Rafael Escalona: Singer and composer who inspired 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'

The singer and composer Rafael Escalona was a national icon in his native Colombia, known as "el maestro" of vallenato folk music from the northern Caribbean coast. His ballads, sung to the traditional backing of European accordion, African-style caja, or bongo drum, and Native Indian bamboo guacharaca percussion, inspired many internationally known Latino singers, including Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan and his fellow Colombians Shakira and Carlos Vives. Escalona also made a lasting impression on another compatriot (and close friend), Gabriel García Márquez. The author mentioned Escalona as a resident of the fictional town of Macondo in his Nobel Prize-winning novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and said that Escalona, and his music, had been an inspiration for the book.

"In a way, the novel is a 400-page vallenato," García Márquez once said, comparing Escalona's blend of true story and the fantastical with his own "magical realism". Towards the end of the book, García Márquez wrote: "In the last open saloon... an accordion group was playing the songs of Rafael Escalona, the bishop's nephew, heir to the secrets of Francisco el Hombre." The latter figure (Francisco the Man), a legend in vallenato music, was said to have been a musician who beat the devil in a duel of accordions.

García Márquez and Escalona were the driving forces behind the annual Vallenato Legend Festival in Valledupar, the capital of Colombia's northern Cesar province, where the singer grew up. Escalona's songs and the 40-year-old festival, in which vallenato composers and musicians compete for the title of el Rey [King] de Vallenato for the year, helped to bring the form to the attention of the entire Spanish-speaking world and beyond, strongly influencing such albums as Gloria Estefan's 1995 Grammy-winning Abriendo Puertas [Opening Doors].

It was in 1992 that Escalona became arguably the most popular citizen of Colombia, after national TV began a long-running soap opera, Escalona, during which the singer (played by Carlos Vives) serenaded countless beautiful women with such romantic vallenato ballads as "El Testamento" [The Will] and "La Casa en el Aire" [The House in the Sky]. The handsome Vives went on to become one of Colombia's most successful musical exports, blending vallenato with rock and pop.

Such was Escalona's status in his homeland that the Colombian President, Álvaro Uribe, knowing that the singer was gravely ill, insisted on being told immediately if he died. When he was so informed during a meeting of business leaders in the city of Cali, he halted the meeting for a minute of silence. A former president and close friend of the singer, Ernesto Samper, was on his way to visit him when he died of heart failure after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Rafael Calixto Escalona Martínez was born in the northern village of Patillal, in Colombia's Cesar department, on 27 May 1927. He was the seventh of nine children of the army colonel Clemente Escalona Labarces, a veteran of Colombia's so-called Thousand Days' War, an armed conflict between supporters of the two big political parties from 1899-1902. García Márquez used elements of Col. Escalona's life for the character of Col. Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Although his family were part of the Colombian élite, young Rafael was fascinated by the local peasant's often mystical folk tales and the accordion music of travelling troubadours. He later admitted that he never learned to play the accordion because the instrument, although brought to Colombia by wealthy European colonialists, was associated with Colombia's peasant class.

He was a cotton farmer when he became friends with the new governor of Cesar province, Alfonso López Michelsen, and, after López Michelsen was elected president of Colombia, was appointed as his country's consul in neighbouring Panama. When he returned to Colombia, he concentrated on recording his ballads and became known not only as a musician but as a parrandero y mujeriego (party-goer and womaniser).

Despite his fame, Rafael Escalona died poor. In an interview shortly before he died, he said he had sold the rights to his songs for around $68,000 dollars in return for a loan. "Unfortunately, all I'll be able to leave my family will be this," he said, pointing to his bedside respirator.

He is survived by his partner Luz Marina Zambrano and, according to his youngest son Rafael Jnr, at least 23 children by numerous previous compañeras.

Phil Davison

Rafael Calixto Escalona Martínez, singer and composer: born Patillal, Colombia 27 May 1927; married 1951 Marina Arzuaga Mejía (marriage dissolved); died Bogotá, Colombia 13 May 2009.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam