For Me It Was A Magical Sound: Talking Vallenato with José Hernando Arias- 27 July, 2012
In August 2011 José Hernando Arias – a London resident born in Britain to Colombian parents – was chosen by the BBC for their World Routes Academy series. The programme, which aims to unite young musicians with mentors in order to raise awareness of musical styles to new audiences, teamed José Hernando with legendary accordion player Egidio Cuadrado, famous as the right-hand man of Carlos Vives. From being chosen to now, José Hernando has visited Colombia, played in the traditional Valledupar festival, learnt many a new trick from his mentor, and now prepares to bring the traditional vallenato music of Colombia to the BBC Proms on 31st July. We sat down with José Hernando to find out about his journey.
When did you start playing vallenato?
I started with the guitar, from age nine. I saw the accordion live on stage one day, an artist from Colombia, Lisandro Meza, whose very well-known in Colombia. It really inspired me seeing how he played and sang at the same time, so I said I have to learn how to play that instrument. For me it was a magical sound.
What was it about the vallenato that you loved so much?
Vallenato has everything, you talk about love. When you have a girlfriend you write to her, you write about her, or about your parents, general things that happen in life. It’s very beautiful, very poetic.
Who were the important accordion players for you personally?
I was influenced by Lisandro first because he plays a certain vallenato, which is not the pure vallenato, it’s vallenato sabanero, which is more like cumbia style. And then I started checking out videos that my dad brought back from Colombia. Then I was learning more of the traditional side of the vallenato, and I got into Alejo Duran, he was the first king of vallenato in Valledupar [This is the most prestigious vallenato festival in Colombia]. The bassist who was with us a few years ago said that I was the reincarnation of the guy because he said that my style was very similar to his style, the way of singing and playing. Even Egidio said that I had a very similar voice.
Did you listen to much Carlos Vives?
Carlos Vives was a big influence since I started accordion and vallenato. He was the creator of the fusion, incorporating rock, pop and reggae into vallenato. He was the first person to do this. He made the vallenato more international. And that’s my aim. For example, he’s never sung a vallenato in English. So I want to do that. I’ve done a few songs like that in English, obviously not losing the tradition of the instruments, but just singing in English. Because I want this genre to expand. People need to know how beautiful this music is.
How did you get involved with the BBC World Routes academy?
Back in August  a friend told me something was going on with the BBC and said I should check it out. But sometimes with this friend he says things that didn’t come true. So I didn’t pay attention the first time, but then he told me again, and there were other people telling me about it, so I sent an email to the producer saying I’m interested, I play accordion and sing, and I’d like to have an audition. She gave me the date so I took my accordion, I was a bit nervous I’m not going to lie, and played three songs. I played “La Gota Fria”, a traditional song, even Julio Iglesias covered this song, “Alicia Dorada”, Carlos Vives sings this, and “La Cacucha Bacana” from Alejo Duran. So I played these three songs and Lucy Duran asked me some questions. They asked what my dreams are with my music. And I told them I wanted to go to the Valledupar vallenato festival in Colombia. So my dreams have already come true, I’ve already done that.
After the audition they told me they’d call me in two weeks time. And I thought it wasn’t going to happen because, yoa know when you go for a job and they tell you they’ll call back tomorrow or in two weeks, and they don’t call? That’s what I thought was going to happen. Then they just called me and said “you’re the winner.” I couldn’t believe it! I told my parents, my mum starting crying because of how happy she was, she told all my family in Colombia.
How was the experience of playing in Valledupar?
Well, when I went in April I competed in the amateur competition as I needed a recorded CD to do a professional one. I had a CD but what I did was a fusion. This is an album available in HMV and iTunes, but that wasn’t enough for them. They wanted a more traditional style, professional vallenato. So I’m willing to do that and go back next year. I finished eighth place out of 71 in the amateur. I gave it my best shot. There was one judge that was a bit dodgy. Egidio was very angry with him. You get the results on a computer and he was the only one who gave me 20 less than the other ones. Egidio said I probably could have made it to first because of my level of playing. They invited Egidio to another meeting but he wouldn’t go because of this, because of this judge.
As your mentor, what have you learn from Egidio?
Egidio taught me a few techniques. To be honest, I already knew the techniques, but he told me when to apply them in the song. I wasn’t a singer until I started with the BBC so he taught me about vocal techniques too. I’ve improved my range, because I’m a baritone, but now I can hit a few high notes. There’s a technique called picar, which is like stinging the notes, very fast. That really hurts at the beginning because you’re working the muscle in your arm. In traditional vallenato you’re supposed to use this most of the time. When you play it this way it shows you’re strong, it makes the sound louder, it proves you’re a man. If you play the Italian or Argentine way over there [in Valledupar] it would be seen as weak.
What are the bands you play with here in England?
There’s a band here, the pioneers of vallenato in London really, La Fuerza Vallenata. They’ve known me since I was a 5 year old kid. I started with them, they helped me out when I was starting. Since I was a 13-year old boy, so for seven years of my accordion playing, I’ve been playing with them. There’s another band, La Papayera, that I’ve been playing with for five years now. This is more folkloric, they have drums (alegres, tambores), we have to dress in white with the sombrero vueltiao, the traditional hat, and we play cumbia mostly, and chandés, mapalés.
Also, I have a band, Besonido, that makes a fusion between vallenato, Sri Lankan music, Arabic music, blues, jazz and pop. We don’t even know how to call this genre, but people like it, they respond to it. I try to keep the essence of the vallenato and cumbia traditions. But on some songs we’ve mixed it with tango, which is a different accordion style, and we do the lambada, which is more of a Brazilian style. There’s some lyrics in Spanish – I rap at times – and also in English.
Who will you be playing with at the BBC Proms? Who’ll be in your band?
It’s going to be La Provincia, that’s Carlos Vives’ band. Carlos Vives couldn’t make it because he had things to do. But La Provincia are coming. Egidio, my mentor, will be with us as well. I think we’ll be performing 12 to 15 songs on the night.
Are you going to be playing some fusions, or just pure vallenato?
The BBC is trying to keep it as traditional as possible, to show people the real roots of vallenato, but there will be a few songs with a little bit of fusion. Right now I’m not sure. Our first rehearsals are on the 29th of July. We have two days to rehearse then on the 31st we have the show.
And what are you going to do after that? Do you have any plans?
I’m going to try and incorporate a few English-language vallenatos in the traditional band [La Papeyera], because at the Valledupar festival I was the first person to sing a song in English. Egidio was the one who made the song, the melody and lyrics, and then said that we had to translate it. There’s a part in Spanish, and part in English. It was the first time anyone did that in Valledupar. At first when they heard me singing in English there was silence, but eventually they liked it. It was Egidio’s idea, he likes evolution. And as English is the universal language it’s a chance to show the songs to everyone around the world. And we’re going to play this song at the Proms, it’s called “Puya Inglesa.”
You can find out more about BBC World Routes Academy here: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01bzwq7
Details of the BBC Proms event at the Royal Albert Hall on 31st July are here: bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2012/july-31/14346