Jorge Velosa: Colombia’s lone ranger of carranga

Composer Jorge Velosa of the Carrangeros de Raquira.
Composer Jorge Velosa of the Carrangeros de Raquira.

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 interview with the lead vocalist of Los Carrangueros de Raquira will pan out. Then again, Velosa is a poet, songwriter and revered lyricist of Colombia’s rich musical landscape.

Warning me that doctor’s orders prevented him from straining his stage voice, Velosa plucks through each word recalling his early years as a student at Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, where, during the 1970s, he “joined student marches” while studying to become a veterinary physician.

As the original founder of a band that has made musical history in Colombia over five decades, “carranga” has evolved into a unique musical genre; one rooted in the narratives of Boyacá farmers. As Velosa navigates the interview, he drives the first message home: “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 rural department and part of the greater hinterland of a “provincia” that encompasses the central Andes highlands, rift valleys of Santander and verdant plateaus of Cundi-Boyacence heartland.

With a degree from the “Naco” (National University), Velosa took the decision to return to the province, taking a job with the cultural faculty of the Universidad de Tunja. After a brief personal trip to Central America, this lone ranger of rhyme set up a hearth in the valley of Ubaté, a dairy producing community coupled to Chiquinquira and home to the patroness of Colombia – Nuestra Señora del Rosario.

As a gifted player of tiple, the iconic 12-metal string guitar commonly used by Andean troubadours for local gatherings, Velosa “a devotee of word and song” finds in “carranga” his musical calling. Carranga is a term used by local farmers to describe a certain type of individual who would pick up sick and injured animals, and “miraculously” transform their hides for human use.

Ensconced in his inner 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 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 Radio Furatena to see if there was an opportunity to launch a weekly segment themed around country music. “The radio station owner didn’t think twice about it,” recalls Velosa. “Our consign with Canta el Pueblo (Let the people sing) was to break stereotypes of songwriting traditions.”

The Hermanos Rodriguez’s stage legacy fizzled after eight days with the show and woolly band members decked in equally woolly ruanas. They relaunched as Los Carrangueros de Raquira. “The heart of carranga goes against all 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 “Rs” caused great impact.”

Chiquinquira became Carranga Town. On Saturdays, when the show was in full swing, locals tuned-in and absorbed “everything that had to do with popular culture.” But the band needed to keep the pace. The social impact of the music required Velosa’s prolific writing. “I knew from the letters we received that we were on the cusp of something big.” Monumental it became.

The band was in demand and they took to the stage, strumming their tiples, plucking at requintos (four-stringed mini guitars), and scratching the grooves of a slotted board, known in the region as the guacharaca. Crowds rallied to songs brimming with local folklore, celebrating the tribulations of carpenters and dairymaids. Los Carrangueros were more than four voices with Andean strings, they were a cultural vortex.

The music left Boyacá and band members Jorge Eliecer González, José Fernando Rivas and Manuel Cortés became instant folk heroes. After performing one night in Bogotá a repertoire of new songs, which included Boyacá-inspired anthems such as La pirinolla, Julia Julia, Julia and Rosita de las cartas, Los Carrangueros de Raquira were approached by a Mexican producer who wanted to take them to New York City to headline at Madison Square Garden for the 1981 Hispanic Day. Assuming  their Boyacense respectability, the band was poised for Sixth Avenue fame.

As gala night approached, Velosa and the other Carrangueros scrambled for passports and assembled bags of a much-appreciated, very Colombian travel food: dried fava beans. The idea was to share these toasted goodies among friends and fans. It was, after all, going to be a grand night of celebration, with musicians José Luis Rodríguez “El Puma,” Miguel Bose, Tito Puente, Astor Piazzolla, headlining the same stage.

The toasted fava beans got the dogs sniffing at JFK, and after a long interrogation by customs officials, the bearded bandsmen in their fedoras headed for Midtown.  From the hotel to the Garden “nobody believed we were a star act,” recalls Velosa, “until I pulled out a page from The New York Times in which our name appeared in bold print. 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 the “Carrangueros of Liverpool.”

Visit any Colombian household, especially those who left this nation decades ago, and there, most likely, are stacked vinyls by Los Carrangueros de Raquira. Even though for Velosa their music is joyful and a celebration of rural bliss, for many, the music touches deep emotions. Melodies tinged with nostalgia. Hymns to innocence and wonder. The band composed many songs for children and carranga-infused lullabies are embedded in the musical repertoire of schools across this nation.

At age 72, Velosa remains the heart and soul of Los Carrangueros. With 20 albums and more than 200 songs to his name, the last “Beatle of Boyacá” recently performed alongside the National Symphony Orchestra with a symphonic work Carranga Sinfónica. And many emerging bands are following in the musical limelight of the original Carrangueros, among them Los Rolling Ruanas. “I don’t want an epitaph. I have opened a path for music in Colombia, and one, which all generations can enjoy.”


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