The Cesar province where we travelled under the vague pretext of attending a music festival and putting a couple of stamps on a passport at the border, is a land of desperados and smugglers alike, a gunman’s paradise. It is the place where vallenato, (named after the capital city of Valledupar), by far the most popular music in Colombia, was born. Forget for a second about Shakira or Joe Arroyo (r.i.p), the elegant cumbias and generally speaking the fancy -and excellent !- stuff you’ve heard in the compilations made by the european labels. Since the 60s, the colombian identity lies in the heart of this rhythm, its acordion, the minimalism of the arrangements (salsa being considered as too complicated sometimes), and the life it depicts. Names like Rafael Escalona, Julio Bovea, Binomio de Oro or Diomedes Diaz stand way above Lisandro Meza, Anibal Velasquez or the Sarmiento family in terms of popularity. They sing of endless sabana flat lands, the morning dew, an impossible love, or the right to enjoy private property. The best, and the worst: from a tribute to the paramilitary militia, to the calls for peace, or a requiem for Bin Laden. Commercial horror and authentic pieces of afro-meets-latino-meets native artistry. Just about everyhting.
VDP (the valley of the lord Upar”) and its surroundings is a land...of lords. Those families that own endless stretches of the best land, and have obliged the small peasants to leave and try to find a place to grow their modest crops in the driet-out areas of the sabana, or near the Magdalena river, to which floods have given an amazonian dimension ulitmately, drowning people’s hopes. As for the natives, they have been pushed towards the mountains. After all, this is where the first militia of the country started, in the 30s. In VDP, we were welcomed by a belgian friend, whose neighbor is the mother of paramilitary chief Jorge 40. Funnily, one learns that while studying in high school, little Jorge 40 had Simon Trinidad, the Farc’s head of business affairs, as a classmate ! She tells us how, in VDP, until former president Uribe launched his process of disarmament of illegitimate forces, the army and the paramilitary used to have their respective bases just a couple of miles away from each other...
At the airport, waiting for the bus, we had chosen a small tree to wait under the shade, and practice some trumpet. That’s also where a bunch of young soldiers were hanging out in their jeeps, listening to the stories told to them by a man dressed as a civilian in pink shirt and jeans, who looked like a veteran of the algerian war. A small Cessna landed in a relative indifference, except for the soldiers who started to move around and listen to orders. A truck rolled on the tarmac and parked next to the plane, from which big sacks were unloaded. The plane left right away, the truck too, and now some soldiers are following it, pretty much A-Team style.
That’s when Anibal Smith unleashes strange orders to a soldier (“Vete...Oye, cuidame ese muñeco !”) and then turns to us : “ Hey trumpet man ! So you’re french, son ? How I fucking love that son of a whore Sarkossi ! That mummy jammer is stuffing Kadafi’s sissy ass with lead, just the way I like it !” Then turns to his privates : “God damn it ! If a plane goes there tomorrow, you can be sure I’ll be the first on board. That’s what I call life !” Jah Rastafari ! Let’s look at the airport again. In the distance, the vision of those reporters in red “press” vests walking on the tarmac towards a Huey, taking lots of pictures while trying to keep their hats on their heads, is quite reminiscent of a scene out of a 1950s italian neo realistic film. They fly above the nearby site of the Leyenda vallenata festival, then the Huey takes them back as they keep shooting pictures of who knows what. The army on a coproduction with a cultural event ? What’s next ? May be we’ll see the soldiers serving ice cream to the baby landlords ?
On the next day, we paid a visit to “El Turco” Gil, a king of vallenato who now runs his own vallenato academy, the country’s best. This venerable institution trains the next acordion virtuosi, an activity which can turn out to be a real job, if you chose to exercise it in Bogota...or Houston. It offers scholarships to the poor kids and the Arhuaco natives who come from the moutains, and one could say it has gained him the admiration of everyone, quite a challenge here. In his office, he is running the auditions prior to the Leyenda vallenata. The muchachos have progressed a great deal, notes fly in the air, and on the picture above El Turco, Bill Clinton seems to be happy. In the corridors, in all the classrooms, you can hear kids banging their caja vallenata drum, scratching the guacharaca or playing machine gun chord extensions on their acordions, under a blazing heat.
