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“Thank you for your concert on Sunday. One of our patrons told me that her legs were sore from dancing. We'll have to have you back again. ”
— Denise Laude, Mahwah Public Library
NAME OF BAND: Viva Vallenato!
TITLE OF ALBUM: “Dance Music of Colombia”
RELEASE DATE: 3 SEPTEMBER 2019
Singer Hugo Lascarro, Sr. emigrated from South America to New Jersey, USA, in the 1990s. He bid goodbye to his beloved Barranquilla, Colombia, where he’d sung in Colombian big bands for twenty years, gaining a good reputation. But the United States seemed to hold better opportunities - perhaps not in music, but certainly in a steady job with benefits. He would aim to earn a good living in the United States, and then eventually return to Colombia for a comfortable retirement - that was the plan. Because now in middle age, he already felt retired - from the heights of his music career in younger days.
So he found a maintenance job with a shipping company in northern New Jersey. During those weekdays, none of his co-workers suspected the talent he concealed within. He saved the secret love of his Latin culture for the weekends, when he would jam on Colombian music classics with his grown son, Hugo Jr.
Hugo Jr. had a day job too and was moonlighting as a DJ, but he had studied percussion at the university back in Colombia. He was highly skilled at playing the caja vallenata, a traditional hand drum necessary in the folkloric music known as vallenato. But this skill didn’t seem relevant in the Latin soundscape of Clifton, New Jersey, where the Carribean-based music of reggaeton, bachata, merengue, and salsa reigned supreme.
He also loved to sing and harmonize with his dad.
In this way, twenty years passed.
Enter Phil Passantino, a Sicilian-American musician from the nearby town of Wayne, New Jersey with an ear and passion for world music of all sorts. Digging around the stacks of local libraries led him to discover Colombian music like cumbia around the year 2000. He then made several exploratory trips to Colombia, and in 2009 the most unlikely thing happened - he fell in love with the classic vallenato music of an accordion-playing cowboy (vaquero) named Alejo Duran.
Vallenato was considered to be the “hillbilly” cowboy music of Colombia’s Atlantic coast. It was originally a very esoteric style virtually unknown to anyone outside the Colombian community. In the 1950s and 1960s, the accordionist and singer Alejo Duran had been one of its greatest practitioners. (The music would in fact not find a greater world audience until the 1990s, when Carlos Vives polished it up with pop sensibility and production, gaining global acclaim. But the raw original version of vallenato pioneered by Duran may still be a well-kept secret.)
"I loved Alejo’s music,” remembers Passantino. “The quivering emotional accordion playing, the urgent shouted vocals, the percolating galloping rhythms. I listened to it constantly, and wondered if I could learn to play the accordion.”
He finally decided to take the plunge in 2012. Phil, who is very disciplined, got a book from a Colombian accordionist, Foncho Castellar, and began to practice. “It was a beginner book in Spanish, but since the author was Colombian, it gave me hope that I would learn vallenato through it. So I learned the chords, the scales, and I started using my ear.”
The following year someone gave him a business card for a teacher named Castellar who lived in Queens. He made an appointment, took the bus and the train from New Jersey across the Hudson River, and had his first official accordion lesson. During the lesson, Castellar said, “I see you have my book” - and at that moment, Passantino realized who he’d been learning from all along! “Foncho showed me a few things that I could only learn in person. He set me on the right path of what to practice. What he showed me gave me about a year’s worth of homework, but I loved it.”
Once he had a basic understanding of how to play the accordion, his love of vallenato and cumbia went further: he wanted to form a band to play the music. In the summer of 2013 he heard about the First Colombian Hudson County Festival to be held in Jersey City, New Jersey. He visited the organizers and asked them for a space to play. They gave it to him and he gathered friends to accompany him. He handled the vocals himself, imitating the pronunciation of the Colombian Spanish as best he could.
His music was well received by the public that day (you can still see it on Youtube), so he decided to look for other members for his group. He met the sizzling young percussionist Salvatore Carollo (also Sicilian- American) at an open mic night. And he found Hugo Lascarro Jr.’s phone number via a Craigslist ad and several friends. Someone told him he was a good singer for some of the more challenging romantic classics.
Passantino went to visit Hugo in the summer of 2015. They jammed in the Lascarro backyard. “Immediately, I could hear his drumming on the caja vallenata hand drum was the missing ingredient in the sound. I’d been searching for that ingredient for two years.”
Hugo’s dad, the retired Colombian singer-turned-maintenance-worker, was there in the backyard too. He just listened, and occasionally coached his son on fine-tuning the old vallenato vocal melodies.
As Phil and Hugo Jr. got together a few more times for rehearsal, gradually Hugo Sr. became less of an observer, and more of a participant. He sang a few songs, and it was glaringly apparent that none of his talent had diminished in retirement! At one rehearsal, he made a surprisingly announcement: he wanted to sing in the band. For the rest of the band, it was a no-brainer - they were overjoyed. At age 69, Hugo Lascarro Sr. not only still possessed enormous talent, but also retained the phrasing and true flavor of the golden age of vallenato music, an age that had long since passed.
