Three months after living in Cartagena, Colombia, as the millionth microbus whizzed, banged, and tornadoed through the busy morning streets, my Thai friend Bua shrieked, whipped around to face me, and blushed ridiculously. I immediately noticed that unlike me, who was busy covering my ears and groaning with the loud, uncomfortable sounds blaring through my brains at six-thirty in the morning, she appeared intoxicatingly exuberant. I asked her what could possibly be making her a fit of giggles so early in the morning, and she admitted with a sly smile that Latin music had finally wriggled into her soul.
It was at that precise moment when I realized something: We had been displaced dreamers in a frenzied nightmare for so long that I had begun to forget the beauty and the serenity of things different. She was the first to cross over.
She started laughing in her quietly mysterious yet hysterically obvious Thai way and slapped me lovingly on the shoulder, telling me that it would get inside me too – I just had to wait for the right time. The instant when the accordion would squirm into my skin, when the guacharaca (a ridged piece of bamboo struck with a metal stick) would scuff its way into my heartbeat, when the cantante (the singer) would serenade me into a deep, Latin sleep… when I would finally feel in step with the ritmo of the colorful Colombian world. I told her it was impossible: I would never feel the vallenato heartbeat.
Yet I did. I did fiercely and unpredictably. And I must ask myself now: How is it that we have the power to alter our tastes? Are we even responsible for the changes within us as we travel? And why does music haunt, dance, and invade our dreams so mysteriously?
It’s not like the comfortably familiar salsa, the quick and catchy merengue, or the Caribbean hip-hop called the reggaeton – mosaics of music that dance in and out of life like mediocre but certainly likeable friends. Vallenato, you see, is the ferociously popular folk music from the valleys deep within Colombia: the northeastern region of Valle de Upar claims origins, yet the millions of Colombian Africans trace it back far within their own jungles. Its etymology is quite simple, and stems from two distinct Spanish words: valle, or valley, and nativo, or native. The native of the valley – the old man outside with the cracked guitar, the young boys with the big black eyes following the farmers, the mothers inside cooking their coconut rice and fried plantains. The original people of Colombia, of any nation. The urban people of MedellÃn call it “country music,” scoff at it and flip the stations of their radios as it protrudes the airwaves, and consider it “just one of those ‘costeno’ coastal things…”
However, though I tried to deny it, as I traveled away from Cartagena’s Caribbean coast and into the lusciously illustrious Colombia interior, I unexpectedly found myself searching for the certain unique sounds in those moments of silence I used to crave: for vallenato, as music usually does, squiggles into every corner, meanders into every crack in the walls, waits on every bus, lingers in every mind long after the song is over, sings from every familiar mouth, and jumps into every nighttime fiesta. It wasn’t like the cravings I embraced for my Western music in moments of loneliness – moments where I needed the music that had faded with the noisy sounds of life, the flashing of streetlights, the beeping of busy cars, and the hubbub of human voices. Instead, the vallenato…lasts, like a delicious taste in the mouth, like a breathy kiss on the lips, like the first flawless Spanish conversation.
And don’t think I could ever forget how I felt the first time I heard it (and many of the times after that!): that squished up child face reeking of unpleasantness, with crinkles of the lip and a distaste in the mouth, follows me in giggles whenever I remember. It is the face of spinach, the cringe of piano lessons, the groan of the billionth identical group photo on a weekend trip. It is my great-grandparents’ German polka music with a bongo thrown in! And that dance – two people sucked onto each other, bobbing from side to side with their arms wrapped around each other – is it even dance? I felt ridiculous listening to it; I felt ridiculous dancing to it; I felt ridiculous sitting on the bus being constantly immersed in it.
Yet – just as I began to crave exceptionally sour maracuyÃ¡ juice in the mornings, devour greasy ham and pineapple empanadas in the afternoons, and express my words in Spanish with pleasure and confidence, I realized I was gradually discovering the delicate art of assimilation. And after the street boys at the foundation where we volunteered on weekends threw us a dance party in order to share their love of vallenato with us, after the other teachers shared their favorite discs with us during quiet office hours, after I repeatedly tripped over my feet (and those of my partners!) while trying to find the rhythm, after my new friends burned me countless CDs and eagerly introduced me to their beloved sounds, after I returned home and found Colombia only in the sounds of the accordion and that old Caribbean beat, I think it hit me too. Latin music had gotten into my soul too; it was just a little too late.
It found me, several weeks later, in my house in Atlanta, Georgia, not long after the sounds of Colombia had faded to the beep of new automobiles, the strum of electric guitars, and the punctuated voice of English. While presenting the vallenato to my family, my friends, and my own distant land, listening to it snake out of my home stereo system, I realized that my mind was no longer in North America: it had danced, far back, into the exotic jungles of Cartagena, to skip along the colonial streets, to bask in the eternal summer sun, to linger in a place I might not be again for a long, long time. I wished, as the tears clung to my eyelids, that I could share my moment with Bua, who, like me, found the vallenato too.
Those of you who have heard the Vallenato know that it is much, much more than just a simple music: it is a lifestyle, a hot Caribbean spirit, a fierce and voracious cultural richness. It is, in essence, what Colombia really is, and what Colombia once was for me.