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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Cuisine Spotlight – Patacones

Patacones are one of my favorite side dishes or entrees that you can find in Latin America. It’s a versatile kind of food that can be a side dish with fish, chicken, or beef but you can also make it a kind of entrée by putting two patacones together with a type of meat or fish inside along with lettuce, tomatoes, and other toppings. This food also makes for a wonderful snack if you want to munch on something between lunch and dinner. Patacones are relatively easy to make and don’t take too much skill because the recipe is pretty simple to follow.

Commonly known as ‘Tostones’, which comes from the verb tostar, “to toast” in Spanish are slices or pieces of plantain that have been fried twice over. While they are known as ‘tostones’ in countries such as Puerto Rico, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, etc. They also have a different nickname of ‘tachinos’ (Cuba), ‘bananas pesees’ (Haiti). However, since I have been living in Colombia for almost a year now, I will refer to this delicious food as ‘Patacones’, which is the common name here and also in countries like Panama, Peru, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. You can find patacones of all shapes and sizes across both Central and South America, and there are many ways to put this food to good use.

When it comes to preparing and cooking patacones, you first have to pick up a few unripe plantains (green in color) from the local food market. After buying the plantains, you’re going to have to peel them and then slice into individual pieces that are circular in appearance. You should make sure that they’re big enough in length and width before you decide to begin frying them.

It’s important to put enough cooking oil in your frying pan, and to heat up the pan sufficiently first before putting the raw slices of plantains in there. For the first time, you’re going to want to fry the plantains for one to two minutes on each side until they start to look cooked enough by showing a golden color. One time isn’t enough to make patacones so you’re going to want to fry these patacones a second time to finish the job. However, before you decide to do that, it’s important to remove the patacones from the frying pan for a few minutes in order to get rid of excess cooking oil.

The patacones should be patted down and flattened before being fried a second time in the pan. For the second frying, the patacones should only be fried for a minute or two on each side before they are finished cooking. After they have been thoroughly fried, you should make sure to pound them flat with some kind of utensil that has a large flat surface like a bowl or a pot cover. By the time you’re done, your patacones should be golden, and crispy brown. It’s pretty common to add extra ingredients like salt, or some seasoning depending on if you want this food to be a bit spicy or not.

Patacones can also be served with garlic sauce (ajo in Spanish) or with hogao sauce as is done here in Colombia. You can make the comparison that Patacones are almost like French fries in that you can have them as a side dish or snack without too much effort. It’s easy to make between six to ten patacones to serve you and your guests. If you’re looking for an appetizer or a snack dish to serve friends and family at a house party, patacones are a great option. Patacones have their origin in West African cuisine, and made their way over to Latin America within the colonial period of Gran Colombia during the eighteenth century.

The best thing about a dish like patacones is how versatile it is. You can put anything on top of it whether its’ shrimp ceviche or avocado paste. It can function as a sandwich if you put two of them together with a kind of meat or fish in between to add additional flavor. They’re easy to cook, prepare, and delicious to eat. Be careful though because it’s likely you won’t be able to stop at just eating one patacone.

Whether it’s in the Caribbean, or in Latin America, or throughout the rest of the world, you’re likely to find patacones being served at a restaurant, or being sold as the original plantains in the supermarket. Personally, I look forward to learn how to cook patacones, and serving them to friends and family in the future. Now that I’ve tasted patacones many times and enjoyed this food, I’d like to make my own and have a taste of Colombia when I’m outside of this lovely country.