This article appears courtesy of the Fundación Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata. Edited and translated by Angel Romero.
Vallenato is the name of those born in the Valle (Valley) of Valledupar. It is also a music style that is composed of four airs or typical rhythms of the region. The songs talk about the personal experiences of the writers and the feelings of the mestizo (mixed race) culture that represents most Colombians.
The melodies of these vallenato songs were first performed with the carrizo (millo cane flute) to which the caja was added, a small drum hand crafted from the hollow trunk of dry trees, and covered on one head with a piece of temperate leather; and the guacharaca, an indigenous instrument that is manufactured using a cut piece of cane, forming small successive grooves, creating a scraper rubbed with a bone.
The cantos de vaquería (Colombian cowboy songs) that were sung by the ranch hands of the large haciendas during early morning as they picked up and contained the livestock, were the base of what would later become sung histories, or musical narrations, that today are known as vallenatos. At the end of the 19th century, decades after its invention, the accordion arrived to Colombia through the port of Riohacha, in the Peninsula of the Guajira, in the hands of the sailors and European pirates and so it stayed forever, as a companion to those cowboys and peasants that figured out its melodic secrets and added it to their musical expressions. Gradually, it replaced the flute until it became the main instrument in vallenato music.Within the vallenato musical genre, there are four recognized rhythms which are: Merengue, Paseo, Puya and Son.
Unlike all the other airs of this folk style, the paseo (walk or walking dance)
has a beat of 4/4. The rhythm of the first bass is 1/ 3 and, sometimes, according
to the piece, of 2/1. For the performers it is the easiest air to play.
It literally collects, in a spontaneous manner, the histories and tales
of a group of people in a sung form known as paseo.
origin of the paseo is exciting and paradoxical, first because as a song genre,
conceived especially to perpetuate the history of a people through song, it
has deep roots in pre-Columbine times, when the Chimilas, as well as the Guajiros,
Tupes and other inhabitants of the Valley of Upar, created this oral form because
they did have a written language, and the second reason is because in spite
of this antiquity, that places this air in a situation of privilege versus the
other styles arisen from hybridization, the word “paseo”(walk) used to designate
this rhythm, within the vallenato context, is the newest of the four, to the
point of not being more than 80 years old in popularity.
Upon the arrival of
the accordion, beats were defined, melodies were perfected, and there was no
choice but to decide that among the three folk music airs that preceded it: Puya, Merengue and Son, there existed another form, a little confused among
them, that, upon its liberation, would turn out to be the spirit of all: the
In Valledupar and its surroundings, the oldest rhythm was called “Puya,”that
was never sung and consisted of an imitation of the songs of the carricero (a
small insectivore bird), with a quick rhythmit was danced in lines, with each
person moving their closed hands chest high, with the fingers aiming forward
and simulating that you poked the person that danced ahead. The name of puya
comes from the verb puyar (to goad).
Through time, various elements of the regional
folk music were fused, so that the black puya which was sung, was added to the
indigenous puya which didn’t have any singing, to generate the “;puya vallenata,”with
a perfect balance between the song, the melody and the rhythm. The puya
has a typical beat of 6/8, with a melody similar to the song of the birds and
The puya and the merengue are the same in their rhythmic and harmonic
patterns. The difference is in their melodic conceptionand naturally in the
performance that is made, characteristic of each piece. Thus, the puya has a
bass rhythm of 2/2 and sometimes, of 2/1 in certain passages of the performance,
although not in all the pieces. The speed given to the music does not make any
The word merengue goes back to colonial times and comes from the word muserengue, the name of one of the African cultures that was taken from the coast of Guinea to Colombia’s Atlantic coast. The traditional merengue vallenato, has a beat of 6/8, a derived rhythm, since the original beats were 4/4, 3/3 and 2/2from this point of view the merengue vallenato is the most complex air and at the same time the most original of the four traditions.
The merengue differs from the other airs in the performance and the first bass rhythm, which is usually 3/1 and sometimes of 1/ 3, according to the characteristic structure of the melody, although the performer can play it faster if he pleases. Melodically, it is the richer of the vallenato rhythms and its performance allows the player to show all his abilities and make a true display of cadence and harmony.
The word son comes from the Latin sonus, which means “pleasant sound produced with art.” Because of its own meaning this term has been always bound to music. The son vallenato has a structure with a beat of 2/4it is a form of song with mulatto ancestry, although it is not free of indigenous influence. An essential characteristic in the performance of this air is the prominent use of the bass sounds of the accordion, so much that the bass sounds can be more prominent than the same melody coming from the other keyboards in the accordion. This is very common with new generation players. It is believed that whoever doesn’t master the bass sounds, will never become a good son vallenato player.
The son has a very distinct 1/1 bass rhythm, specially when played by performers from the savannas and those influenced by bass sounds, versus the accordion players from the province (Valledupar, Villanueva, Fonseca, etc.), who play a more fluid, more subtle style, with a bass rhythm of 1/ 2 and sometimes 2/1. Just like the paseo, sones are a kind of chronicles, where the singular narrative of the singer captures the events of their existence. In this genre it is common to have nostalgic dramas that have constituted an important part in the life of the composer.
Vallenato Web sites:
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.