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
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
Pistorius leaves Pretoria High Court to be taken to prison
news

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
news

Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style
tech

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style
health

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
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

C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML, JavaScript, CSS, MSSQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

English Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English Teacher - So...

French Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: French Teacher ? Sou...

Geography Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Geography Teacher ? ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album