- /The Following Analysis Will Eschew
The Following Analysis Will Eschew
The following analysis will eschew the essentialist and reductive tendency within dialogues of popular music to state that music either provides listeners, artists, and producers with a homogenous identity, or is simply a way groups of people express a fixed or static identity. This reduction of identity to categories with clear and unmoveable delineations, whilst helpful in some respects, is in my opinion a reductive method of approaching ethnomusicological study. Rather, this analysis will be informed by Simon Frith’s (1996) exploration of popular music, which considers it to be the site of exploration for a variety of interrelated and, in some cases, conflicting identities. Indeed, music has long been thought to simply ‘reflect’ or ‘represent’ those engaging with it, in a simple transactional manner. Frith (1996) however, in his discussion of music and identity, places emphasis on the very mobile nature of identity, stating that music creates and constructs an experience that we can only make sense of by taking on both a subjective and collective identity. These ideas will be channelled in the following discussion of racial, local/national, class, and gender identities as explored through a select group of artists and composers pertaining to the vallenato tradition. It is key to move away from an academically essentialist notion of music as a simple expression of identity, and towards music as a platform or site of mediation upon which numerous individual subjective and collective identities can encounter and develop. Indeed, within the realm of cultural studies, theorists including Jesús Martin Barbero, Carlos Monsiváis, and Nestor Garcia Canclini have sought to challenge the essentialism prevalent in scholarship. Both music and identity are fluid and heterogeneous notions, and to attempt to conceive them as fixed is erroneous and restrictive. It is important to note that my aim in this analysis is not to provide a historical account of vallenato music, mapping it from early days to contemporary manifestations, and so any temporalizing understandings of the genre are secondary to my aims here. The move away from the historical in this analysis signifies that there are arguably canonical figures within the vallenato tradition that will not be subjected to close analysis; including reference to all figures would largely dilute the analysis and so for clarity I have decided upon three main individuals through which numerous themes relating to and interrogating Colombian identity will be explored and elucidated. In addition to Simon Frith, this analysis will engage a number of theorists, including Peter Wade, Helene Cixous, Laura Mulvey, Julia Kristeva, and Ana Maria Ochoa, in order to develop specific arguments relating to the configurations of gender, race, and geographic space within the genre.
Music articulates in itself an understanding of both group relations and individuality, on the basis of which ethical codes and social ideologies are understood (frith 1996a)
If narrative is the basis of music pleasure, to put this another way, it is also central to our sense of identity. Identity, that is to say, comes from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.
Jonathan Ree: The problem of personal identity, one might say, arises from play-acting and the adoption of artificial voices; the origins of distinct personalities, in acts of personification and impersonation.
3. El Sombrero de Alejo: Racial Tensions in Vallenato
It’s around 6pm, the sun has started to fade from the Valledupar sky, but the city is still heavy and thick with the heat of the day. I walk around the plaza Alfonso López, turn back on myself, and saunter down a few streets, aiming to pick up some food before heading back to my hostel. An elderly man ambles in front of me, then turns suddenly, you scared me! he laughs. We walk down the street together and get chatting; he asks me what I am doing in Valledupar and so I explain my research. Much to my surprise he exclaims I think God put you in my path! I ask why he and he volunteers that he is on the committee of a commemoration for Alejo Durán, el Rey de Los Reyes, vallenato king and twice winner of the Festival de La Leyenda Vallenata. Enrique, he introduces himself as with a firm handshake, invites me for a drink in a nearly plaza, and as he ambles over to the kiosk to get served, I sit in incredulous disbelief. A large plasma television takes up most of the café/bar, and is screening the latest vallenato releases; at this moment Silvestre Dangond is claiming that his heartbreak is over, ya no me duele mas!. This is, quite possibly, the most organic situation I have ever found myself in, and I relish every moment speaking to this friendly old man, who, with great difficulty, insists on calling all his acquaintances in his inner circle to ask them to help me with my project. I take a sip from the ice-cold bottle of Club Colombia and listen to his soft soliloquising about the revered figure of Alejandro Durán.
