Remembering Eugenio Ortega: Colombian Vallenato Master

Eugenio Ortega
October 14, 1932 – December 10, 2009

Master musician and founding director of Los Macondos, Eugenio Ortega, died in Colombia on December 10, 2009. Born in 1932, Ortega was a pioneer of Colombian vallenato music here in New York for many years and a cultural ambassador of traditional Colombian music throughout the United States.

Though Ortega grew up with the sounds of vallenato music and knew many master musicians, he only taught himself to play when his wife Bertica gave him a button accordion for their first Christmas together in 1957. While playing music, Ortega also worked as an executive for the major telegraph and communications company in Bogotá.

In 1971, Ortega arrived in New York from the northern Colombian town of Calamar. He soon met and played informally with many Colombians who were also missing the sounds of home. “When I got here,” Ortega said, “I met people that liked music and wanted to keep in touch with their music and their poetry. It brought back a lot of memories to people.”

Two years later, the rest of the Ortega family arrived and he enlisted his sons Juan (on bass) and Oscar (on caja) to form a new band. Ortega named the group, “Los Macondos,” after a fictional town in Gabriel García Marquéz’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Vallenatos (also known as “la musica vallenata” after the area of Valledupar) are storytelling songs dating back as far as the 1500s. The fast-paced rhythmic melodies evoke the traditional celebrations found in northern Colombia. Ortega explained that, “Before there were communications in Colombia by telegraph, there used to be a man playing accordion and going from town to town – he would be singing the news.” When asked why he played vallenato, Ortega said:

“This kind of music was not usually played in the clubs and people were starving for it. We did the club scene in Manhattan and Queens and once we were known in that community, Colombian communities in other states wanted to hear this kind of music live, because they were starving for it. That’s how the band has been kept alive, I think, people wanting to hear the music. We’ve never really gone out there to look for work, to sell the band. It’s not about that. We do this because we love the music.”

While other musicians abandoned their native music after emigrating to the US, Ortega remained faithful to the music of his homeland. Through the years he has taught dozens of Colombian musicians the intricacies of vallenato, whether they were playing the accordion, percussion or learning to sing this engaging form.

In recognition of his work, and to help preserve this music for future generations, the New York State Council on the Arts awarded Ortega an apprenticeship grant so that he could teach his son Juan advanced skills in playing the accordion and percussion instruments as well as sing more traditional songs that are the trademark of Los Macondos. Ortega was also recognized in Long Island Traditions’ “Honoring Traditions” program, which recognizes master traditional artists who take an active educational role in preserving their culture in their communities.

Over the years Los Macondos has performed in partnership with the Center for Traditional Music and Dance (as part of our Touring Artists program), World Music Institute, and at venues such as Carnegie Hall and Symphony Space in New York City, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC. They have earned a national and international reputation as a premier symbol for the Colombian community.

In recent years Ortega moved to Florida for health reasons; and while visiting his family in Colombia he fell ill and died suddenly. Friends, colleagues and family will remember Eugenio Ortega for his knowledge and transmission of tradition, his artistry and generosity of spirit, and above all, his extraordinary, unparalleled contribution to his community.

Los Macondos is the oldest vallenato ensemble in the United States. With Ortega’s passing, the remaining members are looking to keep the group going even as they forge new musical relationships. Either way, Ortega’s legacy looms large as an influence on the national Colombian music scene.

Photo caption: Eugenio Ortega (seated right) on accordion with Los Macondos. Photo by Martha Cooper.