Cultural Spotlight – Vallenato

For my last blog post regarding Colombian culture for a while, I’d like to focus on a form of dance that is very popular there, especially on the Caribbean coast. Similar to cumbia, vallenato is a form of Colombian folk music that is both traditional and innovative in its’ instrumentation, interpretation. If we were to translate vallenato to English, it would roughly mean, “born in the valley,” which refers to vallenato’s roots coming from the Caribbean region of Colombia.

The valley that is being referenced as having started this popular music is located between Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serrania de Perija. Vallenato is also partly named after the Colombian city of Valledupar where this genre of music originated. Vallenato has become so popular not just in Colombia but also in rest of Latin America making it apart of mainstream Latin music that is apart of the cultural heritage of that country and that region of the world.

Vallenato originated from the tradition of farmers who would travel from Colombian village to village on long journeys in their quest to sell cattle in local fairs or look for greener pastures for them. During these trips, the farmers would sing together, play guitars and other instruments like gaita flutes (kuisis), which were indigenous to the local culture. Since these farmers would travel often, they would often bring news and information to the different towns that they visited. Sometimes, these messages to the village folk would be delivered in the song form so that the towns would know what’s going on nearby in the valley.

Vallenato is an eclectic mix of different kinds of world music such as Spanish, African, and Amerindian. Vallenato songs started to become common during the early 1900’s from the Caribbean region of Colombia. The early forms of vallenato would come with instruments such as gaita flutes, guacharaca (percussion), caja, bass guitar, and acoustic guitar. Additionally, you could make the sounds more European by adding instruments like the accordion or the piano.

Since the early days of vallenato, the accordion has become an increasingly large part of the sound of the songs of this particular genre of music. While vallenato was originally a genre of music for lower class folk and farmers in particular, it has since become popular across all spectrums and social classes within Colombian society. Many subgenres have come out of traditional vallenato such as romantic vallenato, commercial vallenato, and new wave vallenato.

Since the heart of the vallenato genre deals with telling stories, it is a very social form of music. You can drink liquor, enjoy a nice meal, and even dance with a partner to this genre. Listening to vallenato can go well with having a family party, attending a festival, or checking out a carnival. Vallenato has become so popular that there are two main festivals devoted to it: the Vallenato Legend Festival and the Cradle of Accordions festival. Valledupar has also become one of Colombia’s most famous cities given the fact that it was the birthplace of one of its most popular music genres, Vallenato.

When it comes to vallenato, you cannot have a song without the caja, the guacharaca, and the accordion to flesh out the sound and rhythm. The caja, is a small drum, that you can place between your knees and play with your bare hands. This drum was originally brought over by the Europeans during colonization and was mainly used by African slaves for entertainment.

The guacharaca, a wooden, ribbed stick that most looks like sugar cane can be rubbed together with a small fork in order to create a scraping sound. This instrument is meant to imitate the sound of the guacharaco bird from the Cesar region of Colombia, who is known to hunt for food and dance to perform the mating ritual. Lastly, you can’t forget to use the accordion of German origin in order to get the different tones needed to fill out the vallenato sound. By using the right buttons and hitting the right reeds, you should be able to get the rhythm down.

Speaking of the rhythms of vallenato, there are four different beats that create a rhythmic structure and a melody chord structure to form the basis for a song. The four rhythms are known as son, paseo, merengue, and puya. The son and paseo are played in a 2/4 time while the merengue and puya are played in a 6/8 time or ¾ time structure. ‘Son’ is known as being the slowest and most somber movement of vallenato and also has a heavy cadence. ‘Paseo’ is probably the most widely recorded rhythm of vallenato is known as being the most consistent of the four rhythms.

When it comes to ‘puya’, it’s the easiest rhythm of vallenato for each musician to have a solo with one of the three main instruments. It also has a faster up-tempo and is the oldest of the four rhythms. ‘Merengue’, which is not the same type of music as the original genre, but is the fourth and last vallenato rhythm, and was brought to Colombia by some African tribal groups. It’s a more narrative style of vallenato and is played in decimas, which is a 10-line format with Spanish internal rhythms the came over to Colombia originally during the 16th century.

There have been many composers, singers, and groups of Vallenato bands that have emerged over the past century who have helped to contribute to this genre of music. Perhaps the most famous Colombian composer of Vallenato was Rafael Escalona, who composed a number of famous songs and was one of the co-founders of the Vallenato Legend Festival along with Consuelo Araujo and Alfonso Lopez Michelsen.

Many Vallenato groups have also become orchestras in both their large size and instrumentation. The most popular of these orchestras are Binomio de Oro de America, Carlos Vives y la provincia, and Los Diablitos del Vallenato. You also can’t talk about Vallenato without mentioning Silvestre Dangond, who has become maybe the most famous modern day singer and composer of songs in this genre.