There are many conflicting ideas and indeed opinions surrounding the origins of Vallenato, with little concordance in academic circles surrounding exact dates, places, or protagonists. The origins of the genre as a syncretic fusion of indigenous, African, and Spanish instruments and traditions are generally accepted, with the now ubiquitous accordion thought to have been included in the instrumental composition of the genre shortly after its arrival onto the shores of the Colombian coast as early as 1860 (Bermúdez 2012). What cannot be disputed however, is that one of the most pivotal figures to compose and perform within the vallenato tradition was Alejandro Durán, the first king and two-time winner of the Vallenato Legend Festival in Valledupar.
Alejandro Durán, more commonly referred to as simply Alejo, was one of the most emblematic figures of the vallenato tradition, renowned for his musical prowess and knowledge of the genre. Hinojoso (year) draws upon Durán’s respect for the genre, declaring him a mensajero de los viejos tiempos, a nod to the early roots of vallenato as a communicatory method synthesized from the Spanish and African traditions of Minstrels and Griots. Durán, the fenómeno humano, is revered in critical circles, for he stands for a great deal more than his talented musicianship; his prominence within the vallenato culture is bolstered by not only his musical expertise but also by his role as an Afro-Colombian man considered by some to be the most important figure in the history of vallenato. Indeed, one of the most iconographic elements of the vallenato tradition and genre, the sombrero vueltiao, was popularised by Durán, and has now come to figure as one of the most prominent emblems of the music, and of Colombian identity. Once worn by peasants and labourers, the hat has a distinctive black and white pattern, and is woven from thin strips of caña flecha, a type of cane tree local to the country. Tourists at Bogota’s El Dorado airport are flogged these artisanal hats before they depart, and whilst one bought in Valledupar will only cost around 120.000 pesos (£31), the last ditch attempts of tourists to depart with a fragment of Colombia in their hands can set them back more than double, at a whopping 259.000 pesos (£68). Durán’s role in popularising the Sombrero Vueltiao, aside from being acknowledged in vallenato circles and within Colombia, was concretely referred to at the 2018 Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata, with Carlos Vives’s homage song El Sombrero de Alejo featuring an amalgam of vallenato stars new and old, including Silvestre Dangond, Jorge Celedon, and Peter Manjarrés. Durán gave the vallenato tradition one of its most easily recognisable emblems, one that is reproduced in art, and features on the walls of Valledupar in adverts for businesses and services, and now represents an icon of colombianness, worn by everyone from incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos to Prince Charles on his visit to the country as a hallmark of engagement with the nation. Aside from a material contribution, the obras of Durán, amongst them Matilde Linda, Alicia Adorada, and Pedazo de Acordeon, are considered as classics, and have been interpreted by contemporary artists such as Silvestre Dangond and Carlos Vives. The above paints a picture of a figure with great cultural importance, and the key role played by Durán in a genre that represents a site of mediation and interrogation of identities is acknowledged in academic circles, with Tomas Dario Gutierrez Hinojoso, a vallenato historian who has chronicled the origins of the genre, stating:
Su vida y obras han tenido el privilegio de ser objeto de los medios de comunicación modernos, de tal modo que su humilde y extraordinaria grandeza selló con orgullo a la identidad cultural colombiana.
As a canonical figure within the vallenato tradition, and more than simple point of departure for exploring of Colombian identity through the genre, Alejo Durán is relevant to this analysis for his status as an Afro-Colombian man. Indeed, a consideration of the social context in which Durán came to enjoy commercial success is imperative to this analysis, as he is one of the first Afro-Colombian musicians to enjoy commercial success at a time when both state and unofficial narratives were guilty of invisibilising black Colombian identities. In order to successfully illustrate Alejo Durán’s importance as a black artist within the vallenato tradition -and with this, the music’s unique articulation of questions of race and ethnicity- it is necessary to situate black identity and issues of race in Colombia within the wider context of the 1950s, when the artist began actively to produce and perform vallenato music. Indeed, Durán’s success in spite of the turbulent nature of racial identity in Colombia is particularly relevant to this analysis, as it allows for an insight into the role played by Vallenato in mediating racial and ethnic differences in a country where the national literature and culture were largely considered to be the province and patrimony of the citizens of Hispanic of European descent (Prescott 1993). The intersections of music and race, and a demonstration of the discriminatory attitudes towards Afro-Colombians are symbolised by remarks made by Daniel Zamudio at Colombia’s first congress of music in 1936, an event that aimed to promote musical culture in Colombia, recognising its great importance for nationalism (Zamudio 1978). In a discussion of porro and costeño music, Zamudio laments the sentimental privitivism of African blacks, and whilst this is not a direct reference to vallenato, it illustrates the socio-political climate of Colombia just before Durán’s commercial success. This in turn is indicative of the significance of his status as an Afro-Colombian individual within the costeño and vallenato musical traditions. Zamudio, whilst being a respected musicologist, referred to black music as simian, and has been described by Peter Wade (1998), as frankly racist, which points to the prominence of discriminatory narratives in the academic circles of a country with a chequered attitude towards ethnicity.
