all going to be a grand night of celebration, with musicians Jose Luis Rodríguez “El Puma,” Miguel Bose, Tito Puente, the ‘’king’’ of salsa and Astor Piazzola, a jazz accordionist from Argentina, joining them in Madison Square Garden.
The toasted fava beans resulted in a long wait at JFK and interrogation by suspicious customs officials. Then the bearded bandsmen wearing their made in Boyacá fedoras weren’t picked up by the limo driver at the hotel. No one wanted to believe they were a star act at the prestigious venue, until Velosa pulled out a page from the New York Times in which their name appeared in bold print. After push came to shove ‘Los Carrangueros de Ráquira’ finally hit the stage and broke out in a display of raucous rhythm. The great adventure of Madison Square Garden resulted in a coy remark lauding the band’s international projection as the “Beatles of Boyacá.” Velosa responded. “No. The others are really the “Carrangueros of Liverpool.’”
Visit any Colombian household, especially those who left this nation decades ago, and there most likely will be stacked vinyls by ‘Los Carrangueros de Ráquira.’ Even though for Velosa, their music is joyful and a celebration of all that is good in the countryside, for many it’s a music that touches deep-seated emotions. Melodies tinged with nos- talgia. Songs to cry to. Hymns to a Colombia born of innocence and wonder.
The band has composed many songs for children and their carranga-infused lullabies are embedded in the musical repertoire of schools across the nation.
‘Los Carrangueros de Ráquira’ continue to perform in much coveted musical venues. They have recorded 20 albums with more than 200 original songs. More recently, Velosa was invited by the National Symphony Orchestra to work on a symphonic Carranga Sinfónica, available on CD and which was debuted in Boyacá’s capital, Tunja.
While Colombia can take great pride in having diverse rhythmic traditions spanning the breadth and width of the nation, “carranga,” so far, is considered the only music which has evolved into a genre, given the peculiar choice of instruments, the precise layering of couplets and the fact that one can place it right at the heart of a specific territory. And many bands have followed in the steps of the original ‘Carrangueros.’ This makes Velosa proud. “I don’t want an epitaph. I have opened a path for music in Colombia and one which all generations can enjoy.”
Velosa was honored in 2012 by his Alma Mater, the Universidad Nacional, with an Honoris Causa degree for a life-time contribution to Colombian music and culture.
In a rather bizarre, yet equally fitting tribute, amphibian expert and Professor of Natural Science, Dr. John Lynch, upon discovering a species of frogs in the Boyacá forests (around the same time he had stumbled upon yet another amazing “discovery”: the music of carranga) decided to scientifically name the species Eleutherodactylus Jorgevelosai and Eleutherodactylus Carranguerorum.
For Velosa it’s very providential. “One day, when our planet is extinguished there will be someone who will make an inventory of all that once existed. In that great collection of plants and species, our unseen entity will come across two words: Jorgeveloserai and Carranguerorum.” Spoken, of course, with the sensitivity of a master poet. And as a composer who introduced Colombia’s music to the world.