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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence