It was the 1998 football World Cup and my parents had bought me the tournament’s seminal hardback guide—a hefty bible of star players, colourful kits and vital statistics. Decked out in Colombia’s banana-yellow strip and sporting a wild mop of blond curls, one footballer captured my imagination above all others from his photograph alone. This exotic, moustachioed monster of a man was Carlos Valderrama. His first opponent? England.
I couldn’t watch the game’s first-half due to my weekly piano lesson in the tiny musical stronghold of Roy Bridge. This somewhat remote Scottish Highlands village also produced Donald Grant of the Elias Quartet and Duncan Strachan, cellist of the Maxwell Quartet. There must be something in the whisky. In addition to our love of football, Duncan and I shared the same piano teacher, Mrs Sargent, whose splendid garden overlooks the Grampians. As Duncan and I huddled round her TV between lessons to watch Valderrama versus The Three Lions, Mr Sargent (almost completely bald, might I add) exclaimed “look at that massive hair!”. Glued to the screen, we nodded in agreement, awestruck by Carlos’s stunning coiffure and long-range passing ability. Behind us, the Sargents and our mums were in fact staring out into the garden at an improbably sized hare.
For us kids, this homophone mix-up was hilarious and a welcome moment of light relief from the intensity of the beautiful game. Other than an excuse to write about football and recall a faintly amusing childhood memory, I tell you this anecdote because it was my first introduction to the country of Colombia. Mention its name and I’d think of Carlos Valderrama and his improbable hair. That was until I pressed play on the gripping and often terrifying Netflix show Narcos. If you haven’t seen it, I implore you to do so. It’s a gobsmacking true-to-life series detailing the rise and fall of the merciless Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, best enjoyed—like the shipping forecast —from the warm safety of your own bed. I promise you, if I’d known we’d be embarking on a concert tour of Escobar’s homeland, I wouldn’t have watched it. Talk about getting the heebie- jeebies.
And so, as we jetted off to Colombia, I tried not to think of cartel warfare and gun violence but of the innocent, football-themed dreams of my youth. My Castalian colleagues seemed unperturbed, but they hadn’t seen Narcos.
First stop, for a brief bit of shut-eye: Bogotá. In the dead of night we were deposited at our grandiose city centre hotel—a monolithic build surrounded by military guard. Yup, that’s right, military guard: guys in camouflage clasping machine guns—always a sure-fire sign of safety. I couldn’t tell if my light-headedness was the result of anxiety or the high altitude. Either way, I barely slept. The next morning, whilst I was beautifying myself in the en suite, there was a tremendous bang. As I ducked for cover I realised my deodorant had exploded all over the bathroom mirror (something to do with being at 8660ft I guess). The question now was which lamentable inevitability would happen first: assassination or smelly armpits?
A couple of odourless hours later we boarded a plane, no bigger than a chaffinch, bound for Quibdó—a city my Rough Guide didn’t deem worthy of mention but where, according to one alarmist website, members of the FARC took Spring Break. Off we shook, low in the sky, skimming the clouds. And then, the Andes. Oh, what a sight! The flight’s passengers flocked from one side of the aircraft to the other, snapping and gawking as stupendous snowcapped peaks rose heavenwards East and West in the glow of the morning sun. For a moment, all thoughts of cocaine traffickers slipped away. As we began to descend the rainforest came into focus, revealing knotted creepers and isolated pools—lush, verdant jungle as far as the eye could see. The nearer it became, the more the imagination stirred. What bloodthirsty critters down there? What uncontacted tribes? What ruins and treasures?
Then the tin roof jumble of our destination. Quibdó is officially the wettest city on Earth. Its hot and sticky atmosphere, heavy with mosquitos, feels ready to burst at any moment; when it does, the rain slaps down with apocalyptic force, lightning marbles the sky with a vengeance and thunderclaps judder your whole being with arresting force. This is the world on the edge.
Thankfully we landed during a break in play. Our gruff taxi driver hoisted Chris’s cello atop the un- racked roof of his little car. After our protestations, it was our luggage instead that clung on as he swerved the dirt-track backstreets to our hotel, where the showers trickled cold and cockroaches checked-in.
The thing was, it didn’t matter; the place was alive like no other. In this brief dry spell, the whole population came out to play, flying kites, selling fruit, cavorting in roadside cafes, wannabe Valderramas honing their skills in fifty-a-side football games. It was infectious. “Don’t go out alone,” we were told. But we couldn’t help it. The city sucked us in. Our big-hearted guide, Yomaira, led us to the riverfront, where old-world canoes ferried people to the wilderness beyond. “Gringos,” someone shouted. The only other white person we saw in this predominantly Afro- Colombian city was pointing us out to his companion, a young wide-eyed lad from deep in the jungle who had aspirations of appearing on the Colombian X-Factor. This was his first day in the city. The American was his opportunist ‘agent’, hoping to make an unethical buck from untapped musical potential hidden amongst the trees. We bumped into the pair again the next day. “He’s heading back to his tribe, the noise of the motorbikes scares him.” A lucky escape.
Other than our hotel, the city’s only other substantial buildings were the expansive police headquarters, the imposing (if ramshackle) Catedral San Francisco de Asis and our concert venue, the Quibdó branch of the Banco de la Républica. The bank’s cultural division, steered by its visionary director Mauricio Peña, was the reason we were there at all. One of Mauricio’s pioneering projects involves sending international artists to the country’s outer reaches before returning them to Bogotá and its wonderful concert hall. Hence why a string quartet from London had been flown to the Colombian rainforest.
As an electrical storm blazoned overhead, we launched into Haydn, Fauré and Ravel, contending with frequent power cuts in the second half, each blackout a memory test. At the end we met audience members, many of whom were young violin students from a neighbouring village. How extraordinary to find a hub of musical education there in the jungle. Colombia’s Roy Bridge.
From Quibdó we headed north—agonisingly close to the Caribbean coastline—for recitals in Montería and Sincelejo, where iguanas and monkeys roam free. No lightning here, but the atmosphere still crackled. The Sincelejo performance was delayed by an hour as organisers tried to find extra chairs to seat all who turned up—over twice as many as expected. We weren’t just an event, we were the event. Nothing to do with us, but all to do with this town’s seemingly insatiable zest for live music-making. There must be something in the rum.
What struck us in particular was the Colombians’ reaction to Fauré’s late E minor quartet. We’ve played it everywhere from Paris and London to China and the Canadian Rockies and have come to accept that, despite our deep love of the work, it’s not a ‘crowd pleaser’. In Colombia, though, they went crazy for it, not concerned by Fauré’s endless phrases and out-there harmonies but swept along in the music’s ecstatic spirals.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. For a country that produced and idolised the idiosyncratic skill and ingenuity (and ecstatic blond spirals) of Carlos Valderrama, an appreciation of Fauré is only to be expected.
Dear Netflix, it’s time you dedicated a series to Colombia’s greatest footballer. And his hair.
I’ll leave you with these words from Graeme Le Saux, the former England left-back who defended against Valderrama in that 1998 World Cup match:
“The funny thing with Valderrama was he had loads of bracelets on. He literally jangled. Every time he received the ball you could hear him. It was like a sleigh because you could hear all his bangles jiggling about. Then his hair had its own sort of gravitational field, so you could sense him coming either by listening or feeling that his hair was somewhere in your vicinity.”