What do you think of the accordion?

Nerdy instrument? Only useful in polkas and Weird Al songs? Someone busking on the street with a dancing monkey?

Or maybe the Far Side comic: “Welcome to heaven, here’s your harp. Welcome to hell, here’s your accordion.”

I would venture to say that accordion stereotypes in the United States are pretty

Cultural Moment: Accordions are kind of a big deal here in Colombia.

1) One time, I was watching Yo me llamo, which is kind of like American Idol, except that the contestants are all impersonators of famous singers, and they had a vallenato singer on, but half the time, the camera was not focusing on him, but on the accordion player. Accordions are cool here. (Incidentally, it appears that this singer is the one who ultimately won, maybe because of his super cool accordion backup player?) Oh btws. Here’s a video of this!

2) Music schools here advertise that they teach accordion. Come on down, get your accordion lessons right here!

3) Related: apparently there is a huge vallenato festival in Valledupar, which includes tiny little kids playing accordion. Sounds adorable. These are probably the coolest, baddest kids in their neighborhood. Don’t pick on them.

4) Speaking of child-sized accordions, one of our volunteers has bought a child-sized accordion. Nothing like seeing a grown gringo playing a teeny-tiny shiny red accordion. That just how cool accordions are. Everyone wants one.

5) My backyard neighbors last Saturday had a huge vallenato party with what sounded like a live band, that went until four in the morning. You could never do this in the states. After 15 minutes, I’m sure someone would call the police.

Anyways. So we’ve been talking about vallenato, yes? Maybe you don’t know what this is. Basically there is a really popular genre of music here that is called vallenato, and it consists of a singer, a little scratchy-scratch percussion instrument, a drum, and most importantly, an accordion. You may think the singer is the star, but as discussed above, the accordion is the show stealer.

All this talk about accordions came about because I was thinking about vallenato music, and how, once upon a time, a shipment of accordions from France to Nova Scotia got blown off course and shipwrecked somewhere off the coast of Colombia. There were no survivors, but for months afterwards, accordions washed up on the shores of Colombia. The costeños, intrigued by the squeezy, wheezy music boxes, took them and incorporated them into the music and culture of the area.

Haha. Just kidding.

But for some reason, that was the story I had made up in my head. Had I heard something similar somewhere and misunderstood what someone was saying in Spanish? Was this a crazy dream I had? Did I just completely make all of that up?

Who knows? But, in an act of cultural homework, I asked a teacher at my school just where did all those accordions come from? (This was a day in the afternoon when, surprise, surprise, class was cancelled).

There’s a region farther down the coast, La Guajira, that is pretty much a desert, but has a port. Unlike Cartagena’s port, through which came a steady, legal stream of goods, gold and people, La Guajira is where people landed their contraband from Europe. And apparently, sometimes this contraband included accordions. And, with its three attributes of “new,” “imported,” and “illegal,” the new instrument took the country by storm.

Incidentally, wikipedia says nothing of the sort in their article on vallenato. Perhaps I need to work on my Spanish a little bit more, but I’m pretty positive this is what he was telling me.

Moral of the story: If you want to be cool in the coast, bring your accordion skills.


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