He has become popular not only in his native Colombia but also in Latin America and worldwide. While originally a genre of music from Colombia, Vallenato has expanded its’ popularity to Latin America and the rest of the world to share with its’ listeners both the joys, sadness, and romance of life itself.

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Cultural Spotlight – Bachata

If you consider Salsa to be wild and exhilarating, then Bachata could be considered the opposite kind of music in that it is both suave and smooth. While Bachata may not be the most exciting kind of Latin music, it is a genre that is both popular and historical. It may not be as skill-based as Salsa or Merengue, but you do need to keep a good rhythm and there is a good amount of variation to this kind of dance. The most important thing to be aware of when dancing Bachata is to watch your steps and make sure you’re moving seamlessly with your lady or gentleman partner in tow.

Bachata is a Latin music genre originally from the Dominican Republic, which came of being in the first half of the 20th century. One of the cool aspects about Bachata is that it combines European, African, and Indigenous musical elements to really captivate its’ listeners and dancers. Jose Manuel Calderon of the Dominican Republic did the first compositions, which formed the original Bachata songs back in those early days of the 20th century.

Bachata is considered to be a mixture of its’ predecessors: Merengue, Bolero and Son, which are other distinct Latin music genres. Similar to Salsa, Bachata takes both the form of a song and the form of a distinct dance that are supposed to go together. The mood of a Bachata song can be either very exuberant or more melancholy. Bachata’s original name was ‘amargue’ which means ‘bitter music’ or ‘blues mules’ reflecting in its’ origins the fact that Bachata used to be more somber and reserved when it was first created in the Dominican Republic.

A surprising fact about the Bachata music genre is that it wasn’t always that popular until the past few decades. Throughout most of the 20th century, especially in the Dominican Republic, this form of music was associated with rural communities who were mostly working class or poor in terms of their status. For a long time, Bachata was not allowed to be played on television or radio because it was too vulgar or crass for the elite members of Dominican society.

However, this attitude began to change in the 1980s and 1990s when both the instrumentation and the styles of Bachata multiplied to become more urban and diverse. Bachata has ended up in the 21st century as being one of the most popular forms of Latin music, up there with both Salsa and Merengue, and is played in bars, discotheques, and dance halls all across Latin America.

Bachata requires a group of musicians playing diverse instruments in order for an actual song to be played from the genre and for dancing to occur. There are seven instruments that usually make up the structure, rhythm, and beat of a Bachata song. You have your ‘Requinto’ (lead guitar), ‘Segunda’ (rhythm guitar), electric guitar, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, bongos, and guira. While none of these instruments are mandatory, you need them all in order to create a dance-oriented form of Bachata rather than a more classically oriented form that is most similar to Bolero.

While Bachata started originally in the Dominican Republic and became popular there eventually after a few decades, Bachata has now become one of the most popular forms of Latin music in the region. You can find Bachata music playing in countries such as Cuba, Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, etc. Anywhere you go within the region, you’re likely to hear a Bachata song being played in your neighborhood or in your city.

The first Bachata songs that were composed by Jose Manuel Calderon, considered to be the modern founder of the genre, were titled ‘Borracho de amor’ and ‘Que sera de mi’. These songs came about in the early 1960s, which shows that the modern form of Bachata has been around for over five decades now. Hundreds of musicians, singers, and dancers have contributed to this unique and popular genre. Some of the more famous contributors to Bachata include names like Marino Perez, Leonardo Paniagua, Luis Vargas, Antony Santos, Juan Luis Guerra, and Romeo Santos. If you have the chance to listen or dance to some Bachata music, do yourself a favor and tune in, kick off your shoes, and enjoy this very popular genre of Latin music.

The Rolling Stones: A Retrospective

mickjagger
72 years old and still going. Amazing.

For more than 50 years, The Rolling Stones have been the mainstays and stewards of the Rock n’ Roll universe. Founded in 1962, this English band transformed the music world, sold hundreds of millions copies of their albums, and have sold out countless arenas, stadiums, and concert halls. The original grouping of Mick Jagger (vocals), Keith Richards (guitar), Brian Jones (guitar), Bill Wyman (bass), Charlie Watts (drums), and Ian Stewart (piano) together help lead the emergence of Rock n’ Roll as the pre-eminent form of Western music during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Legendary and famous albums such as Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), and Exile on Main Street (1972) helped cement their legacy as ranking among the greatest live acts in Rock n’ Roll history.

When people ask me: Beatles or Stones? I simply reply, why do we have to choose between them? Why not appreciate both of these groups and appreciate how similar and how different they are. Both bands helped to represent the countercultural movement that took place in the 1960’s in both the United Kingdom and the United States. They represented the youth of the generation and the hopes for a better, freer, and more open world where you could listen, dance, and have some fun as you listen to their tunes.

While The Beatles aired on the side of creativity, experimenting with new genres, and sticking to the studio to express their musical talents, The Rolling Stones were and still are brash, bold, and loud. As a group, the blues and R&B genres heavily influenced them during their early years. Taking their cues from legends such as Chuck Berry, Lil’ Richard, and Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones would not become the massive success they have been over the pasty fifty years without those blues pioneers who came before them.

