Alejandro Zuleta

Alejandro Zuleta: New York’s King of Vallenato

Lance Scott Walker

By Lance Scott Walker

on 08.19.14 in Features

In 1938, Colombian composer Emiliano Zuleta Baquero scored a hit with “La Gota Fría.” The song’s lyrics stoked a feud with rival accordion player Lorenzo Morales, and kicked off a new era for the indigenous folk music known as vallenato. Emiliano, who was nicknamed El Viejo Mile (The Old Mile), identifies himself in the song as a writer, and calls out Morales for his reliance on freestyles. The drama birthed an instant classic, and “The Cold Sweat” has been a hit many times over since, covered by everyone from Carlos Vives to Julio Iglesias. Before his death in 2005 at the age of 93, Emiliano Zuleta Baquero’s contributions to the genre earned him the nickname “King of Vallenato,” and he had established a family dynasty that reaches into present-day New York City.

Alejandro Zuleta may have been born into his great grand-uncle Emiliano’s musical legacy, but until recently, his entire musical career had completely bypassed vallenato. He arrived in New York from Bogotá four years ago to study jazz piano and started working in clubs like Barbes in Brooklyn and Terraza 7 — but no vallenato. Looking to fill that gap, he pulled together musicians from the groups he was seeing live and Vallenato Collective was born. The group played in the parranda (party) style, with plenty of poetry in the lyrics and just as much space to improvise. Traditional vallenato songs are part of their repertoire, but Vallenato Collective does not play traditional vallenato, because they don’t have an accordion player. In keeping with his iconoclastic style, Alejandro plays all of those parts on piano.


FolkCOLOMBIA en el Parque 2014

Vallenato is built around four different rhythms, or ritmos (merengue, paseo, puya and son), as well as the interplay between accordion, bass guitar, a drum called a caja and a scraping stick called a guacharaca — which provides a rhythmic backbone for the music. In its centuries-old form, vallenato was either sung a cappella or played on guitars and flutes. In its modern form, the accordion is the primary instrument, and the competition to crown its top player (“Rey Vallenato,” or “Vallenato King”) takes place every April in the northeast Colombian city of Valledupar. Then, every 10 years, the Vallenato Kings from that decade compete to crown a Rey de Reyes, or “King of Kings,” who takes the title by performing all of the traditional vallenato ritmos as well as a series of their own interpretations. It is one of the highest honors in Colombian vallenato music. The third and most recent Rey de Reyes, crowned in 2007, is Hugo Carlos Granados, father to four accordion players and the son of one of the greatest accordion technicians of all time.

The Granados and Zuleta family dynasties came together for a week this July, after a successful fundraising campaign led by Alejandro brought Hugo Carlos to New York City. Gigs at Teatro SEA and Terraza 7 were followed by an accordion workshop at El Taller Latino Americano and the marquee event of Alejandro’s initiative, which took place at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. The concert was the Center for Traditional Music and Dance’s “FolkCOLOMBIA en el Parque 2014,” a recreation of the 10-day Colombian feast known as Carnival Riosucio (“The Devil’s Carnival”). Among the cuadrillas (music groups) for the afternoon were Zuleta’s own Vallenato Collective, Ronald Polo and Moris Cañate (Grupo Rebolu), Martín Vejarano (La Cumbiamba Eneyé), and Las Alegres Ambulancias. Colombian actor Ramiro Sandoval performed the libretto for the afternoon’s narrative in Spanish.

Dancers in long dresses ran around the lawn in front of the stage next to the Queens Museum, dancing with barefoot men in short pants who swung vueltiao sombreros over their heads. There were costumes, masks and men walking around on stilts. Plenty of concertgoers danced, but hundreds more formed a perimeter around the dance area, chewing on coconut ice and mango under the trees next to the 12-story Unisphere. When Hugo Carlos Granados took the stage with Vallenato Collective, everybody rushed to the front. The King of Kings smiled and waved from his chair and then contorted his upper body to square up his touch on the keys of his accordion. Granados held his right hand tight like a claw against one set of buttons while his arms flexed and tightened to keep the accordion breathing, and the fingers of his left hand plucked around on the keys at its opposite end. The band stayed knit to his rhythms, while Zuleta alternated vocal parts with young Hugo Carlos Granados Jr., whose voice will be heard maturing by legions of fans back in Colombia.

