His misión for 40 years crossed borders, including a visit to the White House. Today he reinvents his academy to preserve his legacy.
By: Andrea Barraza Cabana*
Colombia’s oldest newspaper, El Espectador, published a profile of this musician. This is the English version for his friends around the world.
Spanish version: Andrés “el Turco” Gil, académico del vallenato
Turco Gil’s chapter in the history of vallenato spans more than fifty years and has not ended. He was a remarkable accordion player, with more than twenty productions in his youth, and then he created the first academy of this folklore, with which he has been for forty years and has trained many vallenato kings and prestigious artists and thousands of musicians, who have brought vallenato closer to each other to a conservatory quality.
He had not turned twenty when, in 1967, he released his first album (78 rpm), with three songs of his own, accompanied by the voice of Pibe Rivera. The legendary Alfredo Gutiérrez reacted with a “Turco Gil was thirty years ahead in Vallenato music!”. He was not exaggerating, and that perception influenced the trajectory of the precocious musician.
Chroniclers of the genre consulted believe that Turco Gil left the musical career because he had been ahead of his time as an accordion player, and while many musicians wanted to learn his technique, paradoxically the public did not acclaim him like others. That would have led him to dedicate himself to teaching. Faced with this, the teacher is silent at the other end of the line, as one who does not want to delve into the matter.
Therefore, what he learned and what he taught are the mark of his life. What he learned as a child allowed him to revolutionize the performance of the instrument and to be called the «king of dissonance», a nickname given to him by broadcaster Jaime Pérez Parodi. And what he taught and intends to continue teaching through his academy is his legacy.
Andrés Eliécer Gil Torres, as his parents named him, had the luck that few have of finding his destiny as soon as he arrived in the world. He was born in Villanueva, La Guajira, cradle of vallenato, in 1948. In the midst of the drums and trumpets of his uncle, an orchestra conductor, which mingled with his cries and announced his future in music. That same day he was baptized by his paternal grandfather as «El Turco», as he has been known since then more than by his name.
From a very young age he began his musical education through a family tradition of orchestra directors. His uncle Reyes Torres had one of the best orchestras in La Guajira, and his father, Juan Manuel Gil, was a restless trumpet player and director of the Juancho Gil Orchestra.
At only seven years old, he played trumpet and read sheet music; later he studied saxophone, clarinet and trombone. He was training to be an orchestral musician, like his father and uncle, until an accordion came his way.
The frequent parties at the Gil’s house, under the almond tree of his mother Luisa Torres, attended by people like Rafael Escalona, Guillermo Buitrago, Leandro Díaz and Emiliano Zuleta, aroused the curiosity of the adolescent, who with Zuleta’s accordion began to play and to take out the notes that «el arrugado», as he is known, gave.
He noticed that it was a limited instrument, that it only had seven sounds out of the twelve that make up the music. «It was like a typewriter that is missing 40% of the letters, you can’t write everything you would like and that caught my attention.» This dissatisfaction with the accordion led him to explore and experiment with it. He had been living in Valledupar for several years when, around 1966-1967, the diatonic accordion with the twelve sounds arrived.
The king of dissonance
His first record showed the different chords he was getting out of the accordion. The dissonance with consonant chords that he had was never seen before in vallenato on a diatonic accordion. He was very young and misunderstood.
It was the maestro Antonio María Peñaloza, co-author of Te olvidé, the anthem of the Carnival of Barranquilla, who understood him. In 1969, Peñaloza arrived in Valledupar to compete in the second version of the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata. He needed musicians who could read sheet music and everyone told him that the only one was Turco Gil. That close encounter lasted a long time, because Peñaloza soon settled in Valledupar.
With maestro Peñaloza he studied harmony for more than five years and acquired the training he needed to become the accordion player he became. He even managed to adapt diverse rhythms and create what he called «paturky», a type of paseo. A harmonic blend of cumbias, vallenatos and tropical Caribbean expressions. This uniqueness made him a much discussed musician.
The road to teaching
His unique mastery of the instrument led him to be sought out to learn how he played the accordion. He began teaching in the backyard of his house. As time went by, so many students joined him that he could no longer attend to them in shifts and it was then that he improvised the first classroom in a kiosk in the same house.
In 1979 he created the Academia Vallenata El Turco Gil, the first of this folklore. Today the institution can show that it trained famous accordionists such as Sergio Luis Rodríguez, who has won three Latin Grammys, child king and king of Vallenato; Cocha Molina, king of kings and who recorded with Gloria Estefan; Lucas Dangond, Luis José Villa, Manuel Julián Martínez, Javier Mata; Cristian Camilo Peña, king of Vallenato; Juanca Ricardo, Juan Mario de la Espriella, Gustavo García and Daniel Maestre, among many other artists.
Los Niños del Vallenato
In 1999 he created Los Niños del Vallenato with the most talented members of his academy, who have been ambassadors of folklore in Norway, Japan, China, Panama, Argentina, Portugal, Scotland, Italy, United Kingdom and other places in the world, where they have performed classics by Escalona, Emiliano Zuleta, Luis Enrique Martínez, Leandro Díaz and Lorenzo Morales, among other minstrels.
They were in the White House during the term of Bill Clinton, who fell in love with the magic of the accordion, the caja and the guacharaca. In his book How can each of us change the world? (2007), the former president dedicated a few words to him: «How I wish that in every area of the conflict there was a teacher like Turco Gil and children like Los Niños Vallenatos».
The future of the academy
At the age of 72, he is making decisions about his legacy. «I am aware of the need to reinvent our institution to ensure its permanence. We are dragging a financial problem and the pandemic has hurt us a lot, forcing us to close for more than ten months». He tells us that one of the first decisions is to ask former President Juan Manuel Santos, his friend, to help him set up a high-level advisory board to design a medium- and long-term strategic plan.
He says his troubled asset is worth much more than debt and his plan includes a strong virtual component and internationalizing the academy, as well as expanding its national coverage. «You can put this: President Santos helps us make the plan and I go with him to knock on Bill Clinton’s door. For me, let the academy complete a century with the name of Turco Gil, Santos and Clinton.»
About «Turco» Gil’s Music Academy
Since 1979, Andrés Eliécer Gil Torres has been teaching accordion lessons under the shadows provided by the trees in the courtyard of his home in Valledupar. However, the Academy was formally consolidated in 1985.
Twelve years later, in 1997, due to the increase in the number of students, it was necessary to move the school to a larger location.
Its new location was on Calle del Cesar or Carrera 7ª with Calle 13 B, in the capital city of Vallenata, where Gil managed to hire five teachers who worked under his direction. There he had 110 students. In 1999, it moved to Callejón de la Purrututú and, in 2000, the school was established in the Los Mayales neighborhood.
The history of Los Niños del Vallenato
With some of his most outstanding students, Andrés «el Turco» Gil formed a group of children, whose first presentations were local, participating in events held in places such as churches, schools and other public and private institutions.
Their first performance abroad was in September 1999, at the International Children’s Accordion Festival in Panama. It was during this event that the group of young talents received the name Los Niños del Vallenato. Over the years, this initiative of «Turco» Gil became an organization of parents of the children members, with independent legal status.
* Journalist of the Color de Colombia Foundation.