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Should’ve Been there, Reflections on the 40th Vallenato Festival

In the background the famed Vallenato accordionist, Alfredo Gutierrez was hammering out a tune with his foot whilst held aloft on the shoulders of five of his band members.

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 40th Vallenato Music Festival in Valledupar, a not unpleasant city of half a million inhabitants located very close to the border with Venezuela and a bone jarring sixteen hour bus ride north from Bogota.

Having never had the opportunity to listen to Vallenato music prior to coming to the 40th Festival de Musica Vallenata in 2007, 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. And what better year to be here than in its 40th edition when the numerous troubadours from the Colombian interior narrate in their uneducated yet accessible fashion, tales of love, myths and more interestingly politics, through the medium of this particular music.

Vallenato could be loosely interpreted as folk music, but is free of the uncool stigma attached to folk. Children, adolescents, parents and grandparents alike can be found dancing to the four strains of Vallenato music, puya, son, paseo and merengue. More aggressive than the Ranchera music of Mexico and far less sexy than the Tango of Argentina, Vallenato music is reaching an international audience spanning from Venezuela and Mexico to parts of Germany and Eastern Europe.

“Classic Vallenato is like an ordinary Costeña (lady from the coastal region). Pretty with a good body but nothing overwhelming special,” according to Maria Mercedes, the daughter La Cacique, the founder of the festival. “Vallenato music as played by Carlos Vives is like a Costeña dressed in an Armani outfit adorned with jewellery and makeup.”

Taking this image we were 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 Gautipuri. It is said that those who feel the cool waters from the glacier melt from the mountains of the Sierra Nevada will return to Valledupar. There was no time for myself or Joan to take a dip right now, but a mental note was made.

How the people danced and sang along with every one of Carlos Vives’ songs. All about us the crowd heaved to the rasping noise of the traditional guacharaca, the hammering of the caja drum and frenetic accordion.

Before leaving Bogota for Valledupar I spoke to as many Colombians as possible about the Festival and the music. Regarding the Festival 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, and imbibe copious amounts of Old Parr whisky. It was at one party at the upmarket Callejon de las Estrellas restaurant that we were able to interview former President Ernesto Samper, coax him into singing on camera for the documentary and see Carlos Vives sing to an intimately small audience.

Live Vallenato music itself works here when performed to a small crowd. I remain doubtful of its stadium appeal if it is not to be dressed up like a “Costeña in an Armani outfit” like Carlos Vives’ music, but there is no doubt that it is an integral part of the makeup of the Colombian identity. At this parranda, in the company of famed Vallenato artists, the brothers Ciro and Alvaro Meza, I would learn of the origins of Vallenato music.

While there is live music sounding from every plaza, Hotel forecourt, the Parque de La Leyenda and countless other places during the Festival in Valledupar. The music that resonates from the boom boxes, 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 here to enjoy what is on offer. Certainly my neighbours must be in accordance with this statement since their parranda started at 6.30am upon their return from the official events downtown and in my fragile slumbers I think they finally collapsed near to 10am.

The three principal instruments represent the different facets to the Colombian identity. The accordion, brought to these shores in the pirate ships at the latter 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 African countries such as Guinea. 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.

Reflecting on the human warmth that accompanied us all through the Vallenato Festival, 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 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.

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