The oddly-named Very Be Careful are a group of second-generation Colombian Americans based in Los Angeles who play a self-described “purist” form of the accordion-driven music known as vallenato. Vallenato emerged from the coastal region of northern Colombia and, like other musical genres from the area — cumbia, porro, and the Colombian take on salsa — it represents a long history of cultural mixing and vernacular evolution. Very Be Careful, a group formed by brothers Arturo and Ricardo Guzman in 1998, got to know the music through the mediation of records from the 1970s, an era that represents a sense of purity to which the band wish to show allegiance.
The group display their fidelity by staying close to the source. Three of the songs on Escape Room are covers of classic tracks by earlier vallenato artists Calixto Ochoa and Abel Antonio, and the group also express a fondness for the music of Alejo Durán, one of the biggest names in the history of vallenato. The Guzmans’ mother, Deicy, wrote the lyrics to two of the songs, providing another link to the past. The remaining tracks are written by the band and follow the guidelines laid down by their precursors.
The album’s signature sound includes the vallenato staples of accordion, guacharaca (scraper), and caja vallenata (a small drum), supplemented by Arturo Guzman’s bass. This sound is established at the outset on the self-written “La Furgoneta” and faithfully followed on another original track, “La Abeja”. Unlike the dancing melody lines that can be heard in some vallenato and in the music of Colombian accordionist Anibal Velásquez (a compilation of whose work has recently been released by Analog Africa and serves as a good companion piece to this album), Ricardo Guzman’s lines on these two tracks are relatively simple washes of sound, working in counterpoint with the vocals to deliver the message of the songs.
“La Alergia”, one of the two tracks written by Deicy Guzman, gives Ricardo the opportunity to add a few more dynamics to his playing, responding now to the more complex rhythms of the percussion rather than the singer. This goes to a certain extent for the cover of Ochoa’s “Playas Marinas” too, though as the album nears the halfway mark it will be clear to the casual listener that the main point of each song is to be found in the lyrics. This is entirely in keeping with vallenato tradition, in which the process of storytelling — be it a tall tale of boasted exploits, or a story with a moral or political message — is as central as in the Mexican corrido. Indeed, the comparison goes further, for just as the corrido saw the development of the narcocorrido offshoot, so vallenato became increasingly associated with drug culture in Colombia in the 1980s. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to speculate that, alongside a desire to avoid the “hybridity” of world music and the contemporary vogue for pop-vallenato in Colombia, one of the reasons for Very Be Careful’s insistence on the purity of the past is an attempt to travel beyond the era in which their beloved music became besmirched.
Due to the reliance on purity and the dense metaphorical language of vallenato lyrics, it may prove difficult for non-Spanish-speakers to get the most out of Very Be Careful’s music. The band make much in interviews of the ability of their music to travel beyond linguistic, cultural, and geographical borders (they are apparently popular in Japan and tour there regularly). This is undoubtedly the case when the group are performing live, and it does not take much to imagine the excitement of hearing this music played well and loudly in a club set up for moving around to the beat. The listening space of the CD or MP3 listener, however, is not necessarily so conducive to the extra-linguistic possibilities of the music and, as a listening experience, Very Be Careful’s music tends to veer towards the homogenous.
This doesn’t detract too much from the quality of the songs on offer here and, in this sense at least, consistency is a good thing. Escape Room should appeal to anyone fond of tapping a toe to zydeco, corrido, or even polka, anyone fond of Latin rhythms, and anyone curious to hear how a group of second-generation Colombian Americans go about delivering a musical style from which they are temporally and spatially removed in as faithful a manner as they can muster. Very Be Careful, by all accounts, are not at all careful when performing their music to a live audience (stories of crowd-surfing accordionists and cowbell players attest to this), but when it comes to repertoire, they have certainly done their homework.