Colombian and Venezuelan

Of late I have been listening — mainly via YouTube — to quite a few Colombian and Venezuelan songs. And what drove me to it was a subtle point of Spanish grammar.

Specifically, the Colombian songs are of the genre known as vallenato, and the Venezuelan ones of llanero. I have long been a fan of both.

Llanero music is that of the Llanos or plains that make up more than a quarter of Venezuela’s territory and whose culture — focused on cattle and horsemanship — is seen by Venezuelans as typifying their country, embodied in the classic novel Doña Barbara (by Rómulo Gallegos, the first democratically elected president of Venezuela) and in the song Alma llanera (a joropo), which is considered Venezuela’s unofficial second national anthem.

I have never been in Venezuela, but when I was in graduate school I had a friend from there, who taught me to dance the joropo and introduced me to the beautiful interplay of harp, maracas, cuatro and singing.

I got to know and love vallenato music when I lived in Bogotá in 1977. The music is characteristic of the Caribbean coastal region, but in the 1970s (after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967 and the founding of the Vallenato Legend Festival in 1968) it became popular throughout Colombia. But it is still one of a great many of the country’s regional musical styles.

Colombia is arguably the most diverse Hispano-American country. Geographically it has the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, the Amazon and the Andes, volcanoes and plains. Culturally there are different mixes of European, African and indigenous influences in different regions. (The vallenato is one such mix, with the European accordion, the African drum or caja and the indigenous guacharaca.) There are even more different varieties of Spanish spoken there than elsewhere; it’s the one Hispanic country where I am not usually taken for a foreigner, because my accent may be taken as being from some other part of Colombia.

I mentioned the plains of Colombia. They are, in fact, adjacent to those of Venezuela, in the department (the Colombian equivalent of province or state) of Meta, whose capital Villavicencio is located on the department’s very edge, where the plains meet the Andes, but its culture is fully that of the Llanos, virtually the same as Venezuela’s. I got to hear llanero music live when I visited there in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most famous llanero song, internationally, is Caballo viejo, though its best-known renditions are in more of a salsa-like or pop style, unlike the purely llanero original of Simón Díaz. But my favorite is Campesina, which I first heard sung by a Colombian llanero group in Bogotá.

In the version I heard, the last line of the song’s lyrics is “y adorna con tu hermosura a la tierra colombiana“, which struck me as not quite grammatical.

Spanish has the peculiarity that when direct object of a verb is a person or persons, it is treated as an indirect object, with the preposition a. This makes it possible, when the direct object is, say, the name of the country, to distinguish between its meanings as, on the one hand, the land, and on the other hand the people or some entity representing the people (government, armed force, sports team). Thus, “Germany occupied Poland” is Alemania ocupó Polonia, but “Germany defeated Poland” is Alemania derrotó a Polonia. But la tierra colombiana is land, not people.

The mystery was solved for me when I discovered, by searching the song out on YouTube, that the song is actually Venezuelan, and the line in question is “y adorna con tu hermosura la tierra venezolana“, without the ungrammatical a, which the Colombians added to make up for the missing syllable.

Now, what was it that led me to listening to vallenato? The accident of finding a vallenato version. of Caballo viejo.

And, incidentally, listening to the song led me back to my old song-translating ways, and I’ve made an English version of it.

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