Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Carlos Vives - Doing It His Way

Photo by Brent
Music has always played an important part in my life. When I hear certain tunes, I’m transported to a time and place, just like it was yesterday. I have soundtracks for different occasions—Shakira for housework, tango for writing my current novel, and The Wiggles when I need the kids to calm down (hey, at least it’s better than Barney!). For the past 10 years, my summer soundtrack has been Carlos Vives, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon. I do find it ironic that Carlos’s music represents summer to me, given that I first heard his songs in a nightclub in La Paz in the middle of a cold and stark Bolivian winter. But I’ve never been one for logic. 

Carlos Vives was born in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1961. When his family moved to Bogota 12 years later, Carlos played in bars and cafes around the city to help the family make ends meet. In 1982, Carlos debuted in a telenovela (television soapie), and his acting career took off. His popularity as an actor grew, and in 1986, he released his first album, Por Fuera y Por Dentro (Outside and Inside). The music consisted of ballads and, unfortunately, was a major flop.

Undeterred, Carlos released a second album of ballads in 1987 (No Podrás Escapar de Mí - You Can’t Escape Me). This time Carlos’s music reached #30 on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks, but the success wasn’t reflected in sales. Perhaps thinking three’s the charm, Carlos released a third album of ballads. Some of his songs were featured in telenovelas, but the album didn’t create any fireworks.

Carlos accepted an acting job in Puerto Rico in 1989, and took a break from his music career. Four years later, in 1991, he returned to Colombia and was cast in a series based on the life of composer Rafael Escalona. Escalona composed Vallenato music, traditional folk tunes that hail from the Caribbean region of Colombia.

As a side note, Vallenato was originally considered low-class music. It was a way for farmers to entertain themselves as they traveled from town to town trying to sell their cattle. As a result of their traveling, these farmers became unofficial messengers, informing people of news of their loved ones in far-off locales. The popularity of Vallenato slowly grew, and was helped along by Don Clemente Quintero, a man of high standing in the region. He played the music at his parties at the Valledupar Social Club, and the contagious rhythm was finally accepted by the upper class. 

Vallenato features three main types of instruments--the caja vallenata (a small drum played with bare hands), the guacharaca (a wooden stick with ribs that is played with a fork), and an accordion (an instrument of German origin that has three reeds per note). 

Vallenato impacted Carlos’s career in a big way. The telenovela was a hit, as were the songs Carlos sang for the series. He released two albums from this work, Escalona: Un Canto a la Vida (The Song of a Life) and Escalona: Vol. 2. A whole new world had opened up for Carlos, and he started to fuse Vallenato with rock, pop, and other ethnic rhythms from the Caribbean. In 1993, Carlos released an album of original work, Clásicos de la Provincia (Classics of the Province). While this work caused uproar amongst the traditionalists, Carlos’s music spread quickly and soon all of Latin America was singing along. 

The album won the Billboard Latin Music Award for Best Album, and was followed up by La Tierra del Olvido (The Forgotten Land), ensuring his continued success. Finally, the world was paying attention to Carlos Vives’s music and this was reflected in the ongoing sales of his albums. Since then, he’s continued to collect accolades, including his first Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album in 2001 for Déjame Entrar (Let Me Enter).
Carlos now spends his time with his family between his homeland, Colombia, and Miami, USA. He continues to produce his unique fusion of traditional Colombian music with rock, pop, and Caribbean beats and, in my opinion, doesn’t tour anywhere near as much as I would like (ie, Australia!).

Often on gray days, I’ll put on a Carlos Vives track and before I know it, I’m dancing around the house in my own little world of sunshine. His music transports me to white, sandy beaches, palm trees, and clear, warm waters. Ah…

And of course, here’s some music to get you inspired to book a beach holiday!


  1. I wonder if I heard his music -- a lot of NYC street musicians of Latin American origin play very similar music; there always is this interesting instrument that sounds like a whispering flute. I always thought it was Peruvian music - don't know why -- but maybe it was Colombian. I have no way of telling...

  2. Lina, no doubt you have heard Carlos Vives's music in NYC. He's very popular! In the first video, Gota Fria, there's a flute in there. Is that the one you're thinking of? I think Peru is better known for the Pan flute, but I'm no music expert!