Colombian Film Fest NY: Andrew Tucker & Rey Sagbini on Their Vallenato Documentary, 'El Viaje del Acordeón'

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The Colombian Film Festival New York just closed this weekend. During the fest we caught up with Andrew Tucker and Rey Sagbini, directors of El Viaje del Acordeón, to talk about the origins of the accordion, vallenato, and the amount of times they had to cross the ocean to make their documentary.

For sixteen years, Colombian accordionist Manuel Vega and his group have been trying to win the world’s Vallenato Festival, but success eludes them. One day, a letter arrives inviting the group to play with the Hohner accordion orchestra in Germany. Manuel and his group embark on a journey that takes them to the origins of the accordion and changes their lives.

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Where are you from and what place do you call home?

REY: I was born in Valledupar, located in the Colombian Caribbean. Today I feel that my home is in two different spots on earth; One in Hamburg, Germany. The other other in a magical place located in “Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta” called “Uversia,” a spot to which I feel an ancestral and mystical connection.

ANDREW: I was born in England but my home is Colombia.

What’s a movie you’re embarrassed to admit you really like?

REY: Terminator

ANDREW: Star Wars

Did you grow up listening to vallenato music?

REY: No. I grew up listening to Jim Morrison, Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath, Silvio Rodríguez, Mercedes Sosa, Cesaria Èvora, Camarón de la Isla, Ry Cooder, Sumo, Gustavo Cerati, Los Redonditos de Ricota, Tracy Chapman, Dead Can Dance y Midnight Oil, among others. But, growing up, it was impossible to ignore vallenato because it was key to the collective memory of the town I was raised in.

Where did you get the idea for this documentary?

REY: I was studying film in Hamburg and used to visit a professor called Gerd Roscher. He was tremendously impressed with the musical history of my nation (Colombia) because it all started with a shipment of accordions that arrived accidentally to the shores of Colombia rather than it’s original destination, Argentina. This subject used to come up all the time between beers and conversation. So in 2008, I traveled through Germany with the goal of finding out about the Hohner factory where accordions had been invented and sent accidentally to Colombia 100 years ago changing it’s sound constellation forever.

What are some differences and similarities between Colombian and German accordion players?

REY: The contrasts between Colombia and Germany’s musicians are incredibly interesting. In Trossingen, where the Hohner factory is located, mostly women play the accordion, while in Colombia, the musicians are 99 percent men. Accordions in Germany are played in orchestras with a larger number of musicians, while in Colombian vallenato accordions are played in groups of three people (acordeón, caja ,and guaracha). Also, in Germany one goes to a music academy to learn how to play, while in Colombia one traditionally learns empirically, through experimentation.

ANDREW: What unites the musicians is their passion, what differentiates them is that Germans have a more introverted way of playing, while Colombians involve their community and are more extroverted musicians.

I read you had to cross the ocean various times to film this documentary. How often were you traveling?

REY: Between 2009 and 2013 our film crew traveled an average of 2.5 times a year between Germany and the Colombian Caribbean to make this film. A German stewardess even recognized me once on a plane as “the accordion guy.” We only stayed around 6 months in each place feeling like nomads, a similar experience to the one of vallenato jugglers. From the start, Andrew and I agreed to move around in a van or minibus to be able to experience and share adventures while working on this production. It was a beautiful life experience.

ANDREW: We must have crossed the ocean an average of 8 times.

Do you identify with the protagonist, Manuel Vega?

REY: Andrew and I always thought that Manuel represented a juggler looking for the intangible through his music. We felt that the reasons why he made music were the same reasons why we had to make films. That for sure united us and we decided to make a film where Manuel and the rest of the crew had common objectives, a common pilgrimage showing two distant universes coming together through one sole instrument: the accordion.

How have Germans reacted to this documentary?

REY: During a presentation in Hamburg I saw Germans experiencing strong emotions. Somehow, I felt the chemistry of the audience. This summer the film will arrive to various theatres in Germany with support from Filmfoerderung Hamburg-Schleswig-Holstein (the Hamburg film fund) and both Andrew and I think it will have good responses.

What message would you want to convey to the public with this film?

ANDREW: That it’s not always the winners we should focus on.

REY: That it’s not all about winning. We wanted to contest the western perception of triumph. For example, last year we were invited to New Delhi, India to present this documentary and non-western audiences understood it differently. I noticed how after the screening many in the audience captured the reasons for Manuel’s journey, understanding it went beyond winning the vallenato contest. A mother and daughter, for example, got emotional with the last part of the film, and we felt that there are more powerful reasons, beyond prizes or recognition, to execute a work of art.