Carlos Vives Reflects on the Album That Made Him A Colombian Music Icon

Little more than a decade ago, Carlos Vives’ career was on the verge of oblivion.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he had been one of Latin music’s biggest global stars, with hit albums, sold-out arena tours and a thriving TV presence, thanks to his telegenic looks.

More from Billboard

But by 2012, he hadn’t had a recording contract for eight years, had no touring plans or publicist and had split with his management after years of inactivity. Vives remembers picking up the phone and dialing the president of one of the labels where negotiations had stalled.

“He told me, ‘There is nothing we can do for you,’” Vives recalls.

Then, at age 51, Vives staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in Latin music history. He signed a new recording deal with Sony, landed his first No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart in nearly a decade — the aptly titled “Volví a Nacer” (I Was Born Again) — and, six months later, earned a No. 1 on Top Latin Albums, his first in nearly a decade, with Corazón Profundo.

Vives has flourished since — as a recording artist, as a touring performer, and, perhaps most importantly, as the de facto keeper of Colombia’s most beloved musical traditions. Widely recognized as the person who took authentic Colombian rhythms like cumbia and vallenato to a global stage, Vives also opened the door to the internationalization of Colombian music, leading to the success of fellow Colombian artists like Maluma, Shakira, Juanes, Fonseca and Feid.

“The most beautiful and magical thing about Carlos is that he behaves as if he started his career today,” says Sony Music Latin Iberia chairman/CEO Afo Verde, who signed Vives after his fallow period. “He respects everyone at every level in the industry. He’s the kind of icon who’s eternal.”

And this icon isn’t slowing down. Vives’ 2023 has included a 30-date tour, a starring role in the Disney+ series The Low Tone Club and the release of new album Escalona Nunca Se Había Grabado Así. He’s also prepping for massive concerts at Madrid’s Puerta de Alcalá in October and in Colombia in December, a testament to his cross-continental appeal.

“Carlos influenced my music in every way,” Maluma says. “My parents were huge fans. Thanks to him, Colombian folklore is known worldwide. He has been a very big inspiration for us and will continue to be so. We owe our roots to Carlos.”

Vives started his career as a singer/TV actor, and he might have ended up doing run-of-the-mill pop had he not been cast in 1991 as the lead role in Escalona, a Colombian series based on the life of fabled vallenato singer-composer Rafael Escalona, who rose in the 1960s to become perhaps the most revered composer in the genre and whose songs remain classics today. On the soundtrack, Vives covered Escalona’s greatest hits in their traditional arrangements — and became an overnight sensation in Colombia and its neighboring countries.

Beyond stardom, the role sparked a quest. Born in Santa Marta, the second-oldest Spanish city in South America, Vives had grown up surrounded by the strains of vallenato, the Colombian coastal music built on accordion riffs and troubadour-style storytelling. At his childhood home, top vallenato artists regularly engaged in jam sessions with his father, a music-loving physician who had attended school with Escalona. In that music, often forgotten and undermined by the pop-loving elite, Vives found his calling.

In 1993, after moving to Bogotá following his parents’ divorce, he released Clásicos de la Provincia, a collection of vallenato standards recorded with a pop and rock sensibility that reflected Vives’ musical DNA as a son of Santa Marta with touches of Bogotá modernism and rock n’ roll. The album made him a major international star and inspired a new generation of Colombian artists who, for the first time, saw their music on a global stage.

“It was only until I heard Clásicos de la Provincia that I felt my music could have the influence and sound of Colombia,” Fonseca says. “Before that, I dreamed of being like Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, George Michael. Carlos’ music opened my mind.”

In the United States, Clásicos de la Provincia, distributed by PolyGram Latino, debuted at No. 46 on Top Latin Albums and peaked at No. 2 seven months later. It remained on the chart for 86 weeks.

Carlos Vives, Juanes
Juanes (left) and Carlos Vives on set for the “Las Mujeres” music video in Bogotá in 2023.

Over the next decade, Vives amassed four No. 1s and nine top 10s on Hot Latin Songs and five top 10s on Top Latin Albums, including one No. 1 (2001’s Déjame Entrar). Recording from the outset with his Colombian band, La Provincia, Vives’ music became progressively more adventuresome but remained linked to his roots. “My commitment is with my locality,” he told Billboard in 2004. “It’s the sound I dreamed for our music but influenced by the world.”