Indeed, discussions of racial identity in Colombia point to the ambiguous attitudes demonstrated towards ethnicity, particularly blackness, in official and non-official spheres. Wade (2009) expands upon the notion of blackness in Colombia throughout the twentieth century as a duality comprising a simultaneous denial and acknowledgement of blackness as a category, both in everyday and state practices. This confused attitude towards the different ethnicities of Colombia is highlighted when comparing the treatment of indigenous persons versus Afro-Colombians; whilst the former was permitted as an institutionalised form of otherness, the latter was subjected to an academic and official ignorance (Wade 2009). Maria de Friedmann, writing at the time Alejo Durán began to enjoy commercial success, was particularly concerned with the invisibility prescribed to black identity in Colombia, developing the concept of huellas de africanía. This idea aimed to challenge dominant versions of Colombian culture as mainly European and indigenous in origin, instead bringing to the forefront hidden creolised Africanisms (Mintz and Price 1976). It would not be until 1991, however, when the Colombian government acknowledged the country as pluri-ethnic through a new constitution, that differences between Colombians of different races would be made manifest in state narratives (Paschel 2010), This would have an ambivalent effect for specific communities who were not native populations like the indigenas, and whose identities were often articulated in opposition to indigenous claims, but who also had to make use of some of the discourses that indigenous groups used in their demand to be recognised. At this point it is relevant to note that, whilst indigenous racial identity was given more importance in state dialogues than Afro-Colombian identity, there was no direct denial of the latter but rather a relegation of the matter to the bottom rungs of a moral hierarchy (Wade 1998).
From this historical contextualisation of racial identities throughout Colombian history surge a number of questions surrounding the intersected nature of identity, race, and the nation in Colombia. Examining music as a place of mediation for these interconnected identities will therefore allow for an important insight into the role played by Vallenato in constructing racial, individual, local, and national identities. Alejo Durán’s status as an Afro-Colombian individual coupled with his geographical identity of Costeño represents yet another interesting duality in terms of Colombian racial identity, particularly when examined in the light of historical notions of ethnicity in the country. Whilst other Afro-Colombian vallenato musicians have gained commercial success, including Durán’s own brother Nafer, Omar Geles, Miguel Morales to name but a few, the following analysis will focus on Alejo Durán for his emblematic status as El Negro Rey, and one of the first commercial vallenato stars. As a foundational figure, Alejo Durán will feature as a springboard from which issues will be fleshed out in the following chapter and built upon in various ways throughout this analysis.
