Beto Jamaica Rey Vallenato in Rainforest World Music Festival

Mallika Naguran talks to accordion maestro Beto Jamaica about his artform and his relentless journey to popularise a traditional music form, the cumbia and vallenato from Colombia's Caribbean coastal region.

"King of the Vallenato" - Alberto (Beto) Jamaica.

"King of the Vallenato" - Alberto (Beto) Jamaica.

Singapore, 10 September 2013. Sarawak’s top musical event, the Rainforest World Music Festival 2013, featured Colombian folklore music performed by accordianist Alberto (Beto) Jamaica and his sprightly ensemble.

Beto has more than 55 albums up his sleeve with his original compositions apart from covers of well-loved tunes by Colombia’s best composers. That shouldn’t surprise, really. Beto, back home in the capital city of Bogota, is known as “King of the Vallenato”, a title he had earned on 30 April 2006 at the Professional Rey Vallenato Legend Festival after competing stedfastly as a finalist for 13 years in a row. Vallenato literally means "born in the valley".

In June 2013, on stage in Santubong, Kuching and in front of thousands of bobbing and swinging world music fans, the Colombians played hits such as Luz Mila (Walk), Free (Merengue), Back in Love with the festival and my accordion (Son), The Touch (Cachaco), White Cock (Puya) and My Beautiful Cumbia Universal (Cumbia).

Usually a 13-member strong band, the gig in Sarawak had fewer musicians due to the huge cost of travel from Latin America to Southeast Asia. You'll be listening to these main musicians often: Alberto (Beto) Jamaica (accordion, vocal) and Edgar Fernandez (guacharaca, vocal), Edgar Grove (bass), Ariel Villaveces (vallenato box), Vilmar Pinzon  (timbales and congas); Javier Mutis Alberto (manager, backup vocal), and Edilberto (Cumbia vocal).

Accordionist Alberto (Beto) Jamaica would love to show the world just how beautiful the Colombian Vallenato is and hopes to perform at more festivals.

Accordionist Alberto (Beto) Jamaica would love to show the world just how beautiful the Colombian Vallenato is and hopes to perform at more festivals.

Beto has struck high notes with bands such as Los Tupamaros, the Bogota Philharmonic Orchestra, The Alpha 8 Taxi Orchestra, Guava Green Moon Group, and more. In Vallenato ensembles, he has been part of groups like Jairo Serrano, Paul Atuesta, Penchy Castro, Alberto Fernandez and Otto Serge. Rey Vallenato has been touring as a band, participating in festivals in Madrid, the USA (Sunburst Festival 2013), Mexico and the latest in Borneo Malaysia’s Rainforest Festival 2013.

I catch up with the rather charming Beto for a Gaia Discovery exclusive.

What were your earliest influences in music?

My artistic side comes from my mother because she sang and danced since she was a child. As she sang, I sang too and drummed along using a jar with cooking oil and two sticks! I also played and hummed melodies that I heard over a small transistor radio. As we were very poor, we had no television. The homemade percussions helped build my sense of rhythm. I remember researching the history of Vallenato as well, such was my love for this music.

Who did you play music with when you were young?

I jammed along with my brother Joseph and neighborhood friends in Central Bochica, Bogota. We studied music in school and sang a lot as that was our culture.  We were also rather playful as kids and cheerful most of the time. I also learnt to play the guitar, case and guacharaca.

Why choose to play folklore music rather than mainstream and perhaps more marketable music like rock or pop?

As I had eight siblings, I listened to every kind of music that each of them liked, and they were all different. Of all of the music genres, I loved the Vallenato most ever since I was young. When I was 15 years old, I discovered my love for the accordion and it happened accidentally – I was in a band playing the guitar but found myself correcting the accordionist who kept making mistakes. He was a good friend and taught me songs to be played on the accordion as well. As such my love for that instrument just grew. Apart from playing the accordian, I sing and write songs too.

Colombians holding true to their artform - Beto Jamaica Rey Vallenato.

Well I know that every professional musician is different, and he or she can be paid very well depending on his or her status and achievements. If a Vallenato musician triumphs with a record label or in a contest, he or she can be paid very well. I feel very happy playing the Vallenato and have come very far in promoting it. The idea is to build on the success I’ve achieved so far by spreading the Vallenato folklore as well as the good image of my beloved Colombia to the international scene.

So, what is your essence of Vallenato and Cumbia music?

The Cumbia is a rather international rhythm similar to those found in countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and more. I play an original versian that is typically Colombian. My Vallenato is creating a stir in many countries but it still has a long way to go. The inspiration behind my music can be attributed to, firstly, no racism; secondly, world peace and thirdly, an invitation to dance Colombian Cumbia rhythm that is best known in our country.

Your band was rather popular at the Rainforest World Music Festival. Was the festival special to you in any way?

To me, the festival was excellent and among the best in the world. It was wonderful, had a great setting by the rainforest and lake, and was very well organised.

I never had the chance to see such a variety of musicians from so many different countries! And oh, the people I met including the musicians displayed so much joy and affection apart from being talented. The afternoon workshop sessions were amazing as we jammed together. I particularly enjoyed the accordian workshop in front of such a rapt audience! I’ve composed a nice Vallenato tune in dedication of beautiful Sarawak and its people.

Make a date for next year's Rainforest festival - 20-22 June 2014.

Head on to Sarawak for their very first Asia Music Festival 2013.