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Monday, April 30, 2012

Black Roots of Colombia's Vallenato Music

A griot from Senegal, West Africa

For a long time, I was very curious after stopping in a black bar for a beer in Cartagena, Colombia and listening to the music. Like every country in the world, Colombian music is diverse, and the popularity of these genres of music depends on the region. Before my short trip to Colombia, I knew salsa music was popular because I'm a fan of a group that every salsa music lover knows as Grupo Niche. What most salsa music lovers don't know is that Grupo Niche was originally started by two Afro-Columbians in the city of Cali, Colombia's salsa music capital. Then there is cumbia music, which began as a courtship dance of African slaves, and over a period of time meshed with Spanish and indigenous musical styles and instrumentation. But I heard very little about Vallenato music, and was so surprised to hear only vallenato music in that black bar, and not cumbia or salsa.  

Juglares travel and tell stories through music

From my research ignited by my curiosity that overcame me in that black Colombian bar, I learned that Vallenato started out as black popular music on the Caribbean coast in the tradition of West African story tellers known as griots. There were also farmers near a valley called Valledupar, which kept the tradition of Spanish minstrels known as Juglares (pronounced who-glah-rez),  mixing their style with the blacks, traveled throughout the region with their cattle for greener pastures or to sell their cattle at fairs. These farmers served as newsbearers because communication about what was going on was extremely slow, specifically for family members outside their towns or villages. Thus, vallenato became very popular.

Vallenato literally means "born in the valley"particularly in the city of Valledupar (Valley of Upar) where this genre of music began. Like African-American blues, vallenato was a rural genre of African music combined with its environment to give that strong rhythm of African influence.  Vallenato has always been popular in the countryside, but it gained urban popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  In 2006 Vallenato and cumbia were added as a category in the Latin Grammy Awards.

One of the most popular vallenato songs of all time: 
Un Camino de la Vida