Of all the great things that music is, being poetic is one of the most interesting ones. Dancing is hugely important, but the lyrics that beautifully combine with rhythms and melodies are something to highlight as well! That’s exactly what vallenato, born exclusively in Colombia, is all about!
There’s isn’t anything more Colombian and more local and autochthonous than vallenato, that’s for sure! Although it has become popular all over Latin America, Colombia still holds the title of being the land where vallenato had the pleasure of being born. I’m pretty sure that most Colombians know the lyrics or some songs and have sung to it loudly at parties or social gatherings. But what’s really special about vallenato is definitely the lyrics, which are usually so poetic and convey such beautiful, but tough messages that it’s impossible not to be surprised! So, as you can imagine, vallenato is currently one of the most important cultural representations of Colombia.
Meaning “the music of the valley” or “born in the valley,” Colombians are extremely fond of vallenato as it’s a form of folk music born in the Caribbean region. It’s relatively young as it started developing around the 20th century and it wasn’t always appreciated because its roots lie in rural areas and villages where the farmers used to sing and play their instruments as they traveled from town to town transmitting messages and news. This ensured that the high class turned their back on vallenato until some wealthy people in Valledupar (a small Colombian city) started to be interested and brought it to the social clubs. Originally, it was the lyrics that people were excited to hear, but with time, dancing to it also became popular. What’s important about vallenato’s lyrics is that they are usually an interpretation of the world through stories and poems that mix fantasy, realism, joy, sarcasm, and humor.
Vallenato is similar to cumbia due to the similarities between the instruments used and the melodies and rhythms that compose a binary rhythmic structure. The basic vallenato ensemble is composed of three instruments: the drum or box that descends from the African culture, the guacharaca or reeder that comes from the natives, and the acordeón (accordion) that was brought by European settlers (read our article about traditional Colombian instruments to know more). A vallenato ensemble might also include a bassist, guitarist, and keyboardist.
Like merengue, it was listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at Unesco in 2015 and it has its own festival called Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata, which is celebrated annually around late April.
It’s very easy to dance to; just feel the beat and the lyrics, which are usually very poetic and inspiring. Remember that vallenato wasn’t originally thought of as a dancing style, so the steps were created later in time and they are very basic, almost 100% intuitive when you hear the music (and when you do, it’s almost impossible not to start moving due to its contagious and fun beat). Vallenato’s dance is also very fast, so be prepared to feel rushed when doing it.
Want to learn?
Usually, there aren’t dance lessons per se (at least not like salsa or bachata), though vallenato actually has four varieties or main beats, including porro and merengue, which are the ones you can dance to. Zumba, for example, can also be danced with vallenato songs. So, if you want to learn, head to these places in Bogotá:
- Class dance: they offer different types of classes (personalized, cooperative, and even choreography for quinceañeras or weddings). For more info click here.
- Whee Dance Lessons: I recommend going to these lessons every Thursday at Meeting House. You’ll learn to dance merengue and many other Colombian or Latin rhythms, as well as share the experience with other foreigners and locals (for free!). It’s a hell of a good time, really!
You can also learn by taking a look at these Youtube videos that teach you the basics so you can practice:
Want to dance for fun?
This is the best way to dance vallenato because really, you just have to feel it in your body; that’s it! Parties that include vallenato are usually a lot of fun and you’ll find people singing out loud and really feeling it. Even at weddings, it’s very common to dance vallenato songs at “happy hour.” Head to these clubs in Bogotá for the best night you can ever imagine!
- Gaira Café: one of the most iconic places to hear and dance vallenato in Bogotá. Plus, the food is amazing as well. You might even get the chance to see Carlos Vives (see artists below) live because he owns the place!
- La Cacik: it has live music every night so it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a good idea to make a reservation as the place is always packed.
- La Casa en el Aire: inspired by the famous song (see songs below), this club has amazing decorations and details that’ll make you feel inspired to dance for sure!
Colombia has hundreds of well-known vallenato singers, so choosing a few is actually difficult. Here are some of the most popular ones.
Famous vallenato artists and songs
- Rafael Escalona (he’s a true master and inspiration for thousands!)
- Silvestre Dangond (one of the modern ones and very popular in the country!)
- Diomedes Díaz (his lyrics are poetry, it’s as simple as that!)
- Carlos Vives (every single person in this country loves him, of that I’m sure!)
- Binomio de Oro (they are great!)
Here are the “to not be missed” vallenato songs:
- La casa en el aire by Rafael Escalona (beautiful lyrics!)
- La gota fría by Carlos Vives (this is pure joy, pure vallenato, pure happiness!)
- Tu eres la reina by Diomedes Díaz (very romantic and catchy!)
- Vivo en el limbo by Kaleth Morales (everyone in Colombia knows this song!)
- Que bonita es esta vida by Jorge Celedón (a hymn of life to sing out loud!)
If you want to listen and dance to more vallenato songs, click on this Spotify playlist and start enjoying!
Vallenato was born as a form of communication and built on cultural traditions used to convey messages and express identity. So, it tells stories and connects people through their melodies. Please do yourself a favor and have the pleasure of enjoying and feeling some of the most amazing lyrics you could ever hear! And that’s why a trip to Bogotá isn’t complete without some good Colombian vallenato!
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