Colombian composer Rafael Escalona, an icon whose name is synonymous with Colombia’s typical vallenato music, died May 13 of respiratory failure in Bogotá, Colombia. He was 81 years old.

A legend in Colombia, where his compositions—including "Una Casa en el Aire (A House In the Air) and "El Hambre del Liceo"—are part of the nation's songbook and very fabric of culture, Escalona gained recognition abroad thanks to a new generation of vallenato musicians who popularized the genre around the world.

Escalona's life and music were the inspiration for "Escalona," the 1991 soap opera starring singer/actor Carlos Vives that launched Vives as a star around the world. Subsequently, Vives would record
Escalona's music with a decided rock and pop twist, and many other acts would also follow suit.

But in Colombia, Escalona was a household name. Known for his trademark, broad-rimmed Colombian hat, Escalona was born in Patillal, a town in Colombia’s Atlantic coast. Early on, he became interested in journalism and gravitated toward vallenato, the accordion-based music of Colombia’s Atlantic coast whose lyrics are routed in story-telling, troubadour tradition.

In a recent interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, Escalona said that when his father explained to him what a chronicle was, "I felt I could do the same—chronicles—but singing them,” he said.

But Escalona didn’t receive musical training. He came from an upper crust family and a life in music—much less vallenato, a popular genre made for and by the masses—was considered beneath him. Instead, he would sing his songs to his musician friends, who would then put them to paper or record them.

Escalona would become good friends with Colombian politician Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, who would later become president of the country. Together with Lopez Michelsen and Consuelo Araujonoguera, they founded the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata (The Vallenato Legend Festival) in 1968, giving new cache to this rural genre. Today, the annual festival is considered a yearly milestone for the genre and attracts thousands every year.

Through the years, Escalona’s songs were recorded by countless acts, and in 2006, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences honored him with one of its excellence awards.

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