A number of interesting questions emerge when examining the construction of Alejo Durán ‘s persona from the perspective of peers and critics discussing his life. Indeed, the rhetoric surrounding the man hailed as El Rey Alejo is of particular relevance to this analysis, as it allows for a more intuitive reading of Durán within the vallenato tradition, as well as contributing a great deal to the understanding of the artist himself as a site for mediating identities through music. Most interesting are the descriptions of Durán as a mythical, even religious figure, with Gutierrez Hinojosa referring to the artist as El Sacerdote del Folclor, or El Profeta del Acordeón. This could be a simple reference to his status as king of the vallenato tradition, and the respect commanded by such a position, but this also appears to correspond with the mythical connotations of the vallenato genre. Indeed, critics acknowledge the strong themes of myths and legends that are inherent to the vallenato tradition, stating:
Ayer se creía que las fábulas, los mitos y las leyendas eran historias pueriles. Hoy se ha probado que constituyen el cuerpo de una mística empírica destinada a preservar una moral temporal conforme a las estructuras del medio. (Flury cited in Hinojoso, 1992)
Flury’s (1992) exploration of the importance of fables, myths, and legends is of particular relevance to the figure of Alejo Durán , as his mention of moral temporal is one that corresponds with the life of the revered accordion player. Samper and Tafur (2015) make reference to this figura cumbre of the vallenato tradition, who, despite enjoying fame jamás se dejó seducir por la farándula y fue modesto y digno agricultor y ganadero hasta el último día de su vida. Durán, unlike later figures in the vallenato tradition such as Diomedes Diaz, can be considered as morally pure, in adherence with
In addition to this affirmation of the importance of myths and legends within the folkloric and vallenato traditions, it is also worth mentioning a particular leyenda that is arguably the most illustrative of the exaltation of vallenato musicians, Francisco el Hombre. The tale of Francisco el Hombre concerns a man locked in an accordion duel, a parranda, with the devil, whom he eventually defeats and is able to rid the valle of la buba, la fiebre amarilla, las niguas y los indios que flechaban a los viajeros (Hinojosa 1992). It is said that from each of these four societal ills that were cured with the fleeing of the devil came the four aires of Vallenato: puya, son, merengue and paseo. Stating that Alejo Durán is the physical embodiment of Francisco el Hombre in the vallenato tradition would be reductive, but it would be an equal oversight to ignore the clear links that can be drawn between the two stories. Rhetoric surrounding Durán therefore exalts him as the King of Vallenato, celebrates his modest nature, and praises his musical prowess. The implications of drawing this parallel between Durán and Francisco el Hombre are complex and seem to correspond with the traditions within vallenato to promote such stories that, upon first glance, appear to be self-flagellating cautionary tales. The construction of Durán ‘s persona as a pure, morally intact individual, with strong reference to the myths and legends that pervade the vallenato traditions are all the more interesting when taking into account his status as an Afro-Colombian man. His importance within the vallenato traditions in light of this has numerous implications for the role played by the genre as a site of mediation for numerous subjective and collective identities, as per Frith’s (1996) explorations of music and identity.
The figure of Alejo Durán is therefore one that, when examined from and within contexts concerning the history of vallenato and the history of Colombia, provides an interesting insight into his important role in constructing the multi-faceted nature of Vallenato, which in turn reflects the multifarious nature of Colombian identity. Vallenato music becomes a site for the encounters between mixed and contrasting identities, and rather than corresponding with essentialist notions of music as providing an anonymizing blanket identity for those involved, it figures as a site of mediation between numerous identifications. Although Durán was one of the few black vallenato artists that rose to fame in the early history of the genre, in other areas of culture Afro-Colombians had become part of the country’s literary canon, notably the poet Candelario Obeso. In his collection of poems Cantos populares de mi tierra, Obeso plays with black voice and dialect, making a direct intrusion into the colour-blind literary traditions of Colombia by giving a greater sense of authenticity to the poetic voices of unlearned colored masses (Prescott 1993). Obeso and Durán can be compared insofar as they are both Afro-Colombians demonstrating racil pride through references to their ethnicity in their works. A disjuncture appears, however, when Obeso’s attitude towards slavery is observed; where he abjure any reminders of a slave past and identity, Durán made direct reference to it in his songs, notably El Playonero where he alludes to cimarroneria (Prescott 1993). The word cimarron refers to a slave that has escaped from colonial control, one that has featured in literary narratives in Latin America, perhaps most famously in Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón (1966). In El Playonero, Durán directly refers to this, stating: porque conozco en la huella ombe si el novillo ombe si el novillo es cimarrón, and although in this instance it appears to be in reference to a runaway animal, the weight of a term with numerous socio-political and racial implications cannot be ignored. Through vallenato, Durán eschews the idea of mutually exclusive identities, and is able to mediate and express numerous simultaneously: Afro-Colombian, cimarrón, costeño, terms that all hint at the constant re-routing of static cartographies of the nation and its multi-racial social fabric.