“For all the years I sang in Colombia doing formal big band music, I had despised and looked down on what I considered to be the simplistic vallenato music,” Lascarro Sr. recalls. “But when I came to America, that’s when I finally started to miss, appreciate and even love it. So I was exciting to start performing the music with Viva Vallenato! It reminded me of home.”
After going through many bass players, most of whom had difficulty playing the nuanced vallenato and cumbia rhythms, Passantino happened to meet gifted Colombian-American bassist Jose Humberto Lozano at a jam in a friend’s basement, and immediately noticed Lozano’s proficiency in the galloping vallenato rhythms. They hit it off, and Lozano was in.
Viva Vallenato! began performing in clubs, festivals, and libraries. After several years, they had already been featured on Univision, Telemundo, the Associated Press and PIX 11 News. They performed twice at the Flurry Festival of Music and Dance in New York.
And now they’ve released their debut album:
“Dance Music of Colombia”. Five classic tunes from the golden age of vallenato. These songs are folksy tributes to love and life. Also included is one more vallenato version of a salsa standard: “Caballo Viejo”.
So don’t be surprised if one day you run into an Italian-American playing Colombian style accordion, singing vallenato and cumbia, wearing a sombrero vueltiao traditional hat. Don’t be surprised when a retired Colombian-American maintenance worker turns out to be the gatekeeper and heir to a wondrous and storied musical tradition. This multicultural band Viva Vallenato! is a clear example of the love for music that crosses cultural boundaries and defies all our usual expectations.
¿Usted sabe qué es el vallenato? Seguramente si es colombiano tiene claro que es un ritmo musical de ese país, específicamente de la costa norte de Colombia. En Valledupar, la capital del departamento del Cesar, anualmente se lleva a cabo el Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata.
Es normal que a los colombianos nos guste el vallenato, incluso que algunos latinoamericanos también lo escuchen y lo bailen. También lo disfrutan europeos, como lo muestra un video en Facebook, hasta hay un japonés que canta y baila este ritmo.
Pero lo realmente increíble es encontrarse a un hombre de 47 años nacido en Teaneck, Nueva Jersey, de ascendencia italiana a quien no solo le gusta el vallenato, sino que además toca el acordeón, el principal instrumento de este ritmo.
Phil Passantino estudió en la Escuela Católica Secundaria Preparatoria Don Bosco en Ramsey, Nueva Jersey y consiguió su licenciatura en ciencias, en Tecnología de Grabación de Sonido, en la Universidad del Estado de Nueva York en Fredonia.
“Me gusta la música de todas partes del mundo. Hace unos 15 años empecé a escuchar música de diferentes países y escuché música de Colombia y me encantó el vallenato”, así explica Phil su amor por el vallenato y la cumbia colombiana.
Él ha viajado cuatro veces a Colombia y en uno de esos viajes compró un CD de Alejo Durán, uno de los más reconocidos compositores y cantantes de vallenato de ese país. “Me encantó su música. La escuchaba constantemente y me preguntaba si yo podría aprender a tocar el acordeón”, cuenta Phil.
Finalmente decidió aprender a tocar este instrumento. Phil, quien es muy disciplinado, consiguió un libro de un acordeonista colombiano, Foncho Castellar, y empezó a practicar. “Aprendí los acordes, las escalas, y empecé a usar mi oído y a ver videos en YouTube. Al año siguiente conocí a Foncho Castellar, quien vive en Queens y es experto en acordeón, vallenato y cumbia”, relata Phil.
En octubre de 2012 ya sabía tocar el acordeón, pero su amor por la cumbia y el vallenato iba más allá: quería formar una agrupación para llevar esta música por todo Nueva York y Nueva Jersey. En el verano de 2013 escuchó sobre el Primer Festival Colombiano del Condado de Hudson que se realizaría en Jersey City, Nueva Jersey. Visitó a los organizadores y les pidió un espacio para tocar. Se lo dieron y reunió a unos amigos para que lo acompañaran.
Su música fue bien recibida por el público esa noche, así que decidió buscar a otros integrantes para su grupo. Así fue que llegaron los dos Hugo, padre e hijo, Salvatore y Humberto. Acababa de nacer la Viva Vallenato! Band.
Comenzaron a presentarse en clubes, teatros y festivales. Después de varios años, ya han tocado en diferentes programas de televisión como Acceso Total, de Telemundo, y en los canales News Pix 11 y Univision, entre otros.
Phil Passantino adora a los cantautores del vallenato clásico como Andrés Landero, Ancieto “Cheto” Molina y Alejo Durán. Sus favoritos son Alejo Durán, Francisco “Pacho” Rada y Lizandro Meza. “Claro que me gustan los nuevos intérpretes como Jorge Celedón o Carlos Vives, pero me gusta más el vallenato antiguo”, dice Phil.
Así que no se extrañe si un día se encuenra con este italoamericano tocando el acordeón, cantando vallenato y cumbia, con un sombrero ‘vueltiao’, con camisas típicas caribeñas como un colombiano más: él y su banda multicultural son un claro ejemplo del amor que muchos extranjeros sienten por nuestros países latinoamericanos.
-Darío López Capera