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Chabucos’s Musical Night

The revolutionary vallenato of the 1990s unleashed a generation of copycats, poor and inauthentic imitations, but it’s only now that some performers, most notably Chabuco, are revitalizing the genre. By selling 500,000 copies of his album in one day, he has accomplished an astonishing feat and has earned a chorus of praises. With his bold avant-garde music, he has shown that unexplored artistic roads still exist. Here we present a biographical sketch of a new Latin American star.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino

Late at night, when the noise of everyday life has quieted, the artist feels as if a type of creative big bang overcomes him. He says it’s as if a horde of emotions are exploding in his imagination or a caravan of voices, memories, laments, and melodies are imposing themselves on him. Something in him gains grace and lightness, to the point that there are times when he’s in his bed ready to sleep, and a voice, mysterious, indescribable, and soft, drives him to jump out of bed like a lightning bolt and return to work.

It has always been this way. Back when he was just a boy, he realized he was destined for art and the elusive happiness of music. His name is José Darío Martínez, although now everyone in the U.S., Spain, and Latin America knows him as Chabuco. His latest album, De ida y vuelta, has earned him a legion of followers, some so enthusiastic that they place him among the best Colombian performers of all time, although he also has his skeptics.

“I believe the vallenato is dynamic, flexible, and full of possibilities that we haven’t even imagined. I think its creators have the obligation to relentlessly encourage it so that it never dies away. That is why, since I came to Bogotá I have been seeking alliances, unexpected marriages, and explosive mixtures. My ear has driven me to perpetually explore. To my surprise, the public appreciated the music that was born of these experiences; even the great masters of the genre, who are usually strict purists, approved. I don’t call what I do fusion, it is more like an encounter,” he says recounting the joyous journey of his recent past.

Memorable Scents

The story began in Valledupar, the mythical home of the great masters of the vallenato, a lyrical expression of the villages, valleys, hamlets, hills, and cities of the Colombian Atlantic coast, steeped in myths, memories, legendary personalities, witty mischief, and especially love stories that find their poetic mirror in the rivers, trees, birds, mountains, hills, and great lyrical theater of nature.

“I remember, from the fog of childhood, the enormous, wild parties that took place in our house. I am certain that my artistic identity was completely forged at those parties. It was always a celebration, and my father, Hugues Martínez, acted as the great master of ceremonies. He was the guitarist for the legendary Zuleta brothers and he loved acting as the driving force behind these nights of sleepless revelry. During those never ending stormy nights I saw Diomedes Díaz, Colacho Mendoza, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Jaime Molina, Carlos Huertas, and Rafael Escalona in action.”

“I got to be part of a small Olympus, a member of a true artistic community, delightfully filled with rum, good whisky, and sumptuous feasts. There, the vallenato entered my veins, it became my way of understanding and visualizing the world,” he recalls. He still seems to be the child who, standing less than a yard off the floor, became accustomed to singing along to the lyrics of the songs.

The landscape the young Chabuco wandered in his childhood remains immortalized in his poetic memory and he claims that each place he encountered has given him an intangible gift: La Junta, Villanueva, San Juan del César, Patillal, La Paz, La Jagua, Urumita, El Molino, Perijá… are names of paramount importance to him now. Chabuco can make knowledgeable asides about how the residents of every inch of these lands live, love, make poetry, and die; he can describe why they choose the topics they choose and he can even make a smart snapshot of their musical spirits.

He admits he was a bad student, barely tolerated by school officials and teachers until it came time for parties, celebrations, commemorations, flag raising events, dances, and parades. Then, he made up for his academic ineptitude with the grace of his melodies and an undeniable aesthetic sensibility. He was the performer for every school of the savannah, Valledupar, and Barranquilla (“I went to almost all of them without shame or glory”) and this saved him from being considered a wild rogue.

His tour through the coastal schools came to an end, and Chabuco decided to be utterly faithful to his stubborn musical fixation. He thought a man had a right to pursue his destiny in accordance with his essential being. So, one day in 1993, he arrived in the volatile, promising city of Bogotá, perched atop a bus. It was the first in a series of dramatic moments in which he learned that no artist, without faith in the face of calamities and despair, can achieve his goals or open the doors of the great city, let alone utopia.

At first he lived in a dreary house in the southern part of the city. It belonged to a composer friend of his who had installed a recording studio in the house and filled it with the equipment needed to produce cutting edge vallenata music. They slept in creaky, uncomfortable beds and the general atmosphere was opaque and tedious. The days rolled on and they failed to find accomplices or success.

These were the lean years in which he witnessed the corruption in the Latin American music world, the harsh rules of the game that some producers and music makers practiced, and the absolute dominance of certain rhythms, such as reggaeton, that bombarded the radio airwaves, satiating the public appetite for mediocre art.

“I studied theater at Charlot Academy in northern Bogotá, and I even performed some roles, but I soon realized once again that I was beautifully condemned to music. She is nothing short of sensual math and when you live in her thrall there is no escape,” jokes Chabuco. “I was never exclusively dedicated to the vallenato,” he says, to explain what happened to his style. “I also needed the expressions from other worlds and other latitudes. At a very young age, I listened to the Rolling Stones, Leonardo Favio, Edith Piaf, and the creators of Latin jazz. While I was performing classics, I made time to create. This is how I became accustomed to the lyricism and fullness of the night.”

Chabuco did his “time” in the bars of Bogotá, some of which have become hotbeds for cultivating undiscovered talent. He knew, however, that this period had to be limited if he didn’t want to risk getting lost in the viscosity and nothingness of the urban night. He worked persistently, however, and this is how his albums Nació mi poesía (2008), Clásicos café la bolsa (2010), Morirme de amor (2012) and, his disquieting climax and doorway to fame, De ida y vuelta (2013) came to be.

An Ancient Lament

Chabuco traveled to Europe for the first time in 1999, with the intention of studying music and learning about the new trends and cutting edge ideas that run rampant on European soil. He visited Brussels, Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Berlin and says it was a transformative experience.

“Contact with the world makes you aware that all human beings, in essence, have an unbridled thirst for communication, a craving to express their sorrows and luminous moments, their tragic and glorious events. In essence, we are all the same, and when there is dialogue, the most beautiful possibilities can pulsate.”

He has returned to Europe many times to explore the possible union of the vallenato with Latin Jazz. One night in Madrid, at a gypsy party, it occurred to him to try fusing the vallenato with the cante jondo and flamenco rituals.

“I was in the house of Carmona, one of the members of the iconic group Ketama. During a joyful flamenco party, the type where the collective memory and wounds of a people appear to come together, I began to dream of the union of flamenco with the vallenato. Something’s there, I said to myself, in those ancient laments of a people wounded by their history, but always full of magic and sensuality, that resembles the balladeers and those who write the verses of the vallenato. I felt challenged to undertake this adventure. Ever since that moment, everything has been like one long, wonderful, prolific night of creation for me.”

The premonition was real. The album De ida y vuelta, distributed in a revolutionary and brilliant launch by the largest newspaper in Colombia, sold 450,000 copies in a single day, earning him a diamond record for his bulería vallenato.

“I’m very happy,” declares Chabuco, who is embarking on his most extensive and significant tour to date. “But it seems natural to me… Music is like a woman: she gives you what you give her, she gives back to you the time and affection you have given her.”

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