In Colombia, Preserving Songs That Tell Stories Vallenato, traditional music from Colombia, was immortalized in One Hundred Years Of Solitude and popularized by superstar singer Carlos Vives. Betto Arcos tells its story from the Vallenato Festival.
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In Colombia, Preserving Songs That Tell Stories

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In Colombia, Preserving Songs That Tell Stories

In Colombia, Preserving Songs That Tell Stories

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that his book "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" was a 400-page vallenato. That's a traditional music of Colombia's Caribbean coast. The songs are mini-epics filled with local characters, and the style stretches back 200 years. Betto Arcos went to the vallenato festival in Colombia and has this story.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: It's high noon in Valledupar, the capital of vallenato, and a traditional trio takes the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLENATO MUSIC)

ARCOS: The vallenato festival has been held in this city that gives the music its name for almost a half a century. Its goal is to promote the traditional elements of vallenato, which is played on three instruments - caja, or drums; guacharaca, or scraper and the diatonic accordion.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLENATO MUSIC)

ARCOS: In addition to a competition, the festival also includes daily concerts held in a 25,000-seat amphitheater.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLENATO MUSIC)

CARLOS VIVES: (Singing in Spanish)

ARCOS: Among the headliners this year was superstar singer Carlos Vives, who helped popularize vallenato around the world in the early 1990s.

VIVES: (Through interpreter) For me, vallenato is connected to the countryside, to the cattle rancher, to the farmer. That's vallenato. And then there's us, the new generation who have reinvented it. But when I talk about vallenato, we have to remember the minstrels.

ARCOS: And they go back to the early 1800s when troubadours traveled from town to town, singing songs about local and regional news. Tomas Dario Guttierez is a vallenato historian and composer.

TOMAS DARIO GUTTIEREZ: (Through interpreter) Back in the day, the news was spread through songs, news that today could be transmitted in a matter of seconds - for instance, an epidemic.

ARCOS: In "One Years Of Solitude," one of the main characters learns of her mother's death through a famous vallenato accordionist. Guttierez says people may think Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about a fantasy world in the novel.

GUTTIEREZ: (Through interpreter) No, no. He takes the history, the social and cultural reality of our people, and runs it through the sieve of fantasy and creates that monumental work. Many times the same phenomenon happens in vallenato songs. For instance, the song called "The House In The Air: I'm Going To Make You A House In The Air," it's the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF IVO DIAZ AND COLACHO MENDOZA SONG, "LA CASA EN EL AIRE")

ARCOS: The song tells the story of a man who wants to build a home for his daughter up in the air to protect her from unwanted suitors so that only the one who can reach that high can win her hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA CASA EN EL AIRE")

IVO DIAZ AND COLACHO MENDOZA: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: Up until the late 1800s, vallenato was played on Colombia's indigenous flutes called gaitas. When the accordion came to Colombia from Germany in the mid-1800s, it became the primary voice playing four distinct airs or rhythms - paseo...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA HAMACA GRAND")

ARCOS: ...Merengue...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOS TOCAIMEROS")

ARCOS: ...Son...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PENA Y DOLOR")

ARCOS: ...And Puya.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEDAZO DE ACORDEON")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Puya, Puya.

ARCOS: Last December, UNESCO declared vallenato intangible heritage in need of safeguarding. Efrain Quintero, vice-president of the Vallenato Legend Foundation, says that acknowledgment brings with it a big responsibility.

EFRAIN QUINTERO: (Through interpreter) To promote and support music that does not stray from the melodic and literary structures of traditional vallenato - that said, I'm a firm believer that we have to evolve. We can't restrict or stigmatize new musicians. We just have to make sure that they have all the necessary elements of traditional music and, based on that, create new work.

ARCOS: The vallenato festival recognized accordionist Emiliano Zuleta and his brother, singer Poncho Zuleta, for their efforts to preserve the music.

EMILIANO ZULETA: (Through interpreter) We must follow the rules and parameters of traditional vallenato to conserve its essence. That's the recommendation we make to new generations so they don't distort the truth about vallenato.

ARCOS: Singer Carlos Vives agrees. It's important to continue recording vallenato and encouraging younger musicians.

VIVES: (Through interpreter) It's also important that minstrels continue to thrive like Emiliano Zuleta, the elder, or Carlos Huertas - composers that were born free of the recording industry who were not born to make records but to carry messages from town to town.

ARCOS: Vives says it's the peasant and the popular poet who will keep vallenato alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA GOTA FRIA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA GOTA FRIA")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Spanish).

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