BOGOTA (AP) – Rafael Escalona, the prolific composer and performer of vallenato classics that define the Colombian-born genre, has died of cancer. He was 81.

His son and namesake confirmed Escalona’s death on Wednesday at a hospital in the Colombian capital.

Born in the Caribbean state of Cesar, the cradle of vallenato music, Escalona composed his first song at 15 and went on to pen staples such as “La Casa en el Aire” and “El Manantial.” His name and work were immortalized in the novel “One Hundred years of Solitude,” by Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Escalona helped found the Festival de la Leyanda Vallenata, the definitive annual vallenato music gathering, and lived to see vallenato catch on across Latin America and reach a global audience.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Colombian singer Shakira were among those who expressed words of appreciation as news of Escalona’s death spread.

Despite his artistic success, Escalona complained in a March interview of financial hardships after selling away the rights to his songs years ago.

Escalona is survived by companion Luz Maria Zambrano and 23 children from various relationships, said his youngest child, Rafael.

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