By Daniel Samper Pizano | Translated by Albeiro Rodas
Rafael Calixto Escalona Martínez was born in Patillal, Cesar, on 27th May 1927. He was the seventh of nine siblings in the family made by Clemente Escalona Labarces, colonel of the war of the Thousand Days and Margarita Martínez Celedón.
In 1936 he began to write verses and little by little he gathered stories that would become the bases of his famous Vallenatos. The first of them was composed in February 1943, when he was just 15 years old; to this followed 95 compositions more, melodies in which ones is possible to reconstruct not only his own life but also that the old State of Magdalena, a contribution to the Vallenato music that became an identity of all that region. Escalona has received many homages, medals and he has been diplomatic. But his biggest recognizance was made by his “cousin” Gabriel García Márquez when he said that “Hundred Years of Solitude was no other than a Vallenato of 350 pages.”
Rafael Escalona Martínez was 15 years when he composed his first Vallenato song. Five years before he traveled from the small town of Patillal (Cesar State), where he was born on 17th May 1922, to study in Valledupar. Good friend and emotive, his school life was for him a sweet-and-sour plate, as it is revealed in many of his songs (“El hambre del Liceo” – The Hunger of the School, “El testamento” – The Testament, “El bachiller” – The Bachelor). When he finished his primary, he came to the María Concepción Loperena College, an institute of secondary founded months before.
One of the joys offered by the Loperena, besides his companions, was a teacher adored by all the students: professor Heriberto Castañeda. This one was concerned that the boys not only get the lessons, but grow as good persons. He played soccer with them, procured that they become interested in the subjects and participated in his meetings and jokes. However, beginning the 1943 class, the students knew the bad news: Castañeda had been moved to Almirante Padilla Lyceum in Riohacha.
Escalona lamented so much the leaving of the teacher. He grew listening the farmers and troubadours of the Upar Valley when they interpreted Merengue, Puya, Son and Paseo musics in the feasts. He knew that the one who feels, sing. In this sense, he did not find other way to say goodbye to the teacher than composing a Paseo. They were three brief strophes where it was possible to guest the seed of what was to be developed in the next six decades – and may God wants more to come. His work has been a Colombian ambassador to the world. The Paseo talks about the local views (“Cuando sopla el viento frío de la Nevada…” – When the cold wind of the Nevada blows); of the troubles of the student (“…que en horas de estudio llega al Loperena” – In which hour of study I came to Loperena); of premature nostalgia (“¡qué triste quedó el Loperena, qué tristes quedaron sus aulas! – How sad remained the Loperena, how empty remained its classrooms); and of the personal feelings: “El nos dijo adiós, porque se ha ido, y le dijimos adiós, pero que vuelva” – He said goodbye because he went away and we said goodbye because we wanted he will be back.
“El profe Castañeda” (Professor Castañeda) was the first song of Rafael Escalona. Its date is inexact: February of 1943. Since then he has composed more than ninety, many of them “La casa en el aire” (The House on the Air), “Elegía a Jaime Molina” (Elegy to Jaime Molina), “La vieja sara” (Sara The Old), “El Almirante Padilla” (Padilla Almiral), songs known by generations of Colombians.
The work of Escalona is a picturesque mosaic and full of grace that narrate the stories, traditions and gossips of his land, as it happens in “La patillalera” (The girl from Patillal), “La custodia de Badillo” (The Custody of Badillo), “El villanuevero” (The one of Villanueva), “El general Dangond” (General Dangond)… But it is also a testimony of his loves and pains like in “La historia” (The History), “Honda herida” (Deep Hurt), “La brasilera” (The Brazilian Girl), “Dina Luz“… precisely verse maker and surprising composer, in his best songs it appears a magnanimous measure of humor and poetry.
Typical and atypical composer
The stories of Escalona left Valledupar in the year fifties. They seduced the cachacos (Colombians from the Andes region) in the sixties. In the seventies they were catalyzed in order to make the Vallenato a popular Colombian music. They were approved by the international repertoire and the television of the eighties. In the nineties the produced impact in the music market and concerts in America and Europe from the hand of Carlos Vives. His songs were interpreted by famous artists and orchestras of America and Europe. Some of them were made Salsa, others in symphonic music and even in Flamenco.
I do not want to say with this that Rafael Escalona is the only Vallenato composer. There is a constellation of names that also have had their part in the success of this folk expression of the mass music. But he is the most famous and one of the most extraordinary. His biographer Consuelo Araujonoguera said:
“Es el más grande de todos. El que resiste todos los análisis que se le quieran hacer a sus cantos y todas las críticas que haya que formularle a su persona”.
“He is the biggest of all. The one who resisted all the analysis that you want to do to his songs and all the critic to be made to his person.”
Escalona, anyway, is a clear symbol of the Vallenato music. Even better: he is a myth. It is also recognized by “Hundred Years of Solitude” when he is included with name and surname among its characters in Macondo. The most curious is the some of the characteristics of Escalona are separated that what is considered classic or traditional in the folk world of the State of Cesar. Different to the great interpreters of the accordion that have woven the history of music, Escalona does not play any instrument. In contrast with figures like Alejo Durán, Leando Díaz and Emiliano Zuleta, who have given voice to their own compositions, Escalona sings very rare. And contrary to the farmers and poor cowboys and very often illiterate people who gave gross to the genre, Escalona comes from a well-off and aristocratic family. The typical family that enjoyed with the feasts but considered that make songs is a skill of simple people.