“Carlos bet on Colombia’s identity and making it global,” says his wife, Claudia Elena Vásquez. “He took our roots and our folklore and modernized it. It was the match that sparked the flame.”

That “flame” is what Vives calls el Universo Vives (the Vives Universe), which includes his own label, Gaira Música Local; the Río Grande Music School for children and the venue-restaurant Cumbia House, both in Bogotá; and his nonprofit, Tras la Perla, in Santa Marta.

It all amounts to a beehive of activity that seemed implausible a decade ago. Back in 2004, his second marriage had just dissolved, his touring had ground to a halt, and after his contract with longtime label EMI had expired, he failed to secure another record deal to continue his international career. He didn’t release a single album of original material from 2002 to 2012, save for the 2008 children’s album Pombo Musical.

The flame could have been extinguished were it not for Vásquez — who has lived with Vives since 2007 and is now CEO of Universo Vives — and executive Walter Kolm, who in 2012 was starting his management career after years as a major-label executive.

“I knew I was signing a superstar,” says Kolm, who flew to Colombia to meet with Vives and offer a detailed proposal. “There weren’t that many Latin artists then who could fill arenas like he could, even after being absent. And beyond his music, Carlos was a point of reference for Colombian culture.”

Since his comeback, Vives has placed 12 No. 1s on the Latin Airplay chart, including his 2016 Latin Grammy-winning duet with Shakira, “La Bicicleta,” and two No. 1s on Top Latin Albums. Last year alone, he played 15 U.S. shows that grossed $6.1 million total, according to Billboard Boxscore. On top of that, he has won 17 Latin Grammys and two Grammys.

The artist’s resurrection has been “more than a revival; it has been a rebirth,” Kolm says with a laugh. “That’s why we’ve released so much music. He’s making up for lost time.”

“Carlos opened the door of Colombian folklore to the world and brought the music of the world to our folklore,” Juanes says. “Rock, vallenato, cumbia, caribe, funk, electric guitar, accordion, poetry and charisma. Everything fits in his name.”

To mark the 30th anniversary of his breakthrough album, Vives reflected on the past, present and future of his influential career.

Carlos Vives, Gusi
Gusi (left) and Carlos Vives celebrated Gusi’s signing with Gaira Música Local at Cumbia House in Bogotá in 2020.

On Clásicos de la Provincia in 1993, you gave classic vallenatos a shot of steroids, incorporating electric bass, guitar and drums. Did you ever think it would go as far as it did?

I never thought doing the music we did would lead to success. Plus, back then, we were told doing vallenatos, or doing them this way, was not the right music for me. At the time, it was about finding an authentic path and breaking the industry paradigms about what was folk, pop or rock.

How did you do that?

We opened a different mindset. We took Colombian instruments and electrified them using rock instruments; like taking the caja vallenata to an electric guitar or bass, or playing the cumbia beat on a Stratocaster. We were “happy illegals,” as Gabriel García Márquez used to say. We thought we’d last forever, and we were happy doing that and playing in bars and on TV. Maybe that’s why we dared do it in the first place.

You had nothing to lose…

Exactly. And when it started to work, it caught us with our pants down because we really weren’t expecting it. But I loved being connected with my dad, my essence, with that lost world of my childhood.

Clásicos de la Provincia made you a star. But what followed next, 1995’s La Tierra del Olvido, really consolidated your success. Can you explain why?

Clásicos de la Provincia triggered pride in vallenato, but it was also a new sound for our songs. But on my next album, I couldn’t continue to just record classic vallenatos. I had to write my own songs.

The first thing I had learned about vallenato was that it was the son of cumbia, and it opened up to a much bigger universe that touched our entire Colombian culture. It was a broader musical DNA that I called la tierra del olvido [the forgotten land]. I came from recording ballads and I was searching for my identity. I was forgetting where I came from, and that’s why I called the album [and its hit title track] La Tierra del Olvido. I saw myself reflected in that album cover, where I’m standing in front of the Caribbean and at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Colombian Tibet and home to our indigenous cultures.

