Dispatches from Colombia: The Virgin and the Vallenatos

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A report by Charles McNair for Paste Magazine.

Many Colombians don’t know the Vallenato Legend, though they hear from the cradle to the grave a musical form that celebrates it.

The legend is a rip-roaring good yarn.

When the Spanish ended their fevered Colombian quest for the golden city of El Dorado, they launched a feverish quest for souls. They built missions, Catholic outposts that anchored settlements and haciendas and fostered European-style civilization in the untamed north of a vast new continent called South America.

One settlement rose in the Valle de Upar (later simply Valledupar). This pueblo, like many towns in the New World, began as a church surrounded by wooden and stucco structures. A few merchants did business, and little ranches with cattle pens dotted the flat swath of fertile savannah lands between rugged mountain ranges. To the east rose a spiky ridge of the Andes that today forms the Colombian border with Venezuela. To the west, a massif, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, soared straight out of the warm Caribbean to snow-capped peaks, the highest in Colombia.

The Legend of Valledupar tells of a household servant here, and the tragedy and miracles brought on by her mistress’s jealousy.

Francesca, an indigenous Chimila Indian, worked as a maid in a Spanish household. A young woman with lustrous black hair, wide brown eyes, and the striking facial features of her native people, Francesca’s breathtaking beauty would be the stuff of legend.

The Spanish mistress of the house grew deeply jealous, no doubt due to the attention the servant girl drew from menfolk. La dueña watched and waited for a moment to find fault with Francesca, and when that moment came, the mistress quickly dealt out harsh punishment. The lady cut off her servant’s long hair and had her publicly whipped.

As with Helen of Troy, the incident launched a thousand ships—or curare-tipped poison arrows, in this case. The Chimila tribe, joined by other local indigenous people, went to war with the colonizers. An attack on the settlement killed many Spanish settlers, and all would have been slain, but for a miracle.

As the Chimila made a final assault on the church, legend holds that the Virgin Mary—known afterward as the Virgin of the Rosary—mystically appeared. Wielding a supernatural cape like a matador, she shielded the holy structure and those faithful colonists inside from Indian arrows.

Surprised by this divine intervention, the Chimila fled into the Sierra Nevada. North Colombia is dry country certain times of year—cactus grows along the Caribbean coast not too many kilometers north—and water is precious. The Indians craftily poisoned a lake where Spanish soldiers sent to avenge the attack would need to water their horses and themselves.

The plan worked. The soldiers stopped. The soldiers drank. The soldiers died.

Then, in her second dramatic deus ex machina moment, the Virgin Mary reappeared. She passed among the corpses, one to the next, touching the dead with a heavenly scepter. Like an army of Lazaruses, the Spanish soldiers rose to their feet, alive and well again and ready to fight.

The Indians knew they were beaten. They surrendered to the Spanish. Many gave up their pagan ways and converted to Christianity. Most were dead in a few years.

The Virgin Mary’s appearance was a miracle to the Spanish. To the Chimila, not so much.

People come to Valledupar today to celebrate this Vallenato Legend musically.

Musicians here through the centuries developed the vallenato, a beloved roots music that blends three musical tributaries of Colombian heritage: the distinctive European accordion; a Native American rhythm instrument, the guacharaca; and an African American drum called a caja. Each April, the Vallenato Legend Festival brings the world’s best composers and performers of the form together in a musical celebration that ranks among the great folk culture festivals in all of South America.

As befits its legend, the festival’s lively music can raise the dead.

Artists perform on stages all over Valledupar, competing in various vallenato categories: best accordion playing, best unrecorded new song, best child performer, best this ‘n that. A highlight is a sort of battle of the bands: two vallenato players onstage at the same time will invent verses, trying in turn to outdo and outlast the storytelling of the other. Vallenato players infuse the merengue, son, paseo, and puya rhythms of the tradition into songs overlaid with mesmerizing, emotional lyrics. Think of Hank Williams’s heart and Johnny Cash’s honesty set to hip-shaking Caribbean rhythms and jaunty accordion lines. Alongside vallenato stages, famous performers from all over the world perform pop, salsa, and other genres. Audiences dance and drink through the hot nights, reveling until sunrise wakes the town’s roosters.

Though home to 400,000 people, Valledupar is really a glorified country town. The vallenatos all seem to know one another personally, and everyone tells everyone else’s history, including that of the Castros, my fiancée’s family. Adela, born here, spent her first 15 years in a house with an upstairs window looking out to the stars. As warm winds stirred a nearby almond tree, she dreamed of life ahead.

Trees matter here. I amuse myself by checking a weather app daily to compare temperatures in Valledupar with those in Death Valley, California. About 300 days of the year, Valledupar is hotter. Here the shade of a mango tree, green fruit hanging on stems like pendulums in grandfather clocks, feels like cool lotion.

Through this shimmering heat, the chilly Guatapuri River cascades down from snowmelt in the sierra. The river keeps Valledupar green, and it also freshens the spreading savannah lands with their cattle pastures, banana groves, and palm oil plantations stretching toward the mountains.

Cars cruise Valledupar streets shaded by mango trees and huge ceibas. The greenways and tree canopies feel remarkable in Colombia, where trees can be scarce around sunbaked town plazas and along crazily chaotic streets originally built for horses and carts. Valledupar’s calles bring to mind lovely tree-shaded boulevards in New Orleans.

Next column, I’ll share more on Valledupar. This out-of-the-way spot in north Colombia isn’t a top tourist destination, apart from the annual music festival. Still, it’s real. Real Colombia. Its legends, its vallenatos, reveal this fascinating nation and its culture.

Also, the Virgin Mary may make an appearance at any moment.

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