Remembering Calixto Ochoa, Vallenato Legend

It’s not that hard to imagine a world where vallenato, rather than bachata, blew up big time. After all, both are Caribbean genres with an emphasis on rhythm and romance. Perhaps there’s a parallel universe where Romeo Santos is releasing his cover of “El Africano” today in honor of the passing of Calixto Ochoa, who died on November 18, 2015, at the age of 81.

Just like cumbia, salsa, and merengue, bachata and vallenato are universal and malleable enough to be adopted by people the world over – perfect styles to be fused with other sounds for maximum danceability. Yet they are intrinsically related to their geographical and social origins. These Latino sounds could not have come from anywhere else but their birthplaces, and even if they had, perhaps they wouldn’t be so relatable and adopted fervently by everyday people. Perhaps their popularity and relatability comes from being rooted in joy and the struggles of our communities.

Ochoa knew this quite well. The Colombian musician heavily drew on this point of view for inspiration for many of his most popular tunes. His most famous songs were inspired by everyday events, or clever and cheeky phrases used by people he encountered. Calixto recognized the magic of these moments and words, and turned them into sonic poems.

His songs, both his own recordings and those covered generations later, are instant classics, thanks to their typical uses of language and descriptions of the ordinary as extraordinary. His compositions sometimes take the form of funny and clever vignettes, or deeply romantic excursions into language that have so much passion and devotion they feel pure and utopic.

“Ochoa wrote hundreds of songs, in a career spanning more than 60 years. Now that’s a legacy.”

Betto Arcos, who works at NPR, recounted an experience that many others may have experienced. “I was ten years old when I first heard Calixto Ochoa’s music on the radio in my hometown of Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. The tune was called ‘Los Sabanales,’ a big hit by the legendary Colombian band he was a part of back then, Los Corraleros de Majagual. Ochoa sang the tune and accompanied himself playing a deep, funky, and juicy accordion that became his signature sound. In 1972, when I first heard ‘Los Sabanales,’ I had no idea it was music from Colombia. Many years later, I learned that Ochoa wrote hundreds of songs, in a career spanning more than 60 years. Now that’s a legacy.”

This catchall, relatable approach helped Calixto and vallenato become an international phenomenon that broke boundaries during his lifetime. But something much more universal than the themes of his lyrics are the rhythms he left us. Big band leader and Cumbia Universal preacher Gregorio Uribe agrees Ochoa’s unique approach to rhythm was one of his most inspired qualities.

“I was about 13 years old when I became enamored with vallenato and began to learn to play the diatonic accordion, the music’s most iconic instrument. One of the first things you learn about vallenato is that it consists of four rhythms: son, paseo, merengue, and puya. I remember listening to a very popular song called ‘Los Sabanales’ which, because of its instrumentation and style [should’ve fallen] under vallenato, but it didn’t. I found out the rhythm was generally labeled ‘paseito’ but I was thrown off a bit, and left with all sorts of questions about why wasn’t this rhythm included in the ‘official’ vallenato creed.

Ochoa’s songs and life seem to tell us to remain true to ourselves.

[Calixto] was a true musical innovator, and to me, that reads freedom…I see freedom in this because as a musician that works with rhythms that are mostly pre-conceived, I look to folks like Calixto to find the confidence to innovate within a style and to have the honesty to talk about whatever I desire in my songs…I hear his music and imagine a man who felt free to create within his context and who had a magnificent sense of humor. So if you are wondering why Calixto Ochoa was important, I’ll say this: he’s known for creating a popular rhythm…what’s your resume look like these days?”

Playing “Lirio Rojo,” “Charanga Campesina,” “Anhelos,” “Listo Calixto,” or the aforementioned songs, you instantly get the feeling he communicated to others – that urgent need to get up and dance and emanate joy from the soul, without concern for anything but happiness and a restlessness to express it. His accordion produced a perfect mixture of melody and rhythm, a blissful combination that’s almost immediately recognizable on first listen.

Calixto Ochoa was a prolific songwriter and deeply professional musician, qualities that earned the respect of both his contemporaries and protégés. Not to mention how those values spoke to his love and mastery of music. Perhaps the biggest teaching Calixto offered is that a person can be original by embracing his or her personal roots and creating art that can be appreciated universally. Ochoa’s songs and life seem to tell us to remain true to ourselves, beyond whatever label might be assigned to us.