Carlos Vives
Carlos Vives on set for the “La Tierra del Olvido” music video in Santa Marta.

This tour celebrates Clásicos de la Provincia. How do you summarize 30 years in a single evening?

It’s an opportunity to go on a trip. We began on a TV series singing vallenato old-school, the way tradition dictated they needed to be performed. So you see me singing with a conjunto vallenato, “La Casa en el Aire,” in the way it was done 30 years ago. I tell the story from the beginning, going through “La Tierra del Olvido,” “El Amor de Mi Tierra.” You witness how the sound grows to what I call “the rock of my town,” growing the instrumentation and showing how we changed the way we “tropicalized” with more rock-leaning patterns. It shows how very traditional fare can give way to very edgy stuff. We play 22 to 23 songs [in] two-and-a-half hours.

You had that eight-year hiatus between 2005 and 2012 before you came roaring back. Do you realize today how rare it is to have these second chances?

I think we planted something in our people that they valued and took as their own. And I think that lived on, despite bad management and my not having taken advantage of certain things. When Walter [Kolm] came along, I got a team. I haven’t met a manager that believes more in me than Walter or anyone who believes more in me than Claudia, my wife. But my marketing team were the Colombians who took my songs with them everywhere they went. Then the Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans came along, and we recognized ourselves in that diversity that’s our Hispanic America. That also allowed this comeback.

Carlos Vives, Walter Kolm
Carlos Vives celebrated his birthday (Aug. 7) with manager Kolm (right) at Cumbia House in 2021.

You mentioned your wife. How important is it to sleep next to your biggest fan?

An artist needs someone close who loves him. And I don’t mean just the love of your life, but someone who understands your work and who has a vision to grow and dignify it. What Walter and Claudia have done is incredible. They came to my life to love and value my work. It’s something I needed.

Many people don’t know that aside from learning music in your home, you also played in Bogotá bars for years, you did theater, you produced TV shows. How important was it to put in those 10,000 hours?

It was vital to work as part of a team in a theater group, in a TV cast — getting up early, having responsibilities with a group and with a project.

There has always been a craft. I learned a lot at a bar called Ramón Antigua where I was a waiter. We had a singing contest every night. My friends from college would come and make me sing. And eventually, the owner would travel and leave me in charge. I’d put together the band, book groups like Guayacán and Niche [in their beginnings]. Can you imagine? We were always making something up.

You tour constantly. What does live performance mean to you?

It’s my comfort zone, the place where I feel safest. Being onstage means going back to all the things I cherish from my childhood and growing up with music. It’s connecting with my true roots, and I feel that’s what allows me to connect with fans. They feel the same way I do, and that’s why they’re there.

Carlos Vives
Carlos Vives (kneeling, fourth from left) and musical collaborators onstage during the VIVES Tour in Orlando, Fla., in 2021.

You spent your early years in Santa Marta, the backbone of your music. But then you moved to Bogotá after your parents’ divorce. How did these very different cities shape your music?

I like to sing everything. That’s how we were raised. Even music in English, although I can’t sing in English. My challenge was, “How can I do it in my own style? How can I be modern without copying anyone?” I didn’t want to be a copy of a copy of a copy. That’s the Bogotá factor, being raised in a city full of culture. I loved what I did, but I was missing an element of authenticity and of understanding the musical processes around the world. I wanted to understand where Elvis and the British [artists] got their inspiration. I wanted to understand where the music came from.

You are a true authority in Colombian music and its roots, and the author of several books on the subject, which is remarkable for a pop star. Why is this important to you?

Understanding who you are is vital. For example, discovering through music that Spain is a key ingredient, even if people denigrate being Spanish. We don’t stop being Spaniards simply because we gained our independence. Independence is a political state, but blood, last names and the cultural footprints that come from being a mix of Spaniards and those born in our countries is something that doesn’t go away, and it’s part of our music. The same thing happens with our African and indigenous roots. That is who we are. It was so important to get on this little boat called vallenato, which is tiny but has taken me to all these other worlds. This has been a 30-year journey. A journey where we found a world far richer and far more connected through music. We live in a world of separation, distrusting others if they speak Spanish or English, and music shows us a much more united, far more beautiful world.

