Emiliano Zuleta

'King of Vallenato'
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The Independent Online

The singer and accordionist Emiliano Zuleta was one of Colombia's best-loved exponents of vallenato ("born in the valley") music, a blend of African, European and South American rhythms and rhymes which fused in his home region around Valledupar on the country's Caribbean coast. Its basic sounds came traditionally from the button accordion, a bongo-like drum known as the caja, or box, and the guacharaca, a washboard-style instrument similar to those of skiffle or Cajun music.

Although he was already a legend in his own country, as well as much of the Caribbean and South America, it was in 1994 that a rocked-up version of his song "La Gota Fría" ("The Cold Drop"), by his Grammy-winning compatriot Carlos Vives, brought Zuleta recognition from Spanish speakers worldwide. Recordings by Julio Iglesias and the bilingual Miami-based singer Gloria Estefan further spread the reputation of Zuleta and vallenato, often overshadowed by Colombia's other musical obsession, cumbia. "I couldn't earn that in seven lives as a farmer," Zuleta said famously after receiving a $200,000 royalty cheque from Vives's hit version.

Written in 1929, "La Gota Fría" was an aggressive tease of another well-known accordionist, Lorenzo Morales, who had claimed he was a better musician than Zuleta. "Moralito, Moralito, he thought he was going to beat me," goes the song. "But when he heard me play, the cold drop fell."

The two men became close friends, however, and later toured together. Morales said: "He was more than a brother, a true friend and an extraordinary musician." The Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, touring the country's Caribbean coast to see the damage caused by Hurricane Beta, also praised the "King of Vallenato".

Known affectionately in his later years as "el Viejo Mile" ("Old Mile", pronounced Mee-Leh as a diminutive of Emiliano), Zuleta was born in the department of La Guajira, in 1912. It was a backward area inhabited mainly by people of Afro-Caribbean origin, a far cry from the cities of mainly white faces, such as the capital, Bogotá, 400 miles to the south. Zuleta grew up in an area without electricity, running water, roads, radio or newspapers, where making music, and musical instruments, was one of life's few pleasures. News, gossip and songs travelled by word of mouth.

After stealing a German accordion from his uncle - "I could never have afforded one," he said - he hid for a while, but finally begged his uncle's pardon in a song he wrote for him. His uncle forgave him and gave him a new, better accordion.

Zuleta became known locally as a womaniser but a fine balladeer. (He was to have 16 children, including Emilianito and Poncho, themselves now vallenatistas known as the Zuleta Brothers.) In his song "El Monte de la Rosa", their father sings of a village where there are only two kinds of women, those who speak well of him and those who speak ill. What they all agree on, though, is that none of them can stop talking about him.

Eight of his children were with his wife Carmen Díaz, whom he immortalised in a song named after her. His family said he first fell ill after her death in 2002.

Phil Davison