Lisandro Meza was born in 1939 in the small northern coastal town of El Piñal in the Colombian savannah region known as the department of Sucre. He is one of Colombia’s most talented all around musical giants, and is still going strong today. Equally adept at playing musical instruments as he is at composition, Meza has recorded just about every type of Latin music and his own decidedly Colombian versions of Afrobeat, funk and disco as well, though he’s arguably most famous for his vallenato recordings of the 80s and 90s. Meza’s reedy voice bears a distinctive personal quality that can be either filled with sadness or playful good humor, and his lyrics often comment on current events or human nature to marvelous effect (‘La miseria humana’ from 1976 is one of his most famous). In 1961 Meza joined Los Corraleros de Majagual under the leadership of Manuel Cervantes; in 1965, he started his own small group (conjunto) to play dances and enter competitions, while still performing and recording with Los Corraleros. After traveling to Venezuela, Panama, Mexico City, Miami and New York with Los Corraleros De Majagual in the mid to late 60s on several tours, Meza decided to change his sound, augmenting his solo work by creating his own big band in order to play some of the non-Colombian genres he encountered along the way. Perhaps taking a page from Cuban singer Benny Moré’s Banda Gigante and El Gran Combo, he decided to christen it his “Combo Gigante” – a seeming contradiction in terms, but appropriate nonetheless. Though he utilized a large mambo-style brass section with his 9-piece orchestra, he added electric guitar (a combo staple) and still kept the accordion up front as a lead instrument on several tunes. In this way he put his own distinctly Colombian stamp on this imported sound, an innovative experiment mixing salsa and accordion, small combo and big orchestra, that can also be heard on albums from the same time period by Aníbal Velázquez and Alfredo Gutiérrez, as well as the previously mentioned Corraleros de Majagual, the Fuentes-spawned super-group with which all three accordionists played from time to time. Meza’s Combo Gigante was augmented by two additional vocalists, Lucho Gómez and Lucho Peñate. The LP he recorded with this line-up was titled “En Nueva York”, no doubt inspired by his crazy adventures there in the winter of 1968, and just like the Corraleros album of the same name, there is a paseaíto with that title on Meza’s album, though the two are credited to different composers and have different vocalists. In addition, Meza has two numbers that are generically denoted as salsa on the album’s back cover, an early example of the term that perhaps predates its use as a marketing genre in the US. While it could be argued that one salsa track was actually a guaracha and the other a bomba, it’s interesting to note that Fuentes chose to use the term (which was already in use in Venezuela by 1966). Meza also threw in a corrido in a nod to his Mexican fans. This would not be the only time he would perform with a large ensemble under his capable direction. A decade later, almost by chance, Meza created a uniquely funky carnival orchestra with his wife and their large family of children, and they toured La Costa in a colorful van with their oddly mystical-sounding name emblazoned on the side: La Banda Los Hijos de la Niña Luz. The story goes like this: in 1980 a visiting music entrepreneur came to Meza’s house looking to hire him for a concert and instead encountered the accordionist’s very musical family playing a popular hit of the day with a battery of brass and percussion instruments right there in their home. When he was informed that Meza was away on a job, the businessman said with a smile, “And I suppose you are the band of the children of Luz?” (Lisandro’s wife being the Luz in question). Later that year the band recorded an album for Discos Fuentes, with Meza adding his accordion to the mix for a special twist. Meza also formed another big salsa orchestra and toured New York with it in the later part of the decade.
In addition to being an essential part of Los Corraleros for several decades and releasing many albums under his own name over a more than 50-year, 100-album career, Meza is the recipient of many awards and honorary titles, but it did not come easy. In 1978, after nearly ten frustrating years of not being voted the King of Vallenato by the judges at the Festival del Vallenato, and consequently being popularly voted “King Without A Crown” by his angered fans in response, he was given his own title, that of Rey Sabanero del Acordeón (The Savannah King of Accordion). He is one of a handful of Colombian musicians whose music is universally revered in South and Central America and he has done so much to promote Colombian coastal music that he’s seen as a cultural ambassador by many of his fellow countrymen and affectionately referred to as “El macho de América”.