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.

Cultural Spotlight – Salsa

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Hector Lavoe, ‘El Cantante’ (1946 – 1993)

If you’re walking in any city in Colombia or in most parts of Latin America and you start to feel the rhythm and the beat to some up-tempo music that sounds as if jazz and ‘son cubano’ had a baby, it would be known to the world as ‘Salsa.’ Salsa music has only been around for over five decades but has had a lasting impact on the world of music and its’ popularity has stayed consistent in the countries and regions where it was first introduced. While some folks may argue that old-school music genres like jazz, swing, and the blues are on the decline these days; that is simply not the case when it comes to Salsa.

Contrary to popular belief, Salsa did not originate in Puerto Rico, Cuba, or even Colombia. This form of music came out of the communities of immigrants in New York City during the 1960s from Cuba to Puerto Rico who wanted to introduce a new take on ‘son cubano’ music that had been around for a few decades and to bring it to new audiences before who had never been exposed to that kind of genre before.

The music of Salsa has been highly influenced by previous Cuban genres such as ‘son cubano, son montuno, guaracha, mambo, bolero, etc. as well as certain Puerto Rican genres such as ‘bomba, and plena.’ It also should be noted that Salsa was heavily influenced by the American musical genre of Jazz and certain experts have noted Salsa as being a form of Latin jazz. Salsa is a very flexible genre and can incorporate many different forms of music together in order to be innovative and unique. Even rock, r&b, blues, and funk have found their way into the rhythms, beats, and lyrics of Salsa music.

If there were a form of musical expression to represent the Americas whether it was North America or South America, it would be jazz. Salsa music would not be what it is today without previous music genres influencing the sounds and songs to change and adapt as the decades passed by. However, without the early Salsa bands made up of newcomer immigrants from the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities who came to New York City and America for a better life, Salsa would also not be the popular genre that it has become today. From the 1930s to the 1960s, these new immigrants brought joy, happiness, and excitement to both their local communities and cities from Boston to Cali.

From the streets of the South Bronx to the barrios of Cali, Salsa would spread from New York City to Colombia to Peru to all over Latin America. Salsa has become a global music genre today with people all over the world sharing together their passion and love for this unique form of self-expression. You can find Salsa classes and music clubs in most major cities all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you’re new to dancing, or can’t understand the lyrics, Salsa is a music genre open to everybody. Some of the big names in Salsa are Johnny Pacheco, creator of the Fania all-stars band, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Bobby Valentin, Eduardo Palmieri, Marc Anthony, etc.

The instrumentation used in Salsa music is incredibly diverse and can really depend on what kind of style you’re going for whether it’s ‘salsa romantica’ or ‘salsa dura.’ It also depends upon how fast the tempo is and what the chord / verse arrangement is too. The most popular kinds of instruments used in Salsa music are percussion and brass instruments. It’s very rare where string instruments are used unless its’ an acoustic or electric guitar. When it comes to the most widely used instruments, they are usually the piano, the bongo drums, the congas, trumpet, trombone, claves, and different guitars.

Since the genre of Salsa has spread to many parts of the Western Hemisphere, there are many different styles of Salsa dancing that make the music more enjoyable for people to participate in by moving their bodies in various ways. While there is no clear consensus on which style of Salsa is the best or most popular, there’s the Cuban style, the New York style, Puerto Rican style, Los Angeles style, and Cali style from Colombia. Each style of Salsa is a little bit different from each other so once you master one of these types, there is another one out there to learn in order to keep your knowledge up to date. There are few parts of the world that haven’t been touched by Salsa music, which makes it one of the most fun and enjoyable kinds of dances to learn. Whether you’re in Peru, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic or the United States, you’ll have a chance to dance Salsa if you look hard enough.

By listening to Salsa music and learning how to dance to the rhythms and the beats of this genre, you really learn a lot about Latin American culture. Listen carefully to the lyrics, study the history of both the song and dance, and you’ll be able to gain insight as to why this has become one of the most popular music genres on the planet today. Few things make the average person happier than being able to cut loose on the dance floor and Salsa as a genre succeeds in doing that beyond measure.

