Rafael Escalona, the prolific composer and performer of vallenato classics that define the genre died of cancer on Wednesday at the age of 81. Hundreds of Colombians followed his coffin through the streets of Bogotá to a funeral service at the cathedral, where the Colombia Philharmonic Orchestra played many of his works.
Born in the Caribbean state of César, the cradle of vallenato music, Escalona composed his first song at 15 and went on to pen staples such as “La Casa en el Aire” and “El Manantial.” His name and work were immortalized in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez, which refers to “the songs of Rafael Escalona.”
Escalona helped found the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata, the definitive annual vallenato music gathering, and lived to see vallenato reach a global audience. In 1991, his colorful biography was filmed as a telenovela starring fellow singer Carlos Vives, whose recordings of Escalona’s songs brought them to the attention of an international audience.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Colombian singer Shakira were among those who expressed words of appreciation as news of Escalona’s death spread on Wednesday. Escalona is survived by his companion Luz Maria Zambrano and 23 children from various relationships.