Plaza Alfonso Lopez shook to its 16th-century foundations as I squeezed through the whiskey-drinking, sombrero-wearing crowd. On stage, a fast-fingered accordionist played, a sweat stain spreading across his chest. The crowd held aloft framed photographs of their accordion heroes and roared approval as musical scales swooped and soared in the sultry air.
Valledupar is the spiritual home of vallenato music. Vallenato translates as “born in the valley” and is the music of the north Colombian countryside. Typically, it is performed by a trio: an accordionist, bongo player and someone playing a guacharaca, a rasping stick not unlike a cheese-grater.
Originating from farmers who mixed Spanish and West African rhythms, vallenato was long derided across Colombia as unsophisticated cowboy music, before it was championed by the country’s intelligentsia, among them Gabriel García Márquez, who once described his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude to be a 350-page vallenato. More recently, it has become spearheaded by commercialised pop reinterpretations, notably by Latin superstar Carlos Vives.
Since 1968 Valledupar has hosted the annual Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata (25-30 April 2018), which features the genre’s finest accordionists competing to be crowned King of Vallenato. Every 10 years those winners compete against each other to be crowned King of Kings. The last of those was last year, and was also the 50th anniversary of the festival – so any previous winner could enter. I watched the best of the vallenato accordion greats alongside 150,000 other spectators at the four-day festival.
Valledupar, home to 450,000 people, is an unremarkable city on a hot flat plain; to the north, cattle-rearing pasture gives way to the La Guajira desert. The city does, however, have an agreeable old centre of whitewashed lanes that provided shade from the arid heat while its Spanish colonial plazas feature ornate churches with huge wooden doors.
My base was Casa de los Santos Reyes (doubles from £40 B&B), a converted merchant’s house with several patios adorned with pot plants behind the property’s thick 18th-century adobe walls. The guesthouse is in Cañaguate – a district named after the blossom trees that dash Valledupar yellow each spring – and a few blocks from the heartbeat of the festival at Plaza Alfonso Lopez. I arrived in time for a traditional breakfast of cheese-filled arepas and chicken soup – the latter a local hangover remedy for a festival hangover.
That morning the hotel had invited local vallenato star Jose-Ricardo Villafane to play accordion to guests. He demonstrated the four vallenato tempos (also known as airs) that all competitors must perform, his fingers fluttering over his keys.
“Paseo is fast and happy, the merengue is sensual, son is deep and melancholic but the quickest and most technical tempo to play is puya,” he said.
Musically, the festival officially started that evening with a concert for several thousand spectators at Ronda del Concurso, a soulless sports stadium on the outskirts of town. I watched a performance featuring vallenato’s biggest commercial stars, including so-called new wave artists, such as Churo Diaz and Carlos Vives, with their pop infusions and big band backing.
The concert was too slick and commercial for me. I didn’t feel the passion that inspired a popular vallenato myth: about a legendary accordionist called Francisco el Hombre who had slain the devil by playing vallenato.
It all began to make sense the next morning when the festival exploded into life at the plaza, where the early elimination rounds to find the King of Kings was held. This was unadulterated vallenato – just the trio of instrumentalists with no showy theatrics. It was mid-morning but already the crowd was downing the ubiquitous festival tipple: Old Parr Whisky. As a gringo I stood out (I saw few other foreigners) and plastic cups of Old Parr were jammed into my hand by other festivalgoers. But I resisted another festival delicacy sold around the plaza – grilled ants eaten as an aphrodisiac.
The tempo that really got to me was the hectic puya. The maestro accordionists played it at a dervish pace that quickened my pulse. I found myself chanting names of artists I’d never heard of the day before. Sometimes the players sang, considered a supreme skill while doubling up on accordion. The lyrics are as passionate as they are bittersweet.
“And I saw your brown eyes for a moment /And the sun was dying of jealousy …” crooned one performer, belting out a soulful song about tragic love.
By night the city lanes felt less like a furnace but the music never abated, as private parrandas (street parties) were in full swing. The locals were well-oiled and played famous vallenato tunes to howling crescendos.
“My two sons are accordion players and my three-year-old grandson already plays bongo,” said Javier Alvarez-Orozco, a local who invited me join his parranda for evermore whiskey. “Vallenato is in their blood,” he said.
Later I came across another gathering featuring a contemporary offshoot of vallenato called piqueria, a freeform rap battle backed by accordion and featuring two combatants using humorous improvised verse.
There were sober interludes, too, as I sought out Valledupar’s other attractions, such as Casa Beto Murgas Museo del Acordeón (free, suggested donation £5, guided tours available), which has a collection of 200 historic accordions – including beautiful machines inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The Guatapurí river flows through the centre of town straight from the Sierra Nevada’s icy headwaters, offering a bracing dip.
One of my favourites became the daily artisanal market that sold oddities such as hand-painted Panama hats, while I also saw a local religious procession celebrating the miracle of the virgin of Santa Rosario.
The grand accordion final came after four days of competition and was an intoxicating affair of musical wizardry that saw a competitor called Alvaro Lopez crowned King of Kings. The brilliant performance was a little lost in the cavernous stadium but I was still being sustained by the magical morning I’d had observing vallenato’s next generation under the tutelage of renowned accordionist, El Turco Gil at a local music academy.
His youthful proteges entranced me during a public concert showcasing their skills. A young girl played a doleful ballad about unrequited love with Tina Turner-esque swagger while a puya, performed by Juan-David, a blind accordionist from the countryside, blew me away with its ferocious tempo. “I saw his genius from an early age,” said Gil. “He can’t see but he ‘feels’ vallenato and will be a maestro someday.”
“People question whether pure vallenato will lose its soul as the music gains commercial success. These children suggest not.”
• Specialist Colombia operator, Amakuna has a week-long Origins of Vallenato itinerary in Valledupar and La Guajira from £1,495pp, including B&B accommodation, guided tours, transfers and internal flights. Direct international flights with Avianca start from £600 return. For more information on Colombia visit colombia.travel