It was the way for many years before. The Vallenato music was born on the earth as a product of the sensibility of three races that formed the Coastal nation: Indo-Americans, white and blacks. It is possible to say, schematically, that the basic instruments of the Vallenato represent the racial mixture: the European accordion, the African box and the Pre-Colombian guacharaca.
Old country music
It is impossible to precise in which exact point of the geography of northern Colombia was founded the Vallenato. The region where appeared this songs embraced parts of what is today the states of Magdalena, Cesar, Guajira, Bolívar and Sucre. Until half a century ago it was known as Valledupar Province or Padilla or, more popular, “The Province”.
Surely the music of accordion that had as evangelist the guitar and the harmonic, began to bloom in many spots at the same time, because it was not a work of sedentary people. At the contrary, it runs the country with the cowboys, went to the fairs with the farmers, brought news from here and there with the first troubadours and juglares of the region. Later it developed in the colitas, popular binges made by the poor in the yard of the rich houses and it was revealed to many Colombians of the interior (Andes region) that came to work in the banana plantations of Santa Marta. It was a song of feasts, challenges, pubs and brothels.
When the Colombian radio was born in the year thirties, the Vallenato was one of the first privileges to taste the magic of the microphones. Since then, its destiny is linked to the new means of diffusion of the sound. None national musical expression has sold so many discs in Colombia like Vallenato; the radio offers numberless stations dedicated only to this genre; the cinema has brought to the screen idols of the Vallenato song like Diomedes Días; the television has gathered also the popularity of the culture. Even the work of Escalona inspired well known telenovelas that have been transmitted in many countries.
In its successful development, the Vallenato has conquered different spaces: from the feasts of the fair gathering to the concerts in the stadiums. Carlos Vives covered it with an atmosphere of modernity and conducted it where it did not arrive before: to the great urban youth sectors that were concentrated only in rock.
Escalona is the inheritance of a solid tradition that was born more than a century before with accordionists like José León Carrillo Mindiola, a young man of Atanquez (Cesar), who was sent to Spain at the middle of the last century thinking he had religious vocation. He certainly had it and very deep, but of feast-maker. He hanged soon his sandals of lay brother and returned to Valledupar armed by his accordion to gather melodies that were already heating the air on indigenous flouts and gaitas.
To that patriarch came many other composers, including the mythical Francisco El Hombre (Francisco Moscote), Sebastián Guerra, José Antonio and Germán Serna, Chico Bolaños, Alejo Durán, Luis Enrique Martínez, Samuel Martínez, Lorenzo Morales, Juancho Polo, Náfer Durán, Pacho Rada, Abel Antonio Villa, Calixto Ochoa, Julio Erazo, Rafael Campo Miranda, Carlos Huertas, Diom.
With Escalona shared today the highest altar four other living composers: Leandro Díaz, Emiliano Zuleta, Calixto Ochoa and Adolfo Pacheco, a great musician of the region of Bolívar where the Vallenato laid with the Cumbia.
A quarter of century ago the success of the Vallenato created a professional market of star singers and accordionists of singular talent. Ones and others are many and good ones that it is not possible to make a complete list in this brief. But it is possible to say that because the commercial boom, a deformed Vallenato was created, one that is false, hollow and sad.
When he stopped in the college without getting the waited certificate of bachelor, Escalona dedicated to the agriculture. Casanova, feast-lover and a man of trousers – like those who very often had a brilliant gun caliber 45 with his initials on the handle, – fall at least on the mandate of wedding in 1951. Marina Arzuega, his first wife, is the famous Maye that appears in many of his songs and Rosa María, the one of “El manantial” (The Spring).
After living so many years in his hacienda “Chapinero”, in the outskirts of Valledupar, being a member of the civil and political council to promote the Vallenato Festival and being the obliged point of reference for journalists and celebrated visitors, 1975 produced for Escalona a radical change. He became consul. It was a new time in his life and music. After three years in the position, he returned to Colombia. But he did not return to Valledupar. He went to live near the Language Academy, few meters from the Las Aguas Church and 700 meters from Quinta de Bolívar in Bogotá.
With the time this old cultivator of songs and rice from the tropical lands could adapt himself to the capital. He dressed always in dark clothes, very elegant and he uses globes to protect from the cold. He composes less than before and sometimes he dedicates to painting. He is a collector of jackknives and a friend of his friends. He continues being a Casanova, sentimental and easy teardrop. There is not a son unrecognized by him, none fine whiskey refused by him and none women who he would deny a compliment, a verse or an improvised song that after would not be registered.
He has accepted challenges with opponents of occasion in several times and any guardian angel has saved him by miracle during the difficult times. He still a fest-lover, he sings good and low his own songs and whistle melodies when he is on the move to compose. He has been aware by various presidents, universities and many homages.