Young Diomedes Diaz' death captivates Colombia

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

[Spanish language song]

Carol: His traditional songs will live on but the king of Columbian Vallenato folk music died yesterday. Diomedes Diaz will be remembered in Columbia for his accordion-laced tunes, but also for his larger-than-life personality and his criminal record. Reporter John Otis is in Bogota, Columbia, and, John, if you walked down the street and asked a Columbian who Diomedes Diaz is will that person be able to answer you?

John Otis: Sure, everybody knows who he is, and for most people what he was was a terrific singer, a terrific crooner, but not such a great person on the personal level.

Carol: Now, I understand he has quite the criminal record. How did he get into trouble?

Otis: Diomedes Diaz sort of led the rockstar cliche life. He was into drugs and booze. He had a girlfriend who he apparently strangled and left out in a cow pasture. He was convicted for manslaughter for that.

Carol: When was this?

Otis: This was back in the late 90s, and after he was convicted rather than turning himself in, he went up into the mountains to hide and he was protected by paramilitary death squads who were big fans of his so they were happy to protect him because he was like their idol. And then when he finally turned himself in, the guards were so in awe of him. He was such a big star that they let him install all this recording equipment in his prison cell and he recorded three CDs for Sony Music while in prison.

Carol: Wow. And he was able to sell them? They released them and he was able to reap profits from it?

Otis: Yeah, he was able to continue his career. For every day he recorded music in his jail cell he got two days reduced from his pretty short prison sentence to begin with. So he got out of jail after just a couple of years and then he launched this huge comeback tour, filling up stadiums in Bogota and other cities, and just sort of went on his way as this big star and everybody seemed to forgive him.

Carol: Really? So did his music change at all during his prison term?

Otis: Not really. He did a few reflective songs but he never really repented. He had one song where he said: I feel like I deserve another chance because I've also done a lot of good deeds. So he never really came out and said he was sorry for this crime.

Carol: What is it about his music that people love so much?

Otis: You know, Carol, Vallenato music is Columbian folk music from the northern coast from the Valledupar region and the main feature is the accordion, and the squeeze box is just such a great party instrument. You add an accordion to almost any kind of music and it makes it danceable, and the lyrics talk about love and life out in the Columbian countryside. Diomedes has this very distinctive voice and he's just instantly recognizable, and he's been the soundtrack for so many Columbians for so long. He's been recording music for about 30 years and he's just an icon here, and so today everybody's in mourning that he's dead. But, you know, I'm not so sure that he's looking down on us from heaven, so to speak.

Carol: Are there younger musicians who emulate his music?

Otis: Diomedes Diaz was an icon and he was also a role model for a lot of new generation Vallenato singers like Carlos Vives. Vallenato music will live on without Diomedes Diaz. There's a lot of younger guys coming up in Diomedes' footsteps, and most of the new guys have managed to stay on the right side of the law.

Carol: I was going to say, he's a role model for music but not necessarily lifestyle.

Otis: Exactly. I mean, this guy, it completely was a double life. You can hear his music every day on the radio, especially if you're up in northern Columbia in Valledupar. That's the cradle of Vallenato music and it's just king. You'll hear it everywhere, and kids, rather than growing up and wanting to be a rockstar, they'll want to be an accordion hero and play Vallenato music and emulate Diomedes Diaz.

Carol: John Otis in Bogota, Columbia. Thank so much, John.

Otis: Okay. Thanks a lot, Carol.

[Spanish language music]