“We are going to play a more difficult vallenato rhythm,” Zuleta told the crowd of their last song. “The one that makes Kings in Valledupar.” Granados led them into a puya in 6/8 time, the bass thumping along until the Rey de Reyes turned and slowed his playing down to long, quiet notes so each musician could solo. He kept his playing to a whisper, his eyes following each musician until they’d all had a go at it. When the band thundered back up to full volume, Granados picked his way into impossible rhythms, locked in with the airtight backing of the band. Granados pushed every measure further, finding deeper corners in each rhythm. The wild enthusiasm in the air showed that this was exactly what the crowd wanted from the King, whose Rey de Reyes crown will be up for challenge again in 2017.

A few weeks before Granados was to arrive in New York, I spoke with the bright and enthusiastic Zuleta in a café in Manhattan about how he developed his brand of vallenato in the United States.

When did you start translating vallenato to the piano? Was that back in Colombia?

It was in New York. In Colombia I never thought about doing vallenato because there’s just so much vallenato there. And I didn’t want to do the same thing, so I did pop, I did rock, I did jazz… I did other stuff. And when I came here, I said, “I want to check out my roots.” I figured out that it was better to try and do it on the piano. Nobody has done that. I’m going to give it a shot and see if it clicks. One night at Terraza, the owner, who is a friend, said “I want a vallenato band here. So if you know somebody…” I said to him, “I don’t do it with the accordion, I do it with the piano, but I can do it.” And that’s when I began calling people. I called Diego [Obregón], the bass player. I called Nestor [Gomez], because I had seen him play with cumbia groups and I thought, “This guy might know how to play caja.” At the beginning, we were just four. Bass, caja, guacharaca and, instead of accordion, piano. And we played at Terraza and the owner loved it and we’ve been playing there once a month since that. I started very small, to see if it would grow.

Having a piano instead of an accordion — what does it do to the other instruments? Do they get more rhythmic because you’re more melodic? How does it work?

There’s a couple of things I cannot do that accordion players do. They hold their notes for a long time. They can hold a chord for a long time. They can repeat a note very fast, which I cannot do. They can sound more like a wind instrument than the piano, and can have that kind of dynamic structure, which I cannot have. But I have more chords that I can play, I have chromatic notes that I can also play, I can do some things faster than they do. With the left hand, they have this set of chords that they can play. Because they’re fixed, because of the buttons, they cannot do any more than that. I can do a lot of stuff with my left hand also, with the basses that they wouldn’t be able to get. As for what it does to the other instruments — that would be a good question for them. I’ve never thought about it.

With your project, with the fundraising campaign — what is your relationship with Hugo Carlos Granados? Do you know him from back in Colombia? Your family knows him?

Our families are both dynasties of very talented musicians. His family is a dynasty of accordion players. Most of my family is composers. Some are accordionists, or they’re singers. It’s more diverse. His father is the most famous accordion technician in Valledupar. And he was also a good player. Not as good as his sons. And then he’s got four sons — they are all vallenato kings. They were brought up with those accordions lying there in their house to play. Hugo is… he was the king, and now he is King of the Rey de Reyes, which is like the biggest festival every year.


FolkCOLOMBIA en el Parque 2014

Is there a winner every year, or every…10 years?

Every year there is a winner. There’s a kind of competition. You must play the four different vallenato rhythms, which are merengue, paseo, puya and son. And each of them, you play a different way. You also have to know the standard way of playing it. You have to show that you know the tradition, and then you have to add what you’ve got to add. It’s a 20-minute set or something, and they compete with each other and then somebody wins. And then every 10 years, those 10 winners compete.

And that’s the King of Kings.

‘I have translated the accordion repertoire to the piano, but I have kept all the traditional things that make vallenato beautiful, like the poetry, the songs, the rhythms.’