Due to front man Mick Jagger’s exuberance, high energy, and eccentric dance moves, the Rolling Stones also gained a reputation for being an amazing live act that sold out stadiums and arenas around the world. It also helps that long-standing guitar legend Keith Richards has stayed by Jagger’s side all this time to play alongside him and the rest of the band.

With the talented support and musical stylings of the late, great Brian Jones, and Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones have stuck together through many ups and downs over their long history. While many rock acts from The Beatles to The Eagles to The Doors have broken up due to untimely deaths, heated feuds between members, and egos clashing, The Rolling Stones have been an exception to the rule and have produced high-quality music and toured extensively without losing who they are and what they represent to the world.

While The Rolling Stones have gained all the money and fame, they still care about the fans. This band always gives their best effort regardless if they are playing in Rio de Janeiro or London. It’s a testament to their popularity where they have been able to play in all six continents of the world without skipping a beat. Their global reach was on display recently when they played a huge outdoor concert in their first trip to Havana, Cuba.

Over 500,000 people attended to see the Stones live in the flesh. Perhaps, most notable, the concert was free for all attendees so everyone could attend who wanted to without paying a high price. During the Castro years, bands like The Rolling Stones had their music bootlegged and spread throughout the Cuban isle even when the Castro government officially outlawed it. Mick Jagger declared the occasion to be “A new time” for Cuba signaling that the free expression of live music was going to continue and expand.

Whenever I listen to The Rolling Stones, their songs always lift my spirits up and instantly put me in a good mood. Tunes like “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Wild Horses”, “Start Me Up”, “Brown Sugar”, and “Satisfaction” will never go out of style and hopefully inspire future generations to pick up the guitar and sing into the microphone. Whenever I hear one of their songs, I still get the urge to dance and sing along.

Even though this is a retrospective post for a musical group that is still active and going strong, I think after fifty years of being legends of Rock n’ Roll, it is a good occasion to reflect on their wide-ranging impact on the world. To this day, I regret to inform my readers that I still have to yet to see The Rolling Stones live in concert. My hope is to make it happen before the band calls it quits for good. Given that Mick, Keith, Charlie, and Ronnie show no signs of slowing down even though they’re septuagenarians, I keep my hopes up that I’ll be rocking out to them in a live setting soon enough. Until then, let us all hope that they make it to their 60th anniversary as a band in 2022.

 

 

The Doors: A Retrospective

"Today, The Doors are considered to be one of the greatest musical groups of the 20th century…and for good reason."
“Today, The Doors are considered to be one of the greatest musical groups of the 20th century…and for good reason.”

One of the greatest bands to have ever existed in the 20th century, The Doors, are one of my favorite musical artists. I recently started listening to them about a year or so ago and have never looked back. They make a lot of the popular music produced in this day and age seem shallow and shortsighted in comparison. Part of the band’s appeal is the deep, existential lyrics of their songs that are woven through each and every one of their albums.

Jim Morrison, the lead vocalist, is the catalyst that made ‘The Doors’ what they were because of his un-disputable talent as a lead front-man and also as a great singer. In addition to producing excellent records in the studio, ‘The Doors’ were an electric presence on the stage and at their live venues where Morrison would captivate the audience with his eccentric motions and his crazy, inebriated antics. However, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore each contributed so much to the band itself that Jim would have been nothing without their musical talents.

Part of the appeal of The Doors to me has always been Ray’s enthusiastic and sensual keyboard/organ melody on a lot of the classic songs in the band’s collection. Robby contributed a lot of the writing for the lyrics to most of ‘The Doors’ song catalogue that Jim often mistakenly gets the credit for. Today, you don’t see these kinds of bands anymore that push the limits of experimental Rock and Roll. This particular genre was truly a late 1960’s to early 1970’s phenomenon partly due to the members’ heavy usage of psychotropic drugs that influenced musical groups such as ‘The Doors’, ‘Jefferson Airplane’, ‘Jimi Hendrix’, ‘Janis Joplin’, etc. Because of the uniqueness and the short period of time in which these groups surfaced and then diminished, a lot of these musical artists and groups still hold a high place in the hierarchy of Rock and Roll music.

Certain figures such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison have become American cultural icons due to their talent, but also for their erratic and unpredictable behavior, and the early deaths of these musical artists with suspicious circumstances attached to them has made them apart of the infamous ’27 Club’.

Above all else, ‘The Doors’ were one of the few bands that took an existentialist look at life, love, sex, death, and other mature topics that today’s mainstream musical groups rarely touch upon. It should come as no surprise then that the band’s name is taken from one of English author Aldous Huxley’s most famous works of literature: ‘The Doors of Perception.’ I think that is partly why I have become such a big fan of their music. They wrote about perceiving the human experience and all that it entails.