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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Why You Should Learn to Cook in Your 20’s

You’ve got the good job. You live in a nice apartment. You are able to move out of your parents’ house. You’re lucky enough to consider yourself to be pretty independent and self-sufficient in your 20’s, which isn’t so easy to come by these days. However, have you learned how to cook? Can you feed yourself without needing to go to a restaurant or to order from Domino’s?

I consider that being able to learn how to cook is one of the most important skills any young adult should have a good proficiency in by the time they turn 30. You don’t need to be on the level of Anthony Bourdain or Emeril Lagasse but you should be able to know a decent amount of recipes and be able to cook yourself a couple of homemade meals each week. There are a number of good reasons as to why it’s important to learn how to cook in your 20’s and I’ll cover a few of them in this post.

1.) You’ll save money.

Regardless of where you’re living in the world, it’s often the case that buying groceries from the local market or supermarket and cooking meals for yourself will be less expensive than going out to eat for lunch or dinner or even both meals. The costs really add up after a while from eating out all of the time or from ordering a lot of meals to be delivered to your door. In your 20’s, many people are trying to save up money for graduate school, or to buy a car or to lease an apartment so if you’re able to buy food for yourself and then cook it, you’re way ahead of the game and you’ll probably save a good amount of money each month. Any kind of savings that you can create in your 20’s will make a sizable impact down the road and cooking your own meals is one of the best ways to have a positive impact on your personal budget each month.

2.) It’s healthier for you.

Let’s be honest: ordering out or eating out at a restaurant are not the healthiest options to do repeatedly. While there are healthy options out there, they are usually the exception and not the rule. Eating a takeout pizza with extra cheese from Domino’s is simply not as preparing a fresh salad from scratch for your dinner. Unless you go to a higher-end restaurant, a lot of restaurants these days use a lot of sugar, salt, or other preservatives that can lead you to put on some extra weight if you’re not careful. Knowing how to cook forces you to create your own daily diet without having any outside influence. You’ll be more responsible for your intake of different foods and learning how to properly balance your diet with fruits, vegetables, dairy products, grains, meats, etc. This is a skill that is better to be learned in your 20’s so that it can be a healthy habit that can stay with you for the rest of your life. You’re making a conscious choice every time you prepare and cook your own food and that’s a great skill to have.

3.) You’ll become more independent and self-reliant.

Being comfortable with your cooking skills and knowing that you’ll never go hungry or rely on others to cook your food is a great thing for your self-esteem. The confidence that you’ll gain as you get better at cooking is something that can transfer over to your parts of your life. It’s a skill that you can share with other people whether it’s your friends, your parents or other members of your family. A lot of your 20’s is learning how to function as an individual who is independent from other people and one of the best ways to do that is to learn how to cook a good meal. It may take time and a lot of effort but the rewards will be ever present throughout your life. You can make other people in your life happier and healthier by cooking for them and they’ll appreciate the fact that you can take care of yourself in the kitchen.

4.) It’s easier now than ever.

With modern technology like the stove, the gas oven, and the many utensils and kitchenware you can buy for pretty cheap, learning how to cook is easier now than ever. In addition, any aspiring cook has the entirety of the Internet at their disposal. Whether it’s learning the basics for the first time or trying out a new recipe, there is a limitless amount of information out there that can help you achieve your cooking goals. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube that can walk you through a recipe step by step and there are thousands of unique recipes that you can look up on a moment’s notice through Google that can make cooking more fun and creative.

Centuries ago, cooking food was much more of a daily ordeal with the average meal taking a full day to prepare but due to the advent of modern technology, it really is easier now than ever. For example, I learned of a website recently called Blue Apron, which actually delivers all of the fresh ingredients for the different recipes you want to make without you leaving your apartment or house to scavenge for the ingredients at the local market. There are also a number of companies out there such as Whole Foods that can deliver all of your groceries to your door making it even easier and more cost effective to cook your own meals.

5.) It makes you more creative.

With thousands of recipes to choose from and with different ingredients to mix and match with your favorite foods, cooking is really an art just like painting or music. You can experiment as much as you want and really tailor your meal to your own preferences. When you order food at a restaurant, it’s really up to the chef’s own taste on how he puts your meal together. When you cook for yourself, you’re giving back control to yourself. You can work with your hands and you can slice and dice as you please.

While you may struggle at first with getting the recipes down to a science, you’ll keep getting better and better the more you practice and that’s what makes it so fun. Even if you burn the chicken or undercook the spaghetti, you can learn from your mistakes and know what to do better the next time. Cooking is a skill that really utilizes both your mind and your body. While it takes a lot of effort and time to master, the results are often delicious.

