Colombian artist considers music the language of the universal spirit
By Magdalena Rojas  ·  2022-05-09  ·   Source: NO.19 MAY 12, 2022
(Left) Héctor Palacios and his family enjoy an afternoon beach stroll in Sanya, Hainan Province , in January Palacios records Carmentea, in December 2021 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) once described music as "the international language that expresses feelings we all understand." For anyone who has found themselves enveloped by a compelling concerto or an energetic folk song, this sentiment rings true. Music, in one guise or another, permeates every human society. Just ask Colombia-born, China-based musician Héctor Palacios.

With a cheerful and warm spirit seeping through the staves, Palacios seeks to integrate Latin America and China through some unique musical beats. Originally from the southwestern Colombian department of Nariño, this artist refers to China as his second home. His extensive travels across the country have taken him to cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xiamen and Sanya, as well as Taiwan.

The soul of a musician

Though currently representing a Colombian company in China, Palacios' true passion lies in music. Like his chance arrival in 1994, his move into music was, as Palacios put it, "a divine mandate; a job for which God chose me and in which he is helping me." In his homeland, he had studied English and French, whereas his postgraduate studies in sports coaching took him across the globe to the Beijing Sport University.

"I had always been an athlete, never an artist or a singer," he explained. "But three years ago, when I was 52, God sent me the first song through a fierce and clear dream; I just could not get it out of my head." Three months later, that first song became a reality with the help of accordionist and musical arranger Ángel Soto, with whom Palacios formed the duo Chinastía Vallenata—which roughly translates as "a Chinese dynasty of vallenato (a popular folk music genre from Colombia)."

Since then, Palacios has composed and recorded several songs that mix Latin rhythms with lyrics sung in standard Chinese. "Modern music is heard in a bewildering profusion of styles and one of our main objectives is to connect countries and cultures through music," Palacios said about this unique fusion. His most recent work, Carmentea, even includes two traditional Chinese instruments: the guzheng—a plucked zither, and the erhu—a two-stringed violin. The blend marked an unprecedented musical milestone. But not everyone was confident in this project from the get-go. "The Chinese folk musicians told me that it was impossible to play Latin music, especially vallenato, with Chinese musical instruments," Palacios recalled. "It was quite difficult to get them on board, but they eventually accepted the challenge."

Carmentea has been received enthusiastically by both Chinese and Latin audiences, as was the song Una voz de aliento en la distancia (meaning "a distant voice of encouragement") composed by Palacios together with the Colombian band Raíces Andinas in support of China's fight against COVID-19. The song goes, From a faraway place, this brother wants to tell you to keep fighting against the pandemic. As the old adage says, it is time to unite our energies and hearts. This was Palacios' way of sending a message of solidarity to the Chinese people. Following the song's release, he was interviewed by several Chinese media outlets, including Xinhua News Agency, China Global Televsion Network and China Radio International, as well as some Colombian ones.

Héctor Palacios and his family enjoy an afternoon beach stroll in Sanya, Hainan Province (COURTESY PHOTO)

His own composition

Despite the success, the musical duo suffered more than their fair share of adversity. "Ours is a difficult path that requires a lot of work, faith and determination," Palacios confessed. "We have knocked on many doors and we know we will have to knock on many more." He related that as pioneers of this musical crossover, breaking through is no easy feat. Many of his friends and family doubted his dreams of becoming a musician would ever come true, but time has proved him right. "Right now, there are many artists and people contacting me to collaborate on songs or projects."

Palacios currently resides in Sanya, Hainan Province, along with his wife and son. They have been living in the idyllic city, famous for its beaches, coral reefs, water sports and luxury hotels, for almost a year, but will soon move to Xiamen, a port city on the southeast coast in Fujian Province. For the Colombian singer, his Chinese family has been a constant source of support. In fact, the song Te entrego mi corazón ("I give you my heart") is dedicated to his wife, who has also appeared in some of his music videos. Passing on the Latin cultural heritage to his family through music has not only been important for Palacios, but also rewarding. "You can't imagine the surprises, the laughter and the moments of joy my son brings me when I see him dancing to Latin tunes," he said. "I haven't taught him anything, but when he sees me rehearsing, he instantly starts singing along."

Palacios mainly uses social networks to spread his music. He has a YouTube channel and Facebook plus Instagram accounts, as well as a channel on WeChat, one of China's largest multi-purpose social media platforms. His goal is not to create commercial hits, but for the songs to serve as a bridge between China and Latin America in the spirit of culture and fraternity. "We make music for the sake of culture, friendship and union," he emphasized. For that same reason, they neither have an agent nor do they pay for advertisements. They do, however, appeal to government representatives and cultural entities to grant them a spot on the stage during festivals, events and other celebrations of cultural nature.

Every two years, Palacios goes on vacation to Colombia. He misses many things about his native country. "Enjoying a bite and a drink with my family and friends, playing chaza (a South American racquet sport) in the afternoons at the communal court or having empanadas (a type of baked or fried turnover consisting of pastry and filling) for breakfast," just to name a few. But at the same time, he feels grateful for the life China has given him. "I feel the utmost admiration and respect for this country that welcomed me as a son and gave me a family," he added.

China has undergone major transformations since Palacios first arrived. The country's growth, a phenomenon unprecedented in history, has in turn generated substantial improvements in the population's living standards. "What I admire most about China, its leaders, and its people in general, is the dedication to work and the desire to excel."

Palacios himself has also come a long way. His "humble" roots, as he pointed out, have never posed an obstacle to his moving forward. On the contrary, he is someone who's never been afraid to dream big and has made his way through life with a constant sense of perseverance. "For the next projects, we want to include more Chinese instruments—hopefully a full orchestra—and invite a Chinese female vocalist." But his dreams don't stop there. "Chinastía Vallenata will become a leading musical ensemble representing Latin music across China, Asia and the world over."

(Print Edition Title: The Soundtrack to a Life)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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