First it was lambada , then it was bolero , then bachata .
Now it is the turn for vallenato , the music that all of a sudden every Latin music fan seems to know . . . and love.
Before 1993, vallenato was known only to Colombians--just older Colombians, for that matter--and the music was considered a low-class folk genre for the masses.
Then one simple thing changed all that: A young, sexy soap opera and movie star got into the music business and eventually became a sensation by taking vallenato not only to the Colombian mainstream, but throughout South America.
That star is Carlos Vives, who--while keeping his status as a heartthrob--virtually overnight became a legitimate artistic force in Latin music, joining the likes of Juan Luis Guerra and Ruben Blades among the few who can sell records without compromising their musical integrity.
In fact, nowadays only Dominican performer Guerra enjoys more respect than Vives, who has sold more than a million copies of his 1993 “Clasicos de la Provincia” (Classics From the Province) album, a memorable compilation of popular vallenato songs, the folkloric music of Colombia’s west coast. With that boost, vallenato is now a household name in Latin America and among Latinos in major cities across the United States.
“I’m extremely happy for him, I really love what he does,” Panamanian salsa star Blades said. “He single-handedly was able to take vallenato out of Colombia in an accessible but challenging manner. For that alone, he deserves all the success he is having.”
After recording two forgettable pop ballad albums in the late ‘80s, the 33-year-old Vives--who plays the Universal Amphitheatre on Saturday and Sunday--starred in the 1990 soap opera “Escalona,” a successful series based on the life of legendary vallenato composer Rafael Escalona. Vives released two albums of music he recorded for the series’ soundtrack and, helped by the program’s popularity, the records sold well even among Colombian youth, who are usually more interested in English-language rock and Latin romantic balladeers than their native music. “Despite the success of those two first albums, we knew we had to make some changes in order to attract a wider audience,” Vives said in a recent phone interview. “I knew my pop and rock roots could be used in the service of vallenato, so I decided to do something unique.”
Vives recruited musicians who shared his views, forming his band, La Provincia, and recording “Clasicos de la Provincia,” which has sold 1.6 million copies worldwide, including 600,000 copies in the first three months in Colombia alone. Their second vallenato album, “La tierra del olvido” (Land of Oblivion), released worldwide this month, has already sold 280,000 copies, an impressive achievement in the U.S. Latin maret.
While keeping the music’s traditional accordion, tambora and indigenous instruments like the guacharaca-- a flute that imitates the sound of a bird of the same name found in Santa Marta--Vives’ versions faithfully maintain the cumbia-like rhythmic pulse, melodic simplicity and poetic beauty of vallenato . He also adds sophisticated pop arrangements and female choruses--unheard of in pure vallenato .
But Vives’ music is also the product of a considerable dose of rock en espan~ol, perhaps the greatest factor for his uniqueness.
“I have no problem in acknowledging Argentine rock as another big school for me,” said Vives , who inevitably attracted a good number of rockero followers, with some rock en espan~ol clubs in Los Angeles regularly playing his music.
Some traditionalists predictably dismiss Vives as a commercial concoction who is unrepresentative of real vallenato, an opinion Vives doesn’t dispute.
“I never claimed to be doing pure vallenato, " said Vives, who believes that despite his alterations, the lyrics and spirit of the songs remain unchanged.
Vives points to the presence of musician Egidio Cuadrado, a legendary figure in vallenato , saying the accordionist “validates my music, but the most important card I have is the smile of those legendary composers who, because of my good sales, now receive big checks for their songs after years of poverty and anonymity. And they don’t complain.”
Vives wants to gradually record more songs of his own, not necessarily vallenato .
“I don’t know what I will do in the future, but I know it will be difficult for me not to sing about Santa Marta,” said Vives, whose province suffers from environmental problems and guerrilla-related violence.
But while accepting his country’s problems, he also takes advantage of his popularity to combat the common depiction of Colombia as a hellish place to live.
“This is more than a labor of love,” he said. “This is my humble attempt to show the world that, despite all of our problems, Colombia is a very beautiful country. My main goal is to share with everyone that I come from a country that is made up of warm people who sing, dance and create beautiful music.”
* Carlos Vives plays Saturday and Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. $50, $47 and $45. (818) 980-9421.