Colombian Elvis

Carlos Vives will never be caught in a sequined jump suit. Exuding gentleness rather than libido, the pop vallenato singer is more likely to gambol across stage wearing a T-shirt, sandals, and shorts. Mischievous eyes framed by long, loose curls, his bustling energy at age 40 is a far cry from the drug-induced lethargy of the last lonely days of the king of rock and roll. Yet Vives shares with Elvis Presley a passion for the music of the poor people of his land. And like the King, he is a white man singing with a black feel who has sold millions of records.

"The music of the Rio Magdalena is like the blues along the Mississippi," cries Vives, leaping from a lawn chair on a Mandarin Oriental hotel balcony and gesturing toward the shimmering water below. In the November twilight above Biscayne Bay, Vives could as easily be looking across the Mississippi from St. Louis, New Orleans, or Memphis. The same stars could be reflected in the mighty Magdalena, the river that snakes along the Atlantic Coast from his native Santa Marta, Colombia, to the carnival city of Barranquilla, and then into the interior of the nation where the rural music known as vallenato and cumbia was born. "Carnival in New Orleans is like Carnival in Barranquilla," he exclaims.

Tracing the tributaries of conquest and slavery that fed both the blues and Colombian folklore, Vives repeats the lessons he learned as a teenager at school in Bogotá. "Andean, African, and European all contributed to vallenato, to cumbia," he recites. "There are Indian, African, and European elements to the blues as well." Like Elvis, the Beatles, and Mick Jagger before him, Vives channels these mighty rivers into music all his own, from the groundbreaking Clasicas de la Provincia (1993) to his latest and most innovative disc, Dejame Entrar (Let Me In). "No, there's no doubt;" he insists, "this record is my rock."

For Colombia, a country ripped apart by civil war, vallenato is a fantasy of national harmony. Each of the three races, the story goes, supplied one of the three instruments played in traditional vallenato: The Indian brought the guacharaca (a wooden instrument that is scraped), the African brought the caja (a "box" or drum), and the European brought the accordion. "It wasn't exclusive," says Vives of vallenato's racial mix. "It was mestizo."

As with the blues, legends of the early days of vallenato abound. Old bluesmen and women drifted from town to town; the first vallenatos traveled the countryside on horse or donkey, playing the accordion and improvising lyrics to spread the latest news or serenade local beauties. So powerful was the music that the Devil himself got into the act. Bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul at a crossroads in exchange for supernatural skill on the guitar; Francisco "El Hombre" Moscote dueled with the Devil, beating the prince of darkness by playing the Lord's Prayer backward.

But if Francisco the Man beat the Devil, his accordion playing died with him. Only in the Fifties, the Golden Age of Vallenato, did a nascent recording industry begin to spread the popularity of this regional music. The homespun poetry extolling the beauty of land and love appealed to a nation racked by a civil struggle known simply as La Violencia. By the Sixties, however, the lyricism and complexity of the music went into decline. Commercialized by large orchestras, vallenato appealed not so much to poor country folk as to the lowest common denominator. When the drug economy took hold in the Seventies and Eighties, the narcs took a fancy to the form, adding cash flow and a new hint of disrepute to the genre.

Then Carlos Vives came along.

Vives came to vallenato in a career that is almost Elvis in reverse. Where Presley followed his string of Fifties rockabilly hits with a series of schlock films designed to sell dreadful soundtracks and showcase his pretty pout, Vives started out as a galan, or heartthrob, on a series of Colombian and Puerto Rican telenovelas -- often supplying a schmaltzy love song for the title theme. "Before making my music, I recorded ballads," he says with distaste. "The people I worked for said, “We're going to take advantage of this kid's face.'" Then Vives landed the lead in a telenovela based on the life of Rafael Escalona, the preeminent composer of vallenato's golden age. Not content simply to play a vallenato on TV, he put together his own band, La Provincia, and began recording pop versions of folklore classics. He told the suits at Sony that he had had enough of sugary rock ballads.

"You're not going to sell this anywhere but in Colombia," the label warned. When Vives convinced the small Colombian label Sonolux to release Clasicas, though, he conquered first his homeland, then the world. "The first disc awakened all these memories," says Vives of the unexpected success. "People rediscovered the rhythms of Colombia."

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Celeste Fraser Delgado