Multiculture, Our People

José Hernando Arias: the accordionist who learnt to talk with his hands

This young British musician, of Colombian parentage, has, at the age of 19, won BBC Radio 3 2012 World Routes Academy competition. He has only taken one accordion class in his entire life, the rest he taught himself.


Miriam Valero

José Hernando’s Colombian roots have always had a strong presence in his life, despite being born in the UK.

His parents emigrated from Latin America 35 years ago to work in London, and after living in both countries for a few months, the family decided to stay.

His musical enthusiasm stems from his travels to Colombia, as well as his fascination as 5 year old with the Vallenato music that his mother used to listen to while ironing.

José Hernando first heard an accordion played live at a Lisandro Mesa concert, one of the greatest examples of Vallenato and Cumbia music, and subsequently decided to try it for himself. He cast aside his guitar, the instrument he used to play, and bought an accordion.

After years of teaching himself, he won BBC Radio 3 World Routes Academy last February, a competition designed to inspire young artists to preserve the roots of traditional music from every region of the world.

On the 31st of July, at only 20 years of age, José Hernando Arias will perform for the second time in the Albert Halls as part of the BBC Proms, accompanied by one of its main stars: Egidio Cuadrado, king of Vallenato music and famous for fusing the genre with pop music, along with Carlos Vives.

Prior to playing in front of such a grand British audience, José Hernando Arias welcomed The Prisma into his home to talk about how he is fulfilling his dreams, as well as how he plans to include English in the Vallenato tradition.

How did your obsession with Vallenato music start?

It started with my trips to Colombia. At 5 years old I started to play guitar, and on my ninth birthday I bought one and took some classes. At 13 I heard Lisandro Mesa and the band play the accordion at the Carnaval del Pueblo, which is an important festival for the Latin community in London. It was the first time I saw an instrumental concert live, and I decided I wanted to be a professional accordionist.

How did you teach yourself to play?

I started by watching home movies and tapes about Vallenato musical techniques.

Back then, YouTube wasn’t as widespread as it is now. Since then, I’ve spent 5 hours each day learning new techniques, doing finger exercises, improvising or composing. I met the accordionist from Colombian group Embajadores Vallenatos in 2005, and he seemed to like me. He told me he was going to leave me a musical testament. He gave me a lesson one day, and that was the only kind of accordion class I ever took.

How would you describe your affinity for the accordion?

It’s a magical sound, incomparable to any other. Instead of speaking with my voice, I’m speaking with my hands. Talking to the accordion, when I’m improvising, is like having a conversation.

One of the reasons I started playing the accordion was also because it was a challenge. It’s a really complicated instrument to play at first. You have to do six jobs at once: you play the melody with the right hand; the bass with the left; the air button; push the windbag in and out; and sing.

Why did you decide to enter the BBC Radio 3 World Routes Academy?

Actually, I didn’t even know the programme existed. A friend encouraged me to sign up, but I didn’t listen. But then other people told me the same thing. Finally, I went to the audition and I showed them what I know. I took my green accordion and I played “Alicia Dorada”, “Gota Fria” and “La cachucha Bacana”. They said they would call me in 2 weeks. I was sad because I thought it was a “no”. But after a fortnight, while I was studying for an exam, they called me and told me I had won. I couldn’t believe it, I almost fainted. My mum started to cry with happiness…

Winning the competition allowed him to go to Colombia and meet the king of Vallenato music, Egidio Cuadrado…

At the contest, they asked me about my dreams and who influenced me. I told them I wanted to perform at the Vallenato Legend Festival. I also told them that, in my opinion, Egidio Cuadrado is one of the world’s greatest musicians. After I won the contest, they helped me achieve my dreams. The first trip I took to Colombia was with maestro Cuadrado in March. We stayed in Bogota and La Mesa, a town where we rehearsed for two months in preparation for the Vallenato Festival. He taught me how to improve my pure Vallenato technique and helped me juggle singing and playing at the same time, like they do in traditional Vallenato music.

It was really exciting. Egidio is one of the pioneers, along with Carlos Vives, who fused Vallenato music with pop. He says this is all part of the history of Latin music. I also had the opportunity to play four songs with Vives at his restaurant in Bogotá.

What was it like at the 45th Vallenato Legend Festival?

It was a dream for me to go to Valledupar, the birthplace of Vallenato music, and take part in the biggest festival in Colombia. We played four Vallenato rhythms there: the paseo; the son; the merengue; and the puya. I was really nervous, but the public really helped me. I ranked 8th out of 71 participants, and I was pretty pleased, considering that it was my first time.

How are preparations for your upcoming concert at the Royal Albert Hall on July 31st going?

It’ll be the second time I’ve played there, but to be honest, I was more nervous at the Legend of Vallenato Festival. At the concert I’ll be playing with Egidio Cuadrado and Carlos Vives’ accompaniment group, La Provincia. Vives won’t be there, unfortunately.

You play Vallenato music, although you grew up in an English musical culture. Can you merge these two genres?

Vallenato music has never been part of the English language. I’ve composed a few topics in English to show the European public how beautiful this genre is, and how poetic it can be. I want to share this genre’s message with the world in English.

Do you think Vallenato music is not as well-known as it should be in the rest of the world?

When I started university, everyone associated the accordion with Italian or polka music. The sound of the accordion in Vallenato music is something new to British people. Today, some very famous pop songs are beginning to include elements similar to Vallenato and Cumbia music, and it’s starting to get recognised. At lots of our performances, at different venues, the audience is English or European; there aren’t any Latin people.

What are your plans for the future?

I’ll be working with my group “Besonido”. It’s a fusion band that mixes Indian, jazz, blues, Vallenato and Cumbia music. We’ve been together two years and we recorded an album in 2011. I’m also working with my other band, Hernando Arias y su Tropical Vallenata. We think of it as a mixture of salsa, tropical and Vallenato music. This is all so we don’t forget our musical roots, conserve folklore and preserve traditions which are being lost.

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