Colombia’s traditional Vallenato music is Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, according to UNESCO. According to the global cultural organization, Vallenato music “faced and it’s facing a number of risks to its viability, notably the armed conflict in Colombia fuelled by drug trafficking.”

However, the organization also said that “a new wave of Vallenato is marginalizing traditional Vallenato music and diminishing its role in social cohesion.”


This new wave of Vallenato has received massive popularity in Colombia and beyond with artists like Silvestre Dangond, Carlos Vives and Jorge Celedon. This pop version of the music genre successfully put Vallenato on the international stage, but “the use of street spaces for Vallenato ‘parrandas’ is declining, removing a crucial space for intergenerational transfer of musical knowledge.

Emerging in the mid 20th century and with origins in traditional cumbia, vallenato has become one of country's most popular styles. Vallenato literally means "born in the valley". The valley influencing this name is located between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serranía de Perijá in northeast Colombia comprising the deparments of Magdalena, Cesar and Guajira. This form of music originated from farmers who, keeping a tradition of Spanish minstrels, mixed also with the West African-inherited tradition of, who used to travel through the region with their cattle in search of pastures or to sell them in cattle fairs. Their only form of entertainment during these trips was singing and playing guitars and their form of transmitting their news was by singing their messages.


The extemporaneous composer, who was both vocalist and accordionist, evolved into a professional musician as part of an ensemble classically including an accordion, a caja (drum) and a guacharaca (scraper). Colombians are proud to point out that vallenato symbolizes the unique and largely imagined harmonious relationship between the races that comprise their country: native Indians, Black Africans and Spanish. Each group is said to have contributed an instrument to the ensemble.

The accordion carries the melody, while guacharaca and caja dictate the rhythm.


While rough hewn and leathery in sound, vallenato lyrics are usually plain written and sugarcane sweet. Everyday events, passion, eternal love, village folklore, travelogues and miracles blur in the telling; voices crackle with emotion in a music that so influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that he once described One Hundred Years of Solitude as a 350 page vallenato.

Indeed most lyricists are considered poets and poets are national heroes. And in the music this literaryness is always at the forefront of any performance, no matter how charmingly danced to. Vallenato is for listening. When a song has gained the weight of truth, everyone sings along, collectively Colombian-individually turning over memories and images. What began as a mestizo ranchers and peasant music in an isolated area has recently evolved into one of the country’s most popular musics, turning into an idealized national character of romance, magic and cowboy macho.


While Vallenato was played at informal gatherings, for serenading, dancing and at parrandas (house parties), the style bloomed at “piquerias”: improvised competitions, in a freeform rap battle backed (sometimes) by accordion and featuring two combatants using humorous improvised verse. Contests that overly involved the public resulted in heated support of heated rivalries. Jail, the police, real fights, and rum were all common elements to accounts of musical battles that often lasted for days.

Villanueva, a small town in the department of La Guajira, is arguably the core of Vallenato, where Vallenato goes beyond music to become a lifestyle and a philosophy. At the center of the infamous colombian armed conflict, Villanueva has lived in very hard recent times but the Vallenato legacy kept its people from running away.


If Villanueva is the core of Vallenato, the Barrio of El Cafetal (until recently a heavily guerrilla controlled area) is the core of Villanueva: for being the cradle of vallenato music, for the bohemian lifestyle of its people and for the cafeteros and the activities that revolve around the coffee production.

Just to name a few: Poncho Zuleta, Jorge Celedon, El Binomio de Oro, Jean Carlos Centeno were all born in the same street in El Cafetal and they are all now international stars of Vallenato.

Every composer got inspiration from the town’s everyday life, from its mountains, its river, its women, its coffee, its cockfights (a symbol of virility, and a means for economic gain and an improvement in one’s standing in the community) and its magical realism themes that also inspired the creativity of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a Vallenato fanatic).


Parranda, Ron y mujer (party, rhum and woman), the song of Vallenato legend Diomedes Dias has become a manifesto of a lifestyle for the vallenato bohemians. Vallenato is THE way of life here.

The everyday life of the vallenatos culminates every year with the Festival Cuna de Acordeones: celebrated every year since 1979, the Festival is the main cultural and social event in la Guajira celebrating the very best in Vallenato music. The Festival is an integral cultural expression including not only artistic region expressions but also religious was declared a Cultural and Artistic Heritage of the Nation in 2006. There are more than 68 accordion performers, singer-songwriters and composers having been born in Villanueva, village which is the main provider of vallenato music: The cradle of Accordions. Most of them were born in the Cafetal barrio, which makes the festival in Villanueva is often referred to as the “criollo” festival and rivals the more commercialized one of Valledupar.

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