In the background, famed vallenato accordionist Alfredo Gutiérrez was hammering out a tune with his foot whilst held aloft on the shoulders of five of his band members. 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?”
“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 decline.
This spectacle was complete and absolute mayhem – Colombian style – all seen through an Old Parr whisky-induced haze, seemingly the only drink to be had during the Vallenato Music Festival in Valledupar, an aesthetically underwhelming city of half a million inhabitants located close to the border with Venezuela and a bone-jarring 16-hour bus ride from Bogotá.
Having never had the opportunity to listen to vallenato music prior to the Festival de la Leyenda de Música Vallenata, I was now undertaking a pretty rigorous and intensive five day course as with my Catalan sidekick, Joan, we planned to assemble some sort of documentary on the event when troubadours from the interior narrate tales of love, myths and more interestingly politics, through the medium of music.
Vallenato could be loosely interpreted as folk, but is free of the uncool stigma associated with the genre. Children, adolescents, parents and grandparents alike can be found dancing to the four strains of vallenato: the puya, son, paseo and merengue. More aggressive than the “ranchera” music of Mexico and far less sexy than the tango of Argentina, vallenato is reaching an international audience spanning from Venezuela and Mexico to parts of Germany and Eastern Europe.
Festival organizers and record companies keep their fingers crossed that this musical phenomenon continues to grow and, given its inclusion as a category in the Latin Grammys, vallenato is becoming internationally recognized as 100 percent Colombian thanks also to artists such as Jorge Celedón and Carlos Vives, who are exhaustively marketed in the vallenato category.
To the 80,000 visitors present at this five day festival, there is nothing grander than this outdoor jamboree, initiated 46 years ago in the Alfonso López square by journalist and politician Consuelo “La Cacica” Araujonoguera. As so often is the case in Colombia, politics and the conflict inherent in 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 FARC guerrillas and following a failed military rescue attempt, executed.
Every event in the Festival Vallenata is dedicated to her memory and some years ago, the venue was moved from its birthplace in the town center at the Plaza Alfonso López to the Parque De La Leyenda stadium built and named in her honor.
Although many come here for the music, it is also a great gathering of the country’s elite: a five day cocktail party, where Old Parr is served generously and deals are struck in the shadow of Colombia’s majestic Sierra Nevada mountains. I head off to hear Carlos Vives in concert at the stadium on the outskirts of town. Not for the first time or the last, our taxi driver enquired as to whether we had yet bathed in the waters of the river Gautipurí. It is believed that those who feel the cool waters from the glacial melt of the Sierra Nevada will return to Valledupar. There was no time to take a dip, but a mental note has been made.
And how the people sang along with every one of Carlos Vives’ songs. To the left of the Press Area, Maria Consuelo Araújo – a Foreign Minister in the Uribe government – and others dance maniacally, putting their current political ills aside for the evening. All about us, the crowd heaves to the rasping noise of the traditional guacharaca, the hammering of the caja – a box drum – and frenetic accordion. Behind us, a political banner was raised. Politics and music in Valledupar seem incontestably linked.
Before leaving Bogotá for Valledupar, I spoke to as many Colombians as possible about the festival and its music. Regarding the event, the only response I could glean 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. Very often the stars make their turns here with copious amounts of Old Parr. It was at one party – at the upmarket “Callejon de las Estrellas” restaurant – that we were able to chat up former President Samper, coax him into singing on camera for the documentary and see Carlos Vives perform to an intimately small audience.
Live 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,” as one of the festival organizers described the event. But like Carlos Vives’ music, there is no doubt that it is an integral part of Colombian identity. At this parranda, in the company of famed vallenato artists, brothers Ciro and Alvaro Meza, I would learn of the origins of its music.
While there is music sounding from every plaza, the Parque de La Leyenda and countless other places during the Festival in Valledupar, the music that resonates from the boomboxes, car woofers, amps loaded onto trucks and from the parrandas in front gardens is something to behold. There is no thought of excessive volume, after all, you are here and you are to enjoy what is on offer. Some locals voiced their opinions that they were being priced out of the Festival Vallenata as it was becoming too large and prosperous, and that this in turn was hindering their enjoyment.
Another Valledupar resident asked that I not write too high profile an article about the festival as he did not wish to see too many foreigners arriving and therefore altering the ambience and spirit. I had to let him know that word was already out and that in each subsequent year there will be more tourists. I think he seemed relieved when I said that the evolution of the Festival could take place in the Parque de La Leyenda, but here, in the patio parties, the Festival would remain true to its roots.
Certainly my neighbors must be in accordance with this statement since their parranda started at 6:30 a.m. upon their return from the official events downtown, and in my fragile slumbers I think they finally collapsed near to 10 a.m.
The three principal instruments represent the different facets to the Colombian identity. The accordion, brought to these shores towards the end of the 18th century, represents the colonial and therefore European background. The guacharaca – an instrument somewhat delivering the same sound as 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 Africa. 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 is that here, despite the conflicts wrought between politics and music, at no point were Joan or I threatened in our investigations for the documentary. Every door was open to us, everyone found time to share a word, even the furiously busy and much in demand musicians such as Beto Jamaica, who saw fit to try and teach Joan a few notes on the accordion. The human warmth that accompanied the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata was nothing short of astonishing.
Reflecting on this, we made sure to bathe in the river to assure our return. Clambering back up the river bank, entire families were cooking sancocho soups on open-pit fires, slumbering in hammocks and seeing two foreign faces, repeatedly invited us to sit with them, lunch or toast with a whisky. This is Valledupar and the wonder of the Festival de la Musica Vallenata.