Now it’s time to go visit the border, for a 5 minute trip to Venezuela: the visa extension is reaching its limit today. 5 hours of bus to Maicao, then a suicidal ride standing at the back of a jeep that slalom-passes between tanker trucks at 120 km/h, and here you have it: the border, La Raya . The stripe, as simple as that. Semantically, a somewhat abstract version of a border. A couple of banknotes in the passport, the kind of bribe you thought you would only see in the old movies...With his strabism, the venezuelian border officer sports a “Howling Mad” Murdock one piece pilot kind of suit. He makes a sign full of conpassion to which one answers with a quick “how much” and that’s it. Bolivarian revolution. Back in Colombia, it is impossible not to visit Maicao’s Mosque, South America’s biggest. Then, the sabana’s infinite bushy landscape, it straight roads, with huge moutains in the distance, starts a dialogue with the sunset and a Binomio de Oro song on the car’s audio system. Simply, with the poésie of spaces and the alchemy of distances, the mind is wandering somewhere, from a beheaded dog to another. The vallenato reveals the essence of its blues
As we get closer to VDP, an old rusty Renault 18 car overtakes us at soundspeed with barrels and cans ...out of the trunk and the windows. The taxi driver explains that the guys cross the border with huge loads of venezuelan oil, using the many dusty trails the region’s smugglers know. Its costs 10 times less, so that with 2 trips a month, the two teammates earn enough for the month. Forget about the stereorype of some dangerous colombian bandits. The two kids our driver talks to look like some kind of relaxed kind of tattooed youngsters. Well, not to the point where we would take a picture of them, but...
The police doesn’t intervene, and apparently nobody here is in charge of the smuggling, as opposed to the drugs, a business in which you have to be licensed to operate. Here “Anyone who has the balls” can start his business. Our taxi driver has 50 kilos of rice and bags of Pampers, and there’s even a bunch of them under the seats! Our man is tense because this is the kind of load that the policement really appreciate...along the road, their tents are surrounded by bags of rice like sandbags in a military camp ! Somehow they would look dumb with barrels of oil all around...Now we understand why nobody smokes in this region: every block has enough to blow up the entire villlage ! At the very limit of ear’s tolerance, the car’s sound system is playing a Zuleta Brothers tune, about a deceived fiancee who became an assassin of both her ex and his future wife. The passenger on the backseat (whose brain is undergoing severe db damage, but it doesn’t seem to bother her) explains to me that a woman is supposed to be virgin at her wedding. Her life wasted, she has no hope left. You don’t joke with religion in this part of the country !
After a good night’s sleep and an early lunch it is time to go and visit the natives. We’ve been told there’s a bunch of nice rivers and a few Kankuamo and Kogui villages to visit on the South Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the highest coastal range in the world. 5800m, only a few kilometers away from the coast! And this champion status is underlined by the fact that everything around is flat. The mountain becomes even more magnetic and powerful. It is easy to understand the unique blend of such different cultures that are wrapped around the mountain, turning around her, moving in circles by the winds, like those plastic bags inlaid in the bush.
We climb into an overcrowded jeep, and here we go on the road, driving from a small village to another in the middle of the bush. Then the jeep leaves the road and climbs the mountain for another couple of hours. Of course, any visitor is easily seen as the main attraction in the jeep, exclusively occupied by Kankuamo natives who nickname any white foreigner they meet “turco”. The road is pretty bumpy and the trip is nicer standing at the back of the jeep. The steepness of the route obliges the traveller to regularly get off and back on the vehicle, the engine being too small for 20 people plus a huge amount of products. The trip becomes so shaky that a local villager is ejected off the jeep after the tires hit a big rock in a curve. Despite his fall, he seems to be all right, and the driver doesn’t have time to waste anyway. At dawn, the jeep rolls into a small hamlet. The only Kogui in the place is having a last chat at the local tienda (shop) before he returns to his reserve village uphill. His Spanish is hardly understandable, and despite his gratefulness for the Aguila beer he was offered, he drinks it in a single sip, in silence. Not very talkative at all.
Little after sunrise, around 6.30 am, walking up the mountain, we are denied the access to the Kogui area. One has to have a permit. Instead of taking it personally, it is better to think that the mountain is like that, its people are like that. Yet it is hard not to feel sad while looking at the landscape that awaits the hiker beyond the canyon, above our head. Back to where we’d been sleeping, the breakfast is made up of coffee and bread. The good thing is, the women turned the radio on to spin the wool and the local gaita music is excellent. The decision is made to go down to the village where the radio station is located, and meet the local dj/host. Prior to the long walk down the mountain, the river by the village offers its crystal clear waters. Sandy bottom, great sun.
As we arrive in the village, we meet Walter, a strong Latino - Kankuamo, very welcoming in his studio. There is a bit of deception and even a sense of panic when, after 5 minutes, the man starts talking about french pop star Alizée, how great and beautiful she is. No way! In the middle of the Sierra, with a village that barely has electricity, one meets a specialist of Mylene Farmer’s protégée. What a downer...Yet at the same time there is something unique to it...It is hard not to feel certain tenderness for this man who is somehow naively clinging to a distant sex symbol, like a plastic totem. Watching videos of her play-back singing, on mediocre music tv shows, broadcasted from some god forsaken white trash mining city of southern Belgium or northern France, places the Kankuamos can’t relate to, it suddenly seems from another world. Hard to say if we are immerged in the “Tristes tropiques” anthropologist Levi Strauss described, or the more rejoicing local adaptations of a global culture De Certeau analyzed. Someone from Europe pointed out : “But how can he dig Alizée ? Insane, the kid’s too young on those videos!” Well, in a place where people have children at age 15, it is not really a problem. Then Walter takes us for a walk through the village and pursues: “My heart got broken when a brother from Mexico sent me a picture of her, naked on the beach, with The Child! I knew my chances with her were very small."
To cut the subject short, we ask him what was the tune was that he played between 8.15 and 8.20 this morning. Walter learnt journalism, radio, filming, and does well. He has a past in VDP he doesn’t want to talk about, which makes it impossible for him to go back there. Meanwhile, he won an India Catalina award, one of the main ceremonies in Colombian broadcasting industry, for a documentary on the Kankuamos for the local Tv Caribe Channel. It didn’t help much: for lunch he takes us to his house where his wife raises their 4 kids, a very humble house. After lunch we pay a visit to old Toño a “pocket” Kankuamo, barely 1m50 high. As he starts chanting some old traditional tunes for us, magic happens: those strangely structured melodies feature odd intervals that are reminiscent of some bird. The Spanish he uses is once again barely understandable. Two styles can clearly be heard. The more “bizarrely” structured is the oldest, it is the one that is used for meditation, lively lamentations and solitary, slow dances. It is not intended to be sung in public. The other features drums, its rhythm is more syncopated, it is made for family and friends gatherings. We spend the whole afternoon sipping beers and talking about music, in this calm village (something quite rare in Colombia)
On the following day we are off to Santa Marta to meet JC Pellegrino, one of the leaders of the acclaimed Systema Solar, one of the leading bands of the new Colombian scene. His house, which looks like an observatory and a James Turrell forms meet landscape kind of experiment all at once, is perched in the middle of the cactus, above the Caribbean. As we arrive, JC takes us down to the studio, where he is listening to Systema Solar’s next white label track: a mash up between Michael Jackson and Andres Landero, one of the greatest Cumbia artists ever. Like an anouncement of a great summer to come in the European festivals. Meanwhile, the night is an occasion to live at the Systema’s pace with JC and his little son, a mix of alternative culture, urban life, new methods of education, like a new Colombia under construction. After dinner, the dog shakes his tail, the stars shine upon the Taganga bay, and the moon caresses the cactus we are watering, slightly drunk. With the head spinning around. Ah, dear Sierra...