Put away the Chinese takeout menu, and put that apron on. It’s time to take these reasons into consideration as you begin your cooking career. Even if you’re a single guy or gal living in the heart of the city with restaurants abound, you should still give yourself the joy of cooking. You’ll thank yourself later when you have a wife or children to cook for at home and you can put together a meal that’s more than just scrambled eggs or spaghetti. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to make myself dinner.

Cultural Spotlight – Salsa

El_Cantante
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.

Cuisine Spotlight – Sancocho

Many cultures around the world have their own unique take on stews and soups that are both hearty and comes with a number of different ingredients. This is also the case in many Latin American countries where the stew itself is called ‘sancocho’ and is closely related to the Spanish stew known as ‘cocido.’ Along with the Spanish influence, Sancocho takes most of its’ ingredients from local foods that are popular and add flavor to the dish. Sancocho is also considered to be the national dish in a few of the Latin American countries where it is made and eaten.

Among the countries where Sancocho is a popular food dish includes the Canary Islands, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Venezuela, etc. so you could say that it’s a staple and has become popular in many households and restaurants. Sancocho is believed to have originated from the Canary Islands where it is a dish that heavily is made of a whole-cooked fish with broth and potatoes.

The dish was brought over to Latin America when the Canarians and their descendants immigrated to parts of the new world centuries ago. As is the case with many different foods, the immigrants who move to a different part of the world often bring their favorite dishes with them. While fish was a main ingredient in the ‘original’ sancocho, there are many different types of meats and vegetables that make up variations on the popular dish depending upon which country you’re in. Sancocho is especially common to be served during lunchtime as it is quite filling and can hold a person over until dinner comes around. It’s common for Sancocho to be served in a huge pot for a family gathering or birthday party where the dish can be expanded to served dozens of people total.

In Colombia, specifically, sancocho is an extremely popular dish with a wide range of ingredients that can range from chicken to ox tail. Other meats that can be apart of sancocho include hen, pork ribs, cow ribs, fish, etc. For example, sancocho with fish is really popular on the Atlantic coast of Colombia while pork and beef is more commonly found in the interior of the country. In addition to mean, sancocho can also include large portions of plantains, yucca, potatoes, and various vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, cilantro, scallions, mazorca (corn on the cob), etc.

There is simply no limit as to what can be put into sancocho and each country puts a different spin on the popular dish. In the Dominican Republic, for example, there is Sancocho de siete carnes, which is a dish made up of a mixture of different meats including chicken, beef, pork, etc. Sancocho de gallina, which is made up of free-range chicken is quite popular in Panama and is also the national dish of the country. Puerto Rico has the distinction of even adding smoked ham, pork feet with chick feats, which is known as sancocho de patitas and is quite unique in terms of its’ culinary characteristics.

The beautiful thing about sancocho is that there are so many different regional and national varieties to this dish are that the possibilities of mixing and matching different ingredients or toppings is simply endless. Any nation that has been touched by Spanish influence or colonization has adapted their own version of sancocho including even in the Philippines, which has a huge amount of meats and vegetables to offer in its own national take on the dish. Keeping to the Spanish heritage of the dish, they call it cocido as it is known in Spain.

If you decide to come to Latin America and find yourself at someone’s family gathering, hanging out with a few friends, or enjoying a birthday party, it’s likely that you’ll get a good serving of sancocho. In addition, the sancocho you get depending upon the country or the region in which the dish is being served to you will most likely be different and have some variation to it. The beauty of a popular dish like sancocho is its’ history, its’ adaptability, as well as the chance to gather with a group of people and dig in to this delicious food together.

 

El Clasico Paisa

A packed stadium filled with 40,000+ screaming and diehard fans imbued with a fiery passion that is seldom seen in most sporting events around the world. No, my friends, this is a special event and one that deserves the rare title of a ‘clasico’ or classic in English. However, this isn’t your ordinary clasico or derby. This isn’t Manchester United v. Manchester City or FC Barcelona v. Real Madrid. This is the Medellin derby or ‘El Clasico Paisa’, an affair that has been raging for almost seventy years. They share the same stadium and play in the same national league. Their fans come from the same city and live in the same neighborhoods.

However, when it’s ‘clasico day’ in Medellin, the differences between the two local teams could not be starker. It’s blue and red v. green and white, history / traditions v. championship / past glories. This rivalry is more than just about football. It’s about your allegiance to a team, to its’ players, to its’ customs, and to its’ culture. ‘El Clasico Paisa’ is the long-standing rivalry between the teams of Independiente Medellin and Atletico Nacional. It’s the most important derby in all of Colombia and all of South America from its’ prior reputation.

Its’ one of the biggest rivalries in all of FIFA and I was lucky enough to witness this ‘clasico’ this past Sunday. Bragging rights are on the line whenever these two teams face off. They face each other a couple of times per season in the ‘Liga Aguila’, Colombia’s national league, because they are usually both very successful and find themselves ranked in the Categoria Primera A. Having won multiple championships in the past and most recently the famed ‘Copa Libertadores’ which is the South American edition of the UEFA Champions League, Atletico Nacional are the favorites of Colombian football these days.

