Emiliano Zuleta

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"The King of Vallenato," Emiliano Zuleta introduced the world at large to the accordion-powered folk music of his native Colombia via classic songs later covered by crossover Latino stars including Carlos…
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"The King of Vallenato," Emiliano Zuleta introduced the world at large to the accordion-powered folk music of his native Colombia via classic songs later covered by crossover Latino stars including Carlos Vives, Julio Iglesias, and Gloria Estefan. Born Emiliano Zuleta Baquero in La Jugua del Pilar on January 11, 1912, he grew up in a home with neither electricity nor running water, and acquired his first accordion by stealing the instrument from an uncle. Zuleta later wrote an original song begging forgiveness for the theft, and his uncle not only relented but gave him a new and better accordion upon discovering the extent of his nephew's talent. Zuleta also proved himself a gifted balladeer, excelling in vallenato ("born in the valley"), music influenced by African, European, and South American rhythms that took root along Colombia's Caribbean coast and combines button accordion with the caja, a bongo-like drum, and the guacharaca, a washboard-style instrument. Though still just 17 years old, Zuleta rose to national prominence in 1929 with "La Gota Fría," written in response to rival Lorenzo Morales' claims of superior musical talents. The song was not only a hit, but it ended the feud between Zuleta and Morales, and later the two men even toured together. In the years following World War II, Zuleta and Morales spearheaded what many Colombians consider the golden age of vallenato, an era that also marked the rise of such pivotal musicians as Leandro Diaz and Alejandro Duran. Zuleta's popularity and acclaim did little to help feed his 16 children, however, and he studied agronomy and economics in an effort to improve his fortunes. In 1969, he teamed with brother Tomás Alfonso Zuleta in los Hermanos Zuleta, recording for CBS, but remained little known outside of Columbia prior to 1994, when Grammy winner Vives recorded a contemporized version of "La Gota Fría" that proved a major hit on Latino radio and earned its composer a royalty check in excess of 200,000 dollars. "I couldn't earn that in seven lives as a farmer," Zuleta said at the time. Following the death of his wife Carmen, Zuleta's health took a dramatic turn for the worse, and he died on October 30, 2005, at the age of 93.