Yeah. The King of the Kings. The actual one is Hugo Carlos. We have a lot in common. I have translated the accordion repertoire to the piano, but I have kept all the traditional things that make vallenato beautiful. The traditional things, like the poetry, the songs, the rhythms…and he’s the same. He’s not really into the commercial stuff but more into the cultural, traditional vallenato. I don’t know if you saw the video of the campaign, but the juglares from the past that started vallenato music, they went from town to town sharing their songs with each other, and sharing the ways of playing, so one juglare from here would go to another town and play there for a night, and the musicians there would know about what we were doing here because we travel. We share these songs, and the news, and the ways of doing the music. So that’s how the music got bigger.

That’s how it multiplied.

Yeah. It got stronger, and everybody was able to know it, because there were no recordings. So people had to travel to other towns to play, to share. So I said, “It would be nice to make that connection between what we do here and what Hugo Carlos is doing, in New York.”

What do you feel the campaign taught you? The tools are easy now, but it’s not easy to just make it happen. You have to really hustle. How long was the Indiegogo campaign, a month?

A month and a half. It was better to put in a couple of extra weeks. And if I had the time, and if I’d done it in two months, I would have collected more money. For sure. It’s a lot of work [laughs]. No, but it was nice to see the generosity of people. We have two hundred supporters. That’s a lot! But that was my goal. I didn’t think about money. I thought about people. I think, “If I can get two hundred people to back me up, we’re gonna make the goal.” And we did.


FolkCOLOMBIA en el Parque 2014

Are you doing commercial work here like you were doing in Colombia?

At the beginning, I was trying to get into brands and get into advertisements and that kind of stuff. But I got this gig where I’m a house composer at that theater. So it doesn’t… it’s not like big jobs like advertisement, but it’s much nicer to work with, and the projects are more interesting artistically.

What’s the feel of the music for the theater?

We have done two big projects with them. One is all about the music of Rafael Hernández, the composer of “Lamento Borincano.” They did a show, like a musical revue of all his songs, and we used something like a remade ’50s bolero orchestra — a five-piece brass section, a four-piece rhythm section, and it’s very nice. I wrote arrangements for everything. The new thing is a piece that’s called “My Superhero.” I co-composed the music with Manuel Moria, who is the director, and then I did all the arrangements. It is the story of [Puerto Rican professional baseball player] Roberto Clemente, but this kid is called “Bobby,” because it is superhero day in the school, and all of his friends are like, “Why did you dress like that? He’s not a superhero.” And then he starts explaining how Roberto Clemente is a superhero because he was more than baseball player. It’s a beautiful story.

Tell us about “Vallenato in the Box.”

The caja is an instrument we use to play vallenato. It’s just a box. But my idea was to create like this imaginary box, where we can just start feeding it with new songs, new memories, new stories… they’re all going on inside this imaginary box. But there’s also going to be a physical box, in which we’re gonna put in those materials, so there’s gonna be little boxes — vallenato boxes — with a CD, or with a t-shirt, hopefully some photographs… I wanna do a chronicle about all this process and then that’s what people’s gonna get for their donation. So those boxes are gonna be the memory — the physical memory — of particular encounters, but hopefully that imaginary box that we have is also gonna keep growing.

Become more of an idea than just that physical box.

Yes. But then we put another record into it, and another encounter, and then we bring… instead of an accordion player, a composer…


FolkCOLOMBIA en el Parque 2014

So you’re going to collaborate on one song with Hugo Carlos Granados, and it’s going to be on an album — what will be the tone of the rest of the album?

It will be Vallenato Collective.

All vallenato songs.

Yes so it’s our sound, with the piano…

All your compositions?

I play some of my music, but I also play the music of the juglares, the greats. Because it’s such a great repertoire! If I did 10 of my songs, I think it would be boring at some point [laughs]. Because when I’m playing songs, I’m playing the best…the songs I like the most of Rafael Escalona, of Alejandro Durán Diaz, the songs I love the most of Gustavo Gutiérrez… it’s such a strong repertoire.