Having watched a few of Nacional’s matches and having been a fan of their players and their uniforms, I learned about the upcoming derby about a week before kickoff time. Unfortunately, I did not strike when the iron was hot so I left my chances of getting a ticket up until the day of the match. Luckily, in Colombia, you can scalp tickets up until a few hours from local sellers at the Stadium. While the prices are marked up a bit, I found the one I haggled for to be fair and decided to go through with my purchase. During my time of living in Colombia, I wanted to make sure that I got to see a few matches especially given how huge the sport is here in South America.

The vibe and atmosphere in the Atanasio Girardot stadium before kickoff was simply electric and you could feel the sheer energy pulsating throughout the crowd. It was so filled to capacity that it was standing room only for the entire match. Luckily, I had a good vantage point of the entire field from about five rows up in the upper deck and was located near the exit in case the fans near me got out of control. From the opening minute to the last whistle blown, Fans on both sides chanted their teams’ songs, unfurled huge banners of support, waved flags, and cheered their heroes on until their voices were hoarse.

Despite being a supporter of Atletico Nacional, the ticket I bought last minute from a street vendor was located in the heart of the Independiente Medellin section. While I was uncomfortable with this arrangement at first given that I wanted Nacional to win the ‘clasico’, I have to give credit to the Medellin fans that were outnumbered by a count of 2:1 inside the stadium. They were loud, confident, and didn’t give into doubt or disappointment even when Nacional scored upon their team around the 65th minute making it an eventual 1-0 Nacional victory.

Win or loss, Independiente Medellin fans are still behind their players 100%. This loyalty to the team goes back over a hundred years when they were founded in 1912. While they have history on their side, Medellin does not have the more recent success or amount of championships that Atletico Nacional has accumulated in recent years. With the recent victory over Independiente del Valle in the 2016 Copa Libertadores, Atletico Nacional is the team to beat in the Liga Aguila in Colombia. Historically, in the ‘El Clasico Paisa’, Atletico Nacional has played Independiente Medellin 291 times with Nacional winning 119 matches to Medellin’s 92 matches.

They have ended in a draw 80 times total. Interestingly enough, the Copa Colombia has been played 16 times between both teams with Medellin having an advantage in this category with seven wins to Nacional’s five wins. Part of what makes this ‘clasico’ special is that both teams have a history that goes back almost seventy years. They are two of the most prominent and well-known football clubs in Colombia with a rivalry that is unmatched in South America.

Having been to football matches in both Germany and Turkey where the atmosphere was enjoyable, seeing a match here in Medellin was on another level. The passion of the fans was the craziest I have ever seen and they truly live through their team’s successes and failures. Unfortunately, certain fans take the results of the ‘clasico’ matches too seriously and there have been a few sad deaths and injuries that have taken place.

Luckily, both sides were not too hostile to each other during the most recent ‘clasico’ that I attended. They were shouts, curses, and a few bad fingers raised towards either side but nothing that escalated into all-out brawling and hooliganism. I had never seen that large of a police force at a football match before but the local police take it very seriously given what’s occurred in the past. There were also riot police present in full tactical gear but I don’t believe any tear gas was fired and everybody went home safely including myself after the match had concluded.

While I was happy that Atletico Nacional won 1-0, I had bonded during the match with the Medellin fans and enjoyed cheering, chanting, and jumping up and down with them. They are a passionate lot and they are all diehard fans. I hope to attend another ‘clasico’ soon where I can wear my green and white jersey and cheer on my Nacional in their fan section. When you’re in the opposing team’s fan section and your wearing the other team’s colors, it’s always a bad idea and trouble may find you whether you like it or not. Before the ‘clasico’, I was smart enough to wear a neutral grey shirt and jeans because I wasn’t sure in which section of the stadium my seat would be. It is a very lucky thing indeed that I didn’t wear my Nacional jersey in the Medellin fan section or otherwise I might not be writing this blog post about the ‘clasico’ today.

All kidding aside, while the football match wasn’t the best or most exciting I’ve ever seen played before, the atmosphere was incredible and it was the most-lively match from the fans’ perspective that I’ve ever witnessed. It truly was a sight to behold with both sides yelling, screaming, jumping, and dancing in the hopes that their team might end up on the winning side. I can understand now why South America is such a football hub. It is the number one sport and sometimes the only sport that matters to its’ fans. If you’re ever in Colombia or specifically in Medellin, I suggest you buy a ticket and go see ‘El Clasico Paisa.’ I promise that you won’t regret this amazing experience but make sure to wear neutral clothes because you never know which fan section you’ll be seated in.