During my time here in Colombia, I’ve enjoyed going out to learn Salsa in some classes, and putting the moves I’ve learned into practice when I go out on Saturday nights to a Salsa club. It’s really a joy to dance and sing to the point of exhaustion until your feet can’t move anymore while the beads of sweat roll down your neck. Salsa, to me, is a celebration of living life to the fullest and expressing the movements of your body the way you’re supposed to do. If you haven’t given Salsa music or dancing a chance yet, start to do so today. I promise you won’t regret the experiences you gain by enjoying this popular genre.

The Rolling Stones: A Retrospective

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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.

 

 

Carnaval!

 

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“A large crowd gathers to dance, listen to music, and enjoy the beginning of Carnaval 2016 here in Colombia.”

Carnaval Season here in Colombia has officially come and gone. Life here is starting to return to normalcy and I’m sure some of the locals are already beginning to count down to when Carnaval will be back in 2017. This was my first Carnaval ever and I can firmly say that it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a while. In addition to the festive parades and diverse costumes, there were also the live concerts, the neighborhood parties, and the street foods/drinks to add to the already festive atmosphere. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to Barranquilla’s Carnaval this year but I still was able to enjoy myself by attending other parades, parties, and festivities in the Atlántico department.

The biggest highlight for me during the Carnaval celebrations was attending ‘La Gran Parada’ in one of the major towns located outside of Barranquilla. It was really cool to experience the parade from the seats and be able to enjoy a cold beverage and a warm snack while both the kids and adults danced, sang in their unique costumes as they came streaming down the main parade route.

Historically, Carnaval has been known as the main celebration associated with the Christian festive season that occurs before the period of Lent. There are many Carnaval festivals that happen around the world. The most famous one takes place in Rio de Janeiro, which attracts about a 1 million visitors to Brazil each year. Carnaval in Barranquilla is the 2nd largest in the world and brings in hundreds of thousands of tourists, partygoers as well. For those of us from the United States, we are more familiar with the Mardi Gras celebration and the infamous ‘Fat Tuesday’ which is also known for its size and scope of partying as well.

Before ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the beginning of Lent and the Easter season for Christians around the world, Carnaval represents a shedding of inhibitions, and an enjoyment of the pleasures in life. Some people see it as indulgent in heavy drinking, eating greasy foods, and fraternizing with the opposite sex but other people see it as a way to reconnect with their diverse culture, spending quality time with their family and friends, and enjoying a break from work and the daily grind. For my first Carnaval, I spent the festivities mainly meeting new people in my community, enjoying the company of new friends and my host family, and checking out the cool costumes and cultural dances that make up this very unique holiday.

I also had to deal with the tradition of young children and adults throwing great amounts of Maizena (corn starch) and white foam spray all over random strangers. It occurred multiple times where my clothes and my body, face would be covered with both substances during the festivities. Needless to say, I had to wash my clothes extra hard in order to get the cornstarch / spray out of my clothes and hair as best as I could. Besides getting messy, it was nice to drink a beer in public, eat some good food, watch the parade, and then reconnect with my fellow Peace Corps trainees later to celebrate together.

Carnaval was originally introduced to Colombia and Latin America from the Spaniards during the early days of the colonization hundreds of years ago. However, the celebration has evolved over hundreds of years to reflect the diversity in Colombian culture. In addition to European elements, Carnaval combines those traditions with those of the African, Amerindian indigenous cultures. It is a really interesting mix of cultures combined together and is reflected in the costumes, music, and dancing styles that are put on display in events like ‘La Gran Parada’ and ‘La Batalla de Flores.’ As for the types of music, they are various and diverse.

They include the popular Cumbia, Rumba, Vallenato, Reggaeton, Porro, Mapale, and African Congo music. Finally, it wouldn’t be Carnaval without the King and Queen of the festivities being anointed. For each town and city that is involved in the celebrations here in Carnaval, they must appoint a King and Queen to lead the main parade, to dance up a storm, and to wave to the partygoers in the stands. As far as I can tell in Colombia, being the King or Queen of Carnaval (Rey / Reina) is a huge honor and is very competitive between the young men and women vying for the title to represent their town or even the city of Barranquilla.

After experiencing my first Carnaval, it’s going to be difficult to top that kind of day party in the future. It truly was one of the best times I ever had in terms of celebrating a holiday. The only way I could top it in 2017 and beyond is if I was able to spend some free time and head to Barranquilla for the big kahuna there. I don’t know if it will be logistically possible but we’ll see what happens. If not, there’s always the biggest carnaval in Rio but that can wait until after I finish my Peace Corps service.