Silvestre Dangond Plays With Tradition as He Aims for First Grammy

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A report by Leila Cobo for Billboard.

It’s taken Silvestre Dangond 12 years and four Latin Grammy nominations to finally get noticed by the mainstream Grammys. This year, the 37-year-old Colombian star got his first Grammy nomination ever in the best tropical album category for Gente Valiente (Brave People), an album of joyful exuberance that beautifully and effortlessly blends Dangond’s signature vallenato with all sorts of tropical beats, from reggaeton to pop to bachata.

It’s not easy to pull off this mix. While Dangond’s friend Carlos Vives paved the way for tropical/pop fusions in general and vallenato/rock/pop fusions in particular, Dangond is a different kind of artist. Born and raised on Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the tiny town of Urumita, he is the product of a long line of vallenato musicians, a genre steeped in tradition where authenticity is paramount. Dangond became a superstar in Colombia by honoring those traditions in every way, from the heartfelt, deeply emotional delivery that characterizes the music to his choice of repertoire and accordionist.

The fact that his first experimental album is the one that finally got not just a first Academy nod but also a series of major hits on the Billboard chats — including “Ya no me duele más” and “Materialista,” featuring Nicky Jam — is a source of celebration and also irony, in a good way.

We caught up with Dangond a few days after he got news of his Grammy nominations.

What went through your mind when you got word of the nomination?

Awards never cross my mind. I don’t make music to win awards. I learned a long time ago that the biggest pleasure I can have is hearing people sing my songs. I’ve been nominated to the Latin Grammys six times and I’ve never won. But this is my first nomination for the mainstream Grammy, and I admit I had to do a little research to understand the full dimension of its importance.

How did you find out about the nomination?

I’d just woken up and was getting ready to go to the gym when I got a call from Diego Valencia, who works with me, congratulating me. And then the phone began to ring nonstop. It was huge news for me. And not just for me, but for my entire town. I come from a very small town called Urumita, and you can imagine all the town personalities calling me.

Your dad is a vallenato artist as well. He must be so proud…

My dad and my mom are both musicians. I was going to be a musician or I was going to be a musician! They’re very happy. My dad called me and said he’d heard the news on the radio, and his voice kind of got sentimental and he changed the subject on me.

You say you’ve been criticized in by purists. That’s because Gente Valiente is an album that deviates from traditional vallenato. How do you defend yourself?

I don’t defend myself. I let them talk and limit myself to doing music with conviction. Look at what’s happening with “Cásate conmigo” [the single with Nicky Jam hit No. 22 on Hot Latin Songs and No. 8 on Tropical Songs, and the video has over 171 million views on YouTube]. Vallenato is the most universal and thankful genre because it can be mixed with anything without losing its emotion. This music is so beautiful, so pretty, so huge, and we’ve needed a place to go out and tell the world what we are.

For the untrained ear, songs like “Cásate conmigo” are vallenato, and yet, I know they’re very different from the more “traditional” vallenato you’ve done before. What are the differences?

Songs like “Cásate conmigo” and “Ya no me duele más” are produced in a very contemporary fashion. The harmonic changes are shorter, they’re simpler, the lyrics are more colloquial. The vallenato I’m recording now, for example, has far longer narrative. It’s about taking a story and narrating it in five different melodies. You also have to consider that many of the vallenato minstrels have died, so a different generation is doing the music.

In fact, your next album is going to be traditional vallenato. Can you give us a peek at something we’ll hear there?

The next album will be pure vallenato, but without ignoring what I’ve started here. I’ve done really well with Gente Valiente, and connecting with other audiences has expanded the movement. I just toured Latin America, and it was amazing to see the reaction in places like Argentina.

But it doesn’t matter how much I dwell in international waters; I can’t lose sight of what I am. In this next album I recorded a story by [Colombian accordionist and composer] Emiliano Zuleta, who at 70 years had a baby girl with his current wife and talks about that in this song. He wrote it and he plays accordion on the track and he also recorded vocals.

So what will you do if you win this Grammy?

I’ll make a huge party in my town, Urumita, which is famous worldwide for the hit “La gota fría.” We’ll cook a huge sancocho and you’ll be invited!

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