Counter to the invisibility experienced by Afro-Colombians until 1991 when the pluriethnicity of the country was acknowledged and prescribed into a new constitution, through vallenato Alejandro Durán was able to assert his identity as a black Colombian, at the same time as pertaining to the collective identity of the musical genre. This can be noted in his songs, where he openly refers to himself as a black man, negro, a self-affirming strategy that highlights the important role played by the vallenato tradition in fostering a space for the mediation of multiple identities. This in turn corresponds with Frith’s discussion of music and identity, as Durán reflects the constantly evolving process of identity by asserting both his subjective (afro) and collective (vallenato) identities. Indeed, the notions of assertion of individuality are key to this analysis, as se articula en el plano discursivo, and in language las identidades culturales son los puntos de identificación. (Araújo 2005). By making specific reference to his difference in the lyrics of his songs, Durán makes manifest his individuality whilst still pertaining to the vallenato tradition. When considering this in light of Frith’s (1996) notions of music and identity, allows for individuals to assert their difference, or subjective identities here represented by afro-colombianness, or huellas de africania, whilst still pertaining to the collective identity afforded by the performance, production, and involvement in the vallenato tradition. Vallenato is therefore a site of mediation for the expression, consolidation, and encounters of numerous subjective and collective identities, as was the case for the Rey de los reyes, Alejandro Durán .
4. Anchoring Space, Place, Class, and the Nation: The Efforts of Escalona
Valledupar, me entiendes
As I descend the metal stairs of the plane I am hit by a wave of thick, arid heat. It is only 9:30am in Valledupar, but the sun is already gloriously hot. I make my way straight past the baggage carousel and towards the line for taxis, where I am ushered into the ubiquitous yellow Hyundai car that is so emblematic of Colombia. My driver is quiet at first; how odd, I think to myself, and yet as soon as we pass the boundaries of the airport he launches into a ‘Bienvenido a Valledupar’ soliloquy. Esta es la tierra del Vallenato, he assures me, and cranks up the radio so I can appreciate the punchy rhythm of a vallenato puya being broadcast throughout Valledupar. As we weave through the streets of the town considered the birthplace and cuna of vallenato music, waves of contrasting songs infiltrate the car windows and intermingle in a curious fusion of vallenato with vallenato. On the heads of pedestrians are the famous Sombreros Vueltiaos, the black and white weave that I have seen used in depictions of the tierra del vallenato and worn by others throughout Colombia.
Si quiere estudiar el vallenato, tiene que ir a Valledupar, was a phrase constantly drilled into me when discussing my fieldwork with Colombians. The cultural significance of the birthplace of vallenato is undisputable and suggests a strong localization of the music in the national imaginary; it is the first thing to be mentioned when discussing the now canonical genre that is thought to have been born in the capital of the department of Cesar, with the name directly translating as born in the valley (nato en el valle). Even Gabriel García Marquez (1982) referred to it as such, speaking of música vallenata – calificada así por ser originaria de Valledupar. Whilst, as with many contested elements of the vallenato tradition, there is disagreement in critical circles regarding the true origins of the genre, with Samper and Tafur (2016) stating resulta inútil e imposible atribuirle una sola cuña, in contemporary times there is little doubt surrounding Valledupar’s key role as the soundscape or geographical concentration of the vallenato tradition. This is a claim that few musical genres around the world have; whilst the countries themselves may encompass strong musical traditions, musical cities representing the nexus of a genre are few and far between. The significance of the city of Valledupar in the study of vallenato is therefore primordial, and even more relevant is an understanding of how this relatively modest musical expression came to figure as the point of mediation for local, national, and indeed international Colombian identities. The transition and indeed journey made by the genre can be mapped by profiling one of the genre’s most symbolic characters and composers, Rafael Escalona, as he is thought to have played a pivotal role in the diffusion of the vallenato tradition, changing it from a plebeian anecdotal expression of locality to a product of national identity. The following analysis will elucidate how the involvement of Rafael Escalona, a member of the landed gentry, allowed for a transition of the musical genre, going from a blue-collar pastime to representation of identity that transcends class barriers, first in Valledupar and then in Bogota and the rest of Colombia. Reference to the creation of the Vallenato Legend Festival, of which Escalona was a member of the organising committee along with Gabriel García Marquez, will be key to mapping the steady rise in popularity of vallenato music, firstly in Valledupar and later in the rest of Colombia. Alongside this, it will be necessary to examine political changes in Colombia that ran parallel to the aperture of the vallenato tradition, in order to ascertain how they influenced the spread of cultures once contained to specific areas of the country. The above will then feed into a discussion of Colombian identity, more specifically, how class concerns and geopolitical decisions have allowed for vallenato to figure as the point of mediation for Colombian identity in local, national, and international terms. In this discussion, class and geopolitics are intimately interwoven, and will shed light on and important period in the life of vallenato.
I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.