My 2 hours as a Columbian Vallenato Bassist

"aka done stranger things, but can't rightly recall when"

OK, so there I am at the Lowell Folk Festival. Jet lagged, worn out from a busy week at my violin shop, and looking to be a bit drunk on my new home infused vodka. Mark Halata and Texavia, the group who I've come to play with, has just put in a fine solid set of Texas- Czech Polka, C&W and assorted Gulf Coast sounds to an very appreciative dance crowd.

I decide to stick around and check out the next act, Sensacion Vallenata con Gustavo Nieto from the DC area. Now I'm a big fan of vallenato, a Columbian accordion based dance music that gave the world the "cumbia," and I have a couple of CD's that date from the classic 70's era when the music first started getting attention outside of it's home. I really dug the way the bass seemed to lazily lope through the tunes, working in conjunction with the percussion. Relaxed and behind the beat like old-school Reggae for instance. My pal Mike Maddux even has a vallento band here in Austin that I enjoy seeing. He's informed me however that the music has progressed quite a bit from the old records I like so much, with a VERY active and busy bass style. (For lack of a better analogy: I like the marijuana bass, and it's the cocaine bass favored today, if you will;-)

Having never seen a real live Colombian playing the new complex style, I begged off returning to the hotel for a much needed rest and hung out on the side of the stage with the amiable monitor mix man. We watched the band set up and immediately there seemed to be a problem. No bass player. They were all set up ready to play and there was no sign of the bassist (or their lead singer as it turned out.) Now I don't speak much Spanish but I did wave the accordion player over and inquire. He tells me, I think, that the bass player drove up from DC and got caught in a storm and was running late. He was mighty upset about it.

Gustavo Nieto
Well says I, "Yo toquar el basso, in estilio de Tejano." "Vamanos!" says he.

As I amble onstage I note It's a good sized band; with accordion and 4 percussionists and vocals all around. I can see in their eyes that they are spooked. It's a big festival gig, and 3 members of their band aren't there for the down beat on the big dance stage. Then some goofy looking Guerro in a cowboy hat crawls up on stage and sets up a bass amp. It must have been unnerving. They had a large plastic bottle of "Coke" which was actually the best Rum I ever had, and everybody was taking a hit to calm their nerves. They put me between 2 percussionist and only one spoke much English. The accordionist turns to me, gives me a key, plays a bit of the melody and then we're off.

OK, let's go back to what I noted before. I dig the "classicos" style of laid-back cumbia and I even know a few hits ("El Gota Fria," "Matilda Linda," etc..) so I can fake it. But only to a point. I suck it up, remembering that the whitey's like me in the audience will never know the difference, watch the boys for cues and concentrate on summoning the booty motivator. Whatever I'm playing seems to be working, and the dance floor is packed. The rum is mixing with the vodka from before and that mixed with jet lag and exhaustion I have mildly left my body. There's only one tune I bow out of; a meringue a style I know nothing about at all. The boys in the band are all smiles, and they are a rocking. Killer vocals, aggressive, funky accordion and a deep, deep percussion section. A total blast to play with.

After 90 minutes, and a sweaty dance floor, it's over. After I pack up, the boys all come over to thank me for hanging in. In my best attempt a Spanish I try and tell them that I hope I didn't embarrass them too awful bad. I collapse into a waiting shuttle and head to the arms of Morpheus.

Next morning I'm told that the bassist and the other members of the band were in fact in Lowell that night. They just couldn't find the festival. (Insert bass player joke here.)

Never did get a chance to hear them play, though the staff said the regular bassist was indeed a virtuoso, busy player. (I'm also told that the festival crew liked the band better when I was playing with them, but what do they know from Vallenato?)

One of the things I like most about big folk festivals is that you get to see and interact with some many great different styles of music. It's not often I get to sit in as well! Lets see what happens next week when I go up to the Festival for Cultural Exchange in Portland Maine.