Composer Rafael Escalona revolutionized his native Colombia's vallenato folk tradition, modernizing the music's rough, accordion-based sound via the addition of vividly detailed narratives evoking the rhythms and rigors of working-class life. Born Rafael Calixto Escalona Martínez in the Atlantic coast town of Patillal on May 27, 1927, he initially dreamed of pursuing a career as a painter or cartoonist, but soon recognized that his artistic talents lie in writing, not drawing. He authored his first song, "El Profe Castañeda," at the age of 15, and after composing a lyric detailing the poor quality of food at his school, he dropped out to work on his family's farm.
Escalona never learned to read music or play an instrument, and he never even performed in any official capacity -- he was instead a parrandero, or partygoer, and spent countless hours drinking whiskey, chasing women, and singing ballads with troubadour friends. (His circle of confederates included the Nobel-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who later included Escalona as a character in his 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Escalona's experiences as a parrandero not only fueled his passion for the vallenato, but also informed his efforts as a songwriter -- his lyrics drew on his own romantic foibles as well as the everyday lives of his friends, bolstered by the kind of news, gossip, and legends once carried from town to town by traveling minstrels. "I compose vallenatos in a different style," Escalona told World Music Central in 2006. "Sort of like musical chronicles -- like the gentleman that crashed his cart, or the farmer that fell off his horse and broke his leg."
In April 1951, Escalona wed Marina Arzuaga Mejía, also known as "La Maye" and the subject of many of his most renowned songs, including "La Casa en el Aire." Over the course of the decade to follow, Escalona emerged as a figure of national renown, his fame solidified by now-classic songs including "El Manantial," "La Vieja Sara," "Elegía a Jaime Molina," and "El Villanuevero." Despite his success, he never made a living from music, and spent the majority of his life farming cotton. Over time, Escalona's circle of parrandas mates included Hernando Molina, husband of journalist Consuelo Araujo. In 1967, Escalona, Araujo, and former Colombian president Alfonso López Michelsen co-founded the Festival de la Leyanda Vallenata, an annual celebration of vallenato music and related Colombian customs and culture.
The 1991 premiere of Escalona, a Colombian soap opera inspired by the composer's life and work, introduced his vallenato classics to a new generation of fans. Carlos Vives, a singer and actor who appeared in the series, later went on to become an international crossover star, marrying traditional vallenato sensibilities with rock and pop production to significant commercial success. Escalona's impact on contemporary Latin pop was also celebrated in 2006 when the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented him with one of its excellence awards. Escalona died May 13, 2009, in Bogotá due to heart failure -- his survivors included a reputed 23 children.