Born in 1907, Francisco "Pacho" Rada Batista, died at the age of 95 in 2003, only two years after his marriage to his third wife. His hometown: El Dificil, a name given to the place by his father. His offspring: more than fourhundred children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. His legacy: inventor of the Colombian "Son".
In the year 2000, German director Stefan Schwietert planted his camera's in El Dificil to log the days of this vagabond that eventually became known as the "King of Son". The result was "El acordeón del diablo", a heartwarming docu about the roots of the Vallenato music and the musicians that play it. Having the godfather Pacho Rada himself at the center of the narrative, the movie also follows his youngest son Manuel Rada Oviedo and his cousin Rafael Valencia on their trip to the city of Maicao to buy a new accordeon,while en route recording some dazzling performances from other greats of vallenato music such as Alfredo Guttierez and Israel Romero.
Yet, as much as this movie may be about the music, it also goes a long way to show why a country like Colombia was able to produce a writer of the status of Nobel-prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when you see the material that he has at hand. Dream, reality and myth seem to shake hands in this backward spot off the Magdalena river. Seeing the faces of Pacho Rada and his first wife Maria Ospina, seeing the scenes in the streets of El Dificil and the other places shown in the docu, there is no trouble at all to reminisce con gusto on those pages that brought us José Arcadio Buendia, the patriarch of this unworldly place called Macondo, and his wife Ursula Iguaran, made legendary in "One Hundred Years of Solitude".
The most striking example of this cross-fertilization between reality and myth is this local story about Francisco, "El Hombre", and his meeting with the devil, told by Pacho Rada himself in this movie. One late night, as he was riding home on his donkey, he started playing his beloved accordeon. From some distance, another accordeon seemed to answer him. At first, Pacho thought it was a friend on a parallel road going in the same direction, but soon he figured this sound couldn't be produced by a human. It was then he knew he was in a duel with the devil himself ... and he won, by singing the lyrics backwards, which the devil couldn't do. It made Francisco "El Hombre" into a living legend.
Yet the legend didn't make Francisco rich. All his lifetime, for as long as his health supported it, he travelled around the country, playing wherever his accordeon skills were wanted and someone was willing to give him a meal or pay a few bucks in return for the joy his music brought. He was too early to live the era where star musicians could actually get rich and wealthy performing vallenato music. He set a train in motion, but wasn't able to reap the benefits of it himself. The docu goes on to show the miserable conditions in which he lives, the shack he calls his home. But there's no complaining. Francisco displays this curious mix of someone who has enjoyed life, travelling from one place to the other, from one festival to the next streetconcert, with never a lack of women, yet who through it all hasn't been able to shed a deep-felt solitude that has stayed with him for all his life.
Pacho dóes raise his voice in criticism once, when before Schwieterts' camera he points the finger to the modern vallenato musicians who make songs with "no-sense" lyrics, who don't get beyond the "I love you, do you love me ?" sort of stuff. The hundreds of songs that Pacho composed in his lifetime, always had his life and times at the basis; his lyrics bear witness to a life full of beauty, full of hardship, full of women and full of stories. Once one no longer sings about that personal experience, the music's dead, in his opinion.
The movie ends with the recording of the tribute, organised by his hometown, for this giant living in a shantytown shack. It is a tribute to the man who figured out as one of the first in Colombia how to play an accordeon and went on to create his very own style of music; it's a tribute to a man who, through his music, was able to touch countless hearts and it's a tribute to the man who beat the devil.
In this world that is taking us forward at break-neck speed, movies like "El acordeón del diablo" are little gems that make us pause and reflect on the simple joys of life and put the spotlight on people that, in the face of all adversity, have managed to maintain their humanity, their dignity and their joie de vivre.
That in itself is no small contribution indeed.