Visiting almost anywhere in Colombia, whether you seek it out in a bar to dance to or hear it blasting from shop fronts into the streets, you won’t escape the traditional folk music of Vallenato. Locals love it almost as much as salsa and although to the foreign ear it may not sound like the easiest of styles to get into, once you’ve sunk a few aguardientes with a Colombian it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be hugging and slurring the words to a vallenato song before long.
Vallenato is literally translated to English as “born in the Valley”, as the music itself was first played by farmers orginatating from the northeasten Caribbean Coast of Colombia. These farmers travelled through the region with cattle to sell and brought along musical instruments as entertainment for their journeys. From the guitars, indigenous gaita flutes, guacharaca, accordian and caja played on these journeys Vallenato was born, diversifying and increasing in popularity ever since.
As Vallenato has evolved greatly since it’s origins, the instruments used now vary widely. Following is a short introduction to just three of the traditional instruments used in Vallento, from the origins to present day:
- The guacharaca is a small percussive instrument consisting of a wooden stick, hollowed and with grooves cut into it, that is rubbed by an accompanying fork, producing a sound that imitates the call of a guacharaco – a bird from the region. The guacharaca provides a steady beat and the main rhythm of much Vallenato.
- The caja is a small drum, usually made with cowskin and held between the knees and played with bare hands. The caja drum was originally used by African slaves brought to Colombia by the Spanish colonisers.
- The accordion is also used in Vallenato music, with it’s reed notes, often accordians are custom made especially for the tones of Vallenato.
Varieties of Vallenato
There are countless varieties of Vallenato, but the main differences can be captured in the four different types of ‘beat’ that most Vallenato music can be categorised within. The different beats are largely controlled by the accordionist and what rythmic structure and melody chord structure each song consists of. ‘Son’ and ‘Paseo’ are two Vallenato beats that have a 2/4 time, with ‘Son’ having a more mournful and slower feel. Finally, ‘Puya’ and ‘Merengue’ are very similar styles, with ‘Puya’ being distinct mostly because of the length of its lyrics.
Some Vallenato artists we’d recommend checking out are Alejo Duran, Diomedes Díaz and Kaleth Morales.
For a more modern take on the classic style, you could do much worse than making Carlos Vives your go to artist. Check out his song ‘Carito’ below: