Bland rock and pop music took over Colombia in the 1980s. For a country with so much musical heritage this was blasphemy. Ensamble Polifonico Vallenato and Sexteto La Constelación de Colombia were two groups who, in the late 90s, fought to redress the balance.
Ensamble Polifonico Vallenato started as a joke, a parody of the bad vallenato music a bunch of University students would hear on the bus into campus. Their idea was simple: “to play whatever and see what happens”. The resultant music was as heavy as rock, as acidic as punk and as far-out as the most left-field free jazz. At the heart of it all was fiery accordion and acerbic vocals, often playing in call-and-response, just like the classic vallenatos of yore. The lyrics formed a big part of the group’s identity; they were deep, sarcastic and surrealistic, and revelled in toying with Colombian clichés.
The music soon stopped being a parody. The students began to learn more and more about Colombian folklore and their sound evolved. Soon, they ditched the accordion, replacing it with flutes from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and renamed the group Sexteto La Constelación de Colombia. The musicians were now more mature, though no less experimental.
Both groups were rebellious, counter-cultural and added to their reputations with anarchic live shows. At the time, the reaction was mixed. To quote the group, they were “approved by a few but disapproved by a lot.” For many musicians who saw them play during their short lifespans they offered an alternative, a new form of Colombian music that was rooted in their country’s heritage but could be as innovative and experimental as any jazz or rock. A seed was sown that started a new branch of Colombian tropical music.
The band members now play in groups like Meridian Brothers, Frente Cumbiero, Ondatrópica, Romperayo and Los Pirañas, bands that have released albums and toured internationally, as well as finally won critical and public approval, while maintaining the revolutionary spirit that will ensure that the evolution of Colombian music is not ready to stop yet.