Let’s put a debate to rest: Was cumbia born in Colombia?

Cumbia was born in the towns of the Río Grande [in Colombia]. The cumbia rhythmic pattern is a pre-Hispanic native American pattern that is unique to cumbia; it’s not in any other indigenous or African place in the world. That’s why it’s so endemic and so unique. The shores of the Magdalena River are the capital of cumbia, and that’s where we celebrate the cumbia festival. But the Spaniards brought a writing style, metrics, décimas, the red handkerchiefs, the white dress.

Carlos Vives
Carlos Vives at the Río Grande Music School in Bogotá in 2022.

You’ve never sung in English. Do you see more non-Spanish speakers reacting to your music now than before?

Totally. If you play Royal Albert Hall, Colombians and Latins come to see you, but they don’t come alone. They bring their British friends with them. It’s the same on the other end; we paid to see British bands in Bogotá and didn’t understand a damn thing they were singing, but we loved it. Today, musicians connect with each other in many languages, and that’s so much more beautiful. That has been very important to me. That they take me here and there, that our flags are out there, that there’s so much more connection between artists who sing in Spanish and English. We’re part of the same industry. You’re popular, I’m popular; we all connect.

Aside from your music school in Bogotá, you also have Tras la Perla, a foundation in Santa Marta that works to improve many different aspects of the city, even though you no longer live there. Why is it located there?

Maybe because of my ties to my father and his work as a doctor. We inherited the love people felt for him. That’s one factor, and the other is the tragedy of seeing a magical place that has been forgotten. It’s unfair. I work in a neighborhood called Pescadito, where great athletes like El Pibe and [Radamel] Falcao were born and raised, and we want to improve it and attract people and tourism. And I also work in Ciénaga Grande, the delta of the Magdalena River, which is an important musical capital.

Colombia is very politicized now, with extreme views on each side. And you are such a visible Colombian icon. How do you handle that?

The world is politicized. Colombia is merely a reflection. Nowadays, being a rebel means being on the opposite side of someone else, on the left or the right. No. No. I’m the rebel. I’m a rebel because I’m Colombian. I took on that responsibility and I decided to make music based on our roots that incorporated the music of the world. Being Colombian is understanding who we are and recognizing all that we are. I don’t take sides [for politics]. I take sides for my country.

Carlos Vives
Carlos Vives performed at Cumbia House last December 2022.

Carlos Vives: Five Vital Releases

Clásicos de la Provincia, 1993
PolyGram Latino/Sonolux

The album that introduced the Vives sound covered classic vallenatos with a mix of traditional and rock instrumentation, a revolutionary approach that rocked fans and fellow musicians. Choice track: “La Gota Fría”

La Tierra del Olvido, 1995
PolyGram Latino/Sonolux

Vives’ stylistic fusion solidified on this glorious nostalgic set that also established him as a songwriter and took his sound and that of his band, La Provincia, further into the pop and rock realms. Choice track: “La Tierra del Olvido”

Carlos Vives

Déjame Entrar, 2001
Capitol Latin

While Vives established himself on a global scale with 1999’s El Amor de Mi Tierra, Déjame Entrar unified his international appeal thanks to original global hits that had vallenato roots and broad-appeal pop melodies. “Carito,” which talks about a boy’s crush on his American English teacher, presciently united cultures and languages. Choice track: “Carito”

Corazón Profundo, 2013
Sony Music Latin

Vives’ comeback after an eight-year halt on recording originals is chock-full of joyous, irresistible hits, including the first major collaboration, with Brazilian star Michel Teló. It marked a new stage in Vives’ career and sound. Choice track: “Volví a Nacer”

Cumbiana, 2020
Sony Music Latin

Vives’ exploration of the roots of cumbia and vallenato, the two rhythms that define Colombian music and his style, continued on this adventuresome release. It features collaborations with artists from around the world, including Panama’s Rubén Blades, Spain’s Alejandro Sanz, Jamaica’s Ziggy Marley and Colombian-Canadian Jessie Reyez. Choice track: “For Sale”

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 26, 2023, issue of Billboard.

Best of Billboard

Click here to read the full article.