Carlos Vives dreams of someday recording an album on a floating soundstage, cruising down Colombia’s greatest river.
That’s because the communities along the 949-mile Río Magdalena and across its far-reaching delta are the lifeblood of Vives’ music and four-decade career. The Colombian pop superstar has recorded 13 studio albums, won two Grammy Awards and 11 Latin Grammys, and collaborated with artists including Shakira and Daddy Yankee. Through his nonprofit, Tras La Perla, he has also shown a deep commitment to the communities whose musical ancestries are a strong current throughout his work.
Most recently, Vives sang the title song for Disney’s hit animated film Encanto, “Colombia, Mi Encanto.” Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Germaine Franco, the music from the film has achieved widespread popularity since its November release. Songs like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and “Colombia, Mi Encanto” have gone particularly viral on TikTok, and on January 15, the soundtrack rocketed to number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart, the first Disney album to do so since Frozen II in 2019.
The film, and the music behind it, beautifully reflect the vast cultural, musical and natural diversity of a country too often known one-dimensionally for its histories of violence and armed conflict. During a recent Zoom interview, Vives discussed how Disney’s Encanto is helping to change those global perceptions about Colombia, his beloved homeland, and other insights from his storied career in the music industry. The following interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English.
You sing very often about the love you have for Colombia, in a way that few other artists have done. I’m thinking about songs like “El Orgullo de mi Patria,” “Déjame Quererte” and “La Tierra del Olvido.” Where does your style—a mix of folklore and pop—come from?
Many years ago, I worked on a TV show about the life and songs of the Colombian vallenato composer Rafael Escalona [in 1991]. It was like going back to my roots a bit. My father was the one who taught me so much of that kind of music. He used to invite to our house different musicians from all over the Caribbean provinces [of Colombia], where we’re from. So at home, I grew up in this world of vallenato [a popular folk music genre in Colombia, meaning “born in the valley”], with great love for these musicians, many of whom were among the most well-known.
But when I was working on the soundtrack, the music for that series, I realized that I could find a different way to project the tropical style of it all—that is, how to make an electric record of music that had its origins in campesino folk songs. I understood that by recording this music and by going to a studio or soundstage and by dressing up in brilliant colors, we were doing something similar to what had happened with rock and roll, which electrified and modernized an ancestral form of music that came from the American South. We were electrifying rhythms of cumbia, vallenato, porro, chandé [all different folkloric styles of Colombian music]—and with time I learned that their origins were in the amphibian cultures of the greatest rivers of Colombia, including the Magdalena River, the Sinú River, the Atrato, important rivers that have had a huge influence on our culture and our music in Colombia. A new style was created. Before us, in the industry, there was pop, there were romantic ballads similar to what was being done in English or French or Italian, and then there was tropical music, call it salsa, vallenatos, whatever. We unified the two worlds. To electrify very old music sounded very, very new. Still today people say that I ‘fused’ folkloric music with rock and pop. I really didn’t. It’s more the electrification of Indigenous sounds and rhythms. They called us ‘tropipop.’
It’s an explosive sound. And it seems to me that with each passing year, it is becoming more and more global.
[Luis Fonsi’s 2017 hit] ‘Despacito’ is tropipop! Rock was born from the rhythms of diversity. That’s why it’s not fusion. We’re already fusion.
That’s something very Colombian, isn’t it? To be fusion at the core.
We live in a country that is multiple countries in one. In this country, there are hardly similarities between a person from Bogotá, a person from the coast, a person from the plains, a person from the southern border with Ecuador. We are completely different from one another. And that has enriched us so much in terms of our entertainment.
That’s why I wanted to ask you about Encanto. How did you feel being part of that project, bringing Colombian culture—which is very unique—to a global audience in a movie in English, for children, for Disney?
It’s very important that the world gets to know a little bit more about the heart of Colombians. Disney is a great window for this. Historically, it has been very difficult for us to compete with so much evil, with all of the negative news. But for all that Colombia has in difficulty, it has far more heart. There are incredible things in Colombia, exemplary people. So I think the movie shows a bit what it’s like to live that Colombianidad apart from so many difficult things, historically speaking. Truthfully it makes me very happy that they made such an effort to try and understand a country like Colombia.
Which is not an easy thing to do.
Because you see the character [Bruno] who wears the ruana [poncho], but you also see the sombrero vueltiao [an emblematic hat of Colombia, made from intricately woven stalks of grass]. And the buñuelo [a pastry as prepared by Julieta, whose food heals any ailment] which is also from another culture. It’s a mixture of all the things that we are, and at the end of the day that’s what it means to be Colombian. Because we grow up understanding what is in the South, what are the llanos [great plains], what is the Amazon rainforest, what is the Caribbean, the Guajira coast, what is the Pacific, what are our faraway islands in the Caribbean close to Nicaragua.
What was it like to work on the music for Encanto with people like songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, who are not Colombian?
They were crazy, crazy about discovering Colombia. They were doing a trip when I was first talking with [Miranda]; they were in Palenque, they were telling me about Medellín, about Bogotá, and I was asking them if they understood for real the sheer diversity of different countries that exist within one single country. At the end of the day, it’s difficult for people to understand such a crazy amount of diversity, no? But they were so happy. There was something about Colombia that fascinated them, that made them speak of the country with so much love. Lin-Manuel sent me a sketch of the song that still needed more precise sounds, percussion and all… They were really inspired by some of my records, so I knew that they wanted champeta [a popular Afro-Colombian style of music and dance], they wanted vallenato. I knew all that they wanted to do. That’s how we went about making the song. Then I sang it and, well, they were happy with it and we went from there. I still say to them, whenever you want to talk about Colombia and the imaginary, don’t forget about me—come find me. There are so many stories to tell.
Your music and your community projects, like the nonprofit Tras la Perla, very often exist in conversation with one another. What are you working on these days, in that respect?
I discovered that, musically, what I loved to do most was also very closely connected with people who needed help. People who I am very thankful for, but whose lands have been forgotten and troubled [by conflict], and mired in enormous ecological tragedies. It’s very difficult to have taken the path of singing vallenatos and then not feel committed to my region. Singing vallenatos gave me my identity, and it very suddenly made me aware that as an artist I could contribute to many of the solutions that we need in this territory, call it what you will, the delta of the Río Grande de la Magdalena. And because we’ve lived with our backs to the situations of many of these communities, because we didn’t realize all that they’re going through, we’ve damaged the ecosystems. We’ve impoverished the fishermen. These were the very same people who gave us cumbias, vallenatos. The same people! The mixing of races that occurred within the Indigenous cultures, with the Africans and the Spanish who arrived, left us with a very beautiful people, a very special people, but a forgotten people.
The same people that invented this music are the ones who have been most affected by globalization, by these problems, by the ecological harms.
Yes, those traveling musicians, those poet-fishermen like José Barros who composed great cumbias but whose job was to fish. The cultures of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that gave us the gaitas [cumbia flutes] that I have used on all of my records. Magical people.
Who are some Indigenous or Afro-Colombian artists today that the world should know?
Dawer x Damper, from Aguablanca [a neighborhood in the city of Cali], are doing really interesting things. Bejuco, from Tumaco [on the Pacific Coast], has a bambuco-beat and their music has been well-reviewed in national and international media outlets. Soon everyone will be talking about Verito Asprilla—she has talent and charisma, and right now I'm in Tumaco exploring the possibility of helping produce her. Oh, and add to the list [the 11-person group] Herencia de Timbiqui. And [the singer-songwriter and community activist] Cynthia Montaño. With her, we made the song “Los Niños Olvidados.”