THE IRONIES of the American dream are not lost on Ivan Cuesta.
In 1976, Cuesta, now 42, left his family in Colombia and emigrated to Baltimore "for a better future." While keeping a day job at the Domino Sugar Co. for the past 15 years, he has also become recognized as a magnetic and innovative practitioner of vallenato, a boisterous form of dance music from coastal Colombia.
Cuesta and his Autenticos Vallenatos de Colombia have performed in Carnegie Hall, before 180,000 people at a Boston folk festival, and at the Library of Congress; but they are practically unknown in Baltimore, his adopted hometown.
Cuesta, broad and friendly, sits at home in a chair surrounded by accordions, and shrugs. In Boston, there was "media, TV, radio," he says. In Baltimore, "they don't know."
With a recording contract on the horizon, Baltimore may know soon enough.
Even a basement tape of Cuesta and his band reveals a polished, irresistible sound. Cuesta has taken vallenato -- its old songs, and its amalgamation of African, Hispanic, Indian and Spanish musical qualities -- and added an extra dimension. "We do roots music but add more flavor," he says.
Though rare, vallenato bands are scattered throughout the United States, centered in areas of concentrated Colombian communities. Among these bands, Cuesta shines as an accordionist and charismatic performer, says Joe Wilson, director of the National Council for Traditional Arts, a Silver Spring-based organization that runs Washington's annual National Folk Life Festival and the National Heritage Awards and identifies and schedules tours of superlative folk artists.
"He is a player of power and talent," Wilson says. "There's a little something; something that separates out some folks as very special. He's got that."
After hearing Cuesta play at the Glass Pavilion on the Johns Hopkins University campus, an acquaintance of Wilson's reported her find to him. Wilson became one of Cuesta's most ardent supporters and arranged for his Carnegie Hall appearance last November as part of the NCTA's Folk Masters traditional music series.
Wilson also received a $10,000 matching grant from the Maryland State Arts Council that will allow him to secure a recording contract for Cuesta at a "good studio. I'm going to look around for an independent national label to put it on," he says.
Following the circular path taken by traditional Irish, Mexican and African musicians whose American recordings have made them famous in their native lands, Cuesta could become a popular recording artist in Colombia, Wilson says.
Already, his homemade tape has hit it big with passengers of a bus driven by a cousin's friend in Bogota. "People fight to get on that bus," Cuesta says.
When he was about 14, Cuesta picked up an accordion plunked in the garbage by the disgruntled father of a failed music student and learned to play. Later, he moved to the city of Valledupar, in the Atlantic coastal region of Colombia, where vallenato originated in the early 1900s. There, among the pros, Cuesta honed his rhythmic, lyrical and melodic skills in a genre played entirely by ear.
He mastered signature songs such as "El Medallon," "Caballo Viejo" and "Ojos Verdes," traditional works that tell the legends, proverbs, jokes of the region, as well as its tales of love, death and social commentary.
Once, the gaita (cactus reed flute) and cana de milo (cane flute) were the lead vallenato instruments. Well before Cuesta came to the music, the flutes had been supplanted by the accordion. The instrument, brought to Colombia by Dutch and German settlers, puts the music through its sophisticated paces with color and zest.
The guacharaca, or rasp, a notched hollow gourd, is also vital to vallenato. That percussive instrument dictates the genre's scratchy, restless rhythms, also essential in Caribbean, zydeco and cajun music.
After coming to America, it was several years before Cuesta assembled a vallenato band. Today, his constant colleagues in concert are bass player Alfonso Rondin -- "He really gives the band a beautiful sound," Cuesta says -- and guitarist Leslie Walker. He picks up timbales and conga players on a more impromptu basis.
Besides vallenato, Cuesta's band also performs cumbias and porros, dance music with African origins popular throughout Colombia's Atlantic coast.
Cuesta and his Autenticos Vallenatos get regular work in Washington, where there is a large Hispanic population. But in Baltimore, they have only played at a festival or concert here and there. These days, a regular concert schedule is on hold, while Cuesta and his band prepare a demo tape to pitch to recording studios.
But the encores demanded by his Carnegie Hall audience resound in Cuesta's confident mind. He knows from experience that his success here and anywhere else is up to him. "You make the decision, your dreams come true," he says. That, in sum, is Cuesta's take on the American dream.