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Searching for Carlos Vives

The Colombian singer, a favorite to win for best album, is a study in contrasts: Being born to the country's ruling class but championing the workers' vallenato music is only the start.


Carlos Vives is a man of contradictions.

He preaches the equality of all people, yet says he would marry only a white woman. He speaks of the cultural unity of the Americas, yet his lyrics are unapologetically nationalistic. He sings endlessly of his love for Colombia, yet lives in Miami.

He is one of Latin America's most acclaimed artists--on the same exclusive top tier as Juan Luis Guerra and Ruben Blades--yet began his career as a soap opera star. His flashing eyes and impassioned words show he loves life with a creative urgency few possess, yet he smokes Marlboros nonstop.

But in his contradictions, Vives embodies the very soul of Latin America. His journey from pampered son of an upper-class Colombian family to working-class hero and champion of vallenato folk music is a fascinating lesson in the class, racial and musical politics of Latin America.

Not that Vives set out to be this deep, mind you. Look at him onstage and you see a barefoot, bluejeaned hunk of joy, skipping, arms whirling like a windmill, lost in rapid accordion arpeggios and wooden flute riffs, grinning from somewhere in that wild mass of blondish curls.

Soccer balls and panties fly onstage; he plays with both. Vives is not a philosopher. He is a performer, an actor and a singer, such an unusually good and gleeful one that most critics agree that on Wednesday he should come away from this year's inaugural Latin Grammys with the best album prize--one of his six nominations--for "El Amor de Mi Tierra."

Cigarette pinched between graceful, yellowed fingertips, Vives, 38, hovers, sitting now, then standing, then sitting, up and down, drawing his points in the air of the Universal City hotel suite with his hands. He wears khaki shorts, T-shirt and sandals, and he's thinner in person than he appears in his videos.

"I was born in Santa Marta," he says, smiling, patient, teaching as he often does in interviews the lesson about himself. There's a kindness to his honeyed, rasping voice, a warmth to his light brown eyes.

"It's the northern coast of Colombia," he continues, "on the Caribbean coast. I grew up with vallenato. The vallenato was born in the countryside, on the plantations, with the workers. Fundamentally, it's very particular to the local culture."

It's like this with Vives. He talks about himself but tells a parallel story of vallenato, the music he plays and sees as analogous to his life.

Vives and the vallenato are the cultural result of mixed Indian, European, African and Middle Eastern influences. In this, they're both very Colombian. They both suffered a Eurocentric inferiority complex in Vives' youth but have grown to love themselves in his adulthood.

Vallenato is an upbeat, rhythmically complex music, accordion-based, sort of a mix between zydeco and cumbia. But in Colombia it has long been viewed with disdain by the white ruling classes, because it's associated with blacks and Indians. In that sense it's rather like tango, which was scorned in Argentina until it became popular in Paris, and bachata, which was dismissed in the Dominican Republic until Guerra popularized it in the early 1990s.

Vives has been vallenato's popular savior, mixing it with modern electronic elements and bringing it to the world.

But Vives did not come easily to this position, nor has his place in the music been without controversy, especially among those darker-skinned vallenato prodigies who have complained that Vives is just a pretty white rocker dude who doesn't even play his own accordion.


Vives was the second of four sons born to a doctor and a housewife, into a family of politicians, socialites and doctors. They were and are, he says, proud members of Colombia's white minority, which makes up 20% of that country.

Yet Vives grew up in a neighborhood surrounded, he says, by "negritos" and "indiecitos"--diminutive, and some would say condescending, terms used to describe blacks and Indians.

"That's why I play my native music," he says. "Because in my house my parents were white Spaniards, but my neighbor was negrito, and my other neighbor was indiecito, and I grew up with all of them. And I couldn't have, thanks to my education or to my life's circumstances, the place where I was born and all that, I don't discriminate. I believe we are all children of God, and I can't view a black person as different from me, even though I choose a person of my own color to marry, you understand? I don't believe in differences between people. My music is the living proof of the equality of all people."

At 14, he'd moved with his mother to Bogota after his parents divorced, and by 18 was singing professionally in nightclubs with a rock band. Vives studied advertising and publicity at Jorge Tadeo Losano University during the day. But at night he nurtured his less practical dream of becoming an actor by taking theater classes at Colombia's National University.

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