While browsing through the National Jukebox database, I came across a recording titled “Columbian Polka” that struck my interest. Listen to the recording here:
I was originally interested in this because I assumed that the music would be played by Colombian musicians, or have a Colombian composer, or have at least something to do with Colombia the country. However, after some digging, I realized that this is just the name of the record company. 1 Columbia with a ‘U’, like the District of Columbia, not Colombia with an ‘O’, like the country! I had a hard time finding any information about the composer, Thomas H. Rollingson, except that he was an American composer who died in the 1920s.2 After I had a laugh about my silly spelling mistake, I became curious about how the Germanic tradition of Polka music became a staple in Mexican-American and Colombian musical traditions. I fell down a rabbit hole researching Colombian Polka music and its origin.
As I discovered, there seems to be some disagreement about how central and eastern European salon dances like the waltz, the polka, and the schottische ended up so heavily influencing an entire culture’s musical canon. However, the commonly held view is that it was a matter of trading and immigration from Germany and what is now the Czech Republic to Northern Mexico and Texas in the late 18th century. 3
This is how the Mexican Tejano folk music tradition was born, but I am specifically interested in Colombian folk music, which I don’t feel has gotten as much of a spotlight. Colombian polka-inspired folk music is called Vallenato and is believed to have begun in a similar fashion to Mexican-American Tejano, with German merchant and trading ships introducing Colombians to the accordion.4 Meaning “born in the valley”, it gets its name from the city of Valledupar, where the traveling, typically lower-class minstrels first made it popular. 5 Vallenato is a combination of three instruments – a small drum called a cajav, a percussion instrument called a guacharaca, and the German accordion.6 While Italian and French accordions have been used in Vallenato music, the German Hohner brand diatonic accordion matches closest with the typical vocal timbre and range of the Colombian vocalists. 7 It should be noted that Vallenato appears to be an almost entirely male-dominated vocal style, which is a conversation for another blog post but is still worth noting.
While this post may be disconnected from the source I originally chose, I think it’s still valuable to give a spotlight to a musical tradition that has gone overlooked. I will leave you with a fantastic recording of Mauricio de Santis performing at a Vallenato festival in 2015.
3 Contretas, Felix. “How Mexico Learned To Polka” In NPR Music, March 11, 2015 Accessed September 27, 2023. https://www.npr.org/2015/03/11/392141073/how-mexico-learned-to-polka
4 Martinez, Juan. “The Surprising Origin of Colombian Folk Music.” BBC Travel, BBC, 25 Feb. 2022 www.bbc.com/travel/article/20180208-the-surprising-origin-of-colombian-folk-music
Haney, Peter. “Tejano Music.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2023. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1329993.