In the wildly eclectic musical scene of Austin, Texas, the band Cerronato is building an avid following presenting an authentic yet innovative version of traditional Colombian vallenato and cumbia. Their poignant and energetic music draws a diverse fan base of young and old—including recent South American immigrants, Mexican-Americans, and long-time Americanos of all ethnic persuasions—many of whom dance enthusiastically to Cerronato’s lively, captivating sound. That sound’s instrumentation revolves around ornate, tantalizing melodies from the accordion, combined with rumbling and quirky bass lines, the eccentric syncopation of the guacharaca or scraper, the steady beat of the caja or small vallenato drum, and the frenzied flourishes of the bongo. High, plaintive cries punctuate the poignant and passionate four-part harmonies of Cerronato on a mix of traditional and original tunes.
True to its musical roots deep in Colombian history, Cerronato creates music for people who live their lives passionately, treasuring every moment—especially those spent celebrating. Every time they perform, Cerronato strives to recreate the fervid spirit of the Colombian parranda (translated as revel or jam session). Cerronato has taken their music to surprising new places, appearing twice on national television (on a Food Network show on barbecue and the Oxygen Network’s reality show Real Weddings which featured new guacharaca player Gus Manzur’s Jamaican wedding). Cerronato was invited to return to the Texas Folklife Resources-sponsored Accordion Kings festival in Houston, which featured multiple Texas-based accordion musics. When Cerronato was invited to the Viking Festival in Waco, they donned horned helmets to perform—certainly a first for a vallenato group.
In recommending Cerronato’s performance at a huge, monthly First Thursday celebration, the Austin American Statesman described their music as “hot Colombian Tex-Mex.” A further accolade for the group was their inclusion in a broad survey of Texas accordion music in Texas Highways magazine. In 2004 Cerronato achieved third place in the “Latin Traditional” category of the Austin Chronicle's annual music poll. The members of Cerronato were featured in the Austin Latino Theater Alliance’s production of La Pastorela, a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Latin American cultures, which attracted large audiences.
The story of how group leader Mike Maddux discovered vallenato is almost as fortuitous as some of the new directions this venerable style is taking in contemporary music. [See background information on the vallenato style.] Shortly after Maddux switched from playing piano to accordion, a friend played for him a recording, featuring vallenato, from a series called “Accordions that Shook the World.” The music shook Maddux’s world; he was immediately captivated by the “raw, energetic quality” of the vallenato sound. He also “liked the smallness of the groups, leaving a lot of room for each of the instruments.” This appealed strongly to avid and virtuosic accordionist Maddux, who wanted the accordion sound to be prominent. After years of playing a mix of Latin music in various popular local groups, he realized his dream of concentrating on vallenato, by forming Cerronato.
The style vallenato, which is believed to be over 100 years old, draws its name from Valledupar, the Colombian city that is the center of the area where it originated. The word vallenato can be translated as “native to the valley.” In contemplating a name for the group, Mike Maddux looked for a word connected with hills, since Austin is located on the edge of the Central Texas Hill Country, an area renowned for its creative spirit. Echoing the name of the musical style the group plays, the invented name Cerronato means “hill born” or “native to the hills.”
Describing the experience of playing with Cerronato, Maddux enthuses: “It’s the biggest thrill, sort of like sky diving or driving a race car. It has that same kind of excitement that people want to get out of driving fast. You have to be skillful; it demands that you be aware and alert and doing the right thing at the right time. If you succeed, the result is something good. One nice thing is that you don’t actually die if you make a mistake.”