Why you should care

Adding a modern beat to an old-style classic can create delicious new music.

The smoky, heart-wrenching sounds of Colombian musician Diomedes Diaz’s lyrics and the accordion music that carry them have hypnotized the people of Colombia’s Caribbean coast ever since the big man started to soar with his 1978 record La Locura (The Madness).

It was madness indeed. Diaz’s record catapulted the genre from a sleepy style of music for the boys singing blues on Colombia’s Caribbean coast cattle ranches to an integral part of the national psyche.

Vallenato could start evolving and mixing with other genres too if musicians start playing with others beyond Colombia’s coast.

Think of vallenato music as something like Colombian blues with more passion, more tears and faster rhythms. And much like salsa music, the genre is a creolization of Spanish, African and indigenous Latin American influences and instruments. Vallenato musicians squeeze German-made accordions and pop African-inspired caja drums — like a smaller version of the conga drum found in salsa music.

In the same way that salsa musicians took a mix of folkloric sounds and transformed them into something the world could relate to, a new wave of vallenato musicians is starting to travel around Latin America and the U.S., popularizing vallenato music.

But will vallenato be the next salsa? Latin America’s salsa phenomenon happened when musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean started to fuse their sounds in major cities like New York, San Juan and Miami in the 1970s. Salsa was an evolution of styles such as mambo, guaracha and the chachachá.

Vallenato could start evolving and mixing with other genres too if musicians start playing with others beyond Colombia’s coast.

Vives has played a major role in transforming vallenato’s sweet, folksy, bluesy sound into something for those beyond the cattle ranches of Colombia’s coast.

Colombian singer Carlos Vives has already taken the first step, bringing a rock ’n’ roll sound to the vallenato genre. Vives grew up in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta — where vallenato is like religion — but then his family moved to the more cosmopolitan city of Bogotá, where he hung out in rock bars and learned to dig a grittier feel and adopted rock as a complementary belief.

Colombian music historian Tomas Dario Gutiérrez says he worries that the new wave of vallenato musicians who are replacing an older generation of purists are breaking away too much, and adulterating — not evolving — the original vallenato sound.

“They’re trying to commercialize it too fast,” says Gutiérrez.

Fans disagree. Vives has played a major role in transforming vallenato’s sweet, folksy, bluesy sound into something rockier and more accessible to his listeners, something for those beyond the cattle ranches of Colombia’s coast. You can hear the mix of vallenato accordion and Vives’ rock ’n’ roll interpretation in classic tracks like his take on Emiliano Zuleta’s 1938 “La Gota Fria,” a perfect example of a traditional song with a new feel.

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