The Dangerous World of Very Be Careful

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 08.13.08 in Spotlights

Looking for trouble? Colombia is a good place to find it. This has been true at least as far back as the early 1980s, when director Jeremy Marre filmed Shotguns and Accordions: Music of the Marijuana Regions of Colombia. Marre’s documentary on the intersection of the drug trade with the local folk style known as vallenato seems almost quaint in comparison to Colombia’s current narcopolitical crisis. A similar combination of beauty and danger can be heard in the relentless and emotionally wrenching dance music of Very Be Careful, a unique Los Angeles quintet that has been performing traditional vallenato with hardcore intensity since 1997.

Led by accordionist Ricardo Guzmán and his bassist brother, Arturo, Very Be Careful combines la música vallenata the Guzmáns heard growing up as the children of Colombia-born parents, with the punk-rock virtues, as Arturo puts it, of “intense crowd energy” and “people getting hurt onstage.” I didn’t notice any onstage mayhem, for better or worse, when the group performed recently in Brooklyn. What I did witness, however, was a group that appears to effortlessly channel the emotional realities of humble party people a hemisphere away as well as the sort of unbridled passion and deep grooves any adventurous young Latino could relate to today.

Craig Martin’s rasping guacharaca scraper, Dante Ruiz’s campana cowbell, and Richard Panta’s caja vallenata drum fill out Very Be Careful’s traditional instrumentation. Cover versions of tunes by such vallenato giants as Alfredo Gutiérrez, Alejo Durán and Leandro Díaz dominated the band’s 1999 EP, Cheap Chillin, and first three albums: The Rose, El Grizz and Ñacas. The band’s latest and greatest album, however, 2007′s Salad Buey, is strictly originals once again, featuring lyrical contributions by the brothers ‘mother, Deicy Guzmán. The band consciously emulates the classic lo-fi sound of its predecessors, and every album sounds better than the last. “Our music’s really simple, so we try to make our recordings really simple,” says Ricardo. “It’s a challenge to make lo-fi sound really good.”

Vallenato probably means “native to the valley,” the gorge in question being Valle de Upar, better known as Valledupar, in the northeastern region of Colombia called La Costa. Local Indian traditions merged with rhythms imported by African slaves and the sound of a European three-row button accordion to create música vallenata, which maintains momentum with the help of Valledupar’s “Legend Festival,” an annual competition. Vallenato is played in four distinct tempos, or aires. “There’s puya,” explains Ricardo, “which is the faster, and most underappreciated, rhythms, although I like it. Son is the slowest and more heartfelt. Pasero is probably the most popular because it’s more of a mid-rhythm. And the fourth is meringue.” But don’t confuse vallenato’s triple-meter meringue with the cranked-up Dominican dance music of the same name.

Like other vallenato groups, Very Be Careful also plays songs in the cumbia rhythm that also originated in Colombia before spreading across South and Central America and into Mexico. “Vallenato’s not blowing up internationally,” says Ricardo, “but the people who like it, love it. Cumbia is blowing up, though. It’s been hot for a few years now. So when a lot of people hear about us, they’re like, ‘You play cumbia. ‘They don’t even understand the vallenato side.”

�Ayombe!: The Heart of Colombia’s Música Vallenata is an excellent introduction to the piquant accordion sound, sentimental lyrics, and crosshatched percussion that initially inspired Very Be Careful. Compare the nervous precision of Alejo Durán’s puya “Pedazo de Acordeón,” wherein the singer asks to be buried with his “bit of accordion,” to Salad Buey’s “La Ardillita” (The Squirrel), a sly love song with a distinctively squirrelly energy.

Salad Buey is a boisterous bestiary. The album title translates as “ox salad,” but Ricardo claims the “salad” is actually a salud — or a toast — to a blue-collar beast. The cover photo depicts Ricardo’s late pet parrot, Cleopatra, whose tragic fate is recounted in the album’s final track. The dog “Sebastiani,” “El Tigre,” “El Puma,” “El Mono” (Monkey), and the aforementioned squirrel round out VBC’s allegorical zoo. The untranslated songs are as pure as their vallenato (don’t expect to ever hear keyboards or any feeble fusion moves in the future), and the band revels in a private world of in-jokes — or as Ricardo quickly rephrases, “inside realities” — referencing friends, lovers, Los Angeles, and the world.

And about the band’s sideways name? “A way of life,” Ricardo replies tersely, as though cautioning me not to pursue it further.