Venezuela: The Rise of Afro-Venezuelan Music to the Present Day Hugo Chávez Era
Venezuela has the longest Caribbean coastline of any nation, and yet the vibrant African musical heritage thriving along that coast has been largely ignored by the nation’s media and music industry, and remains under-recognized internationally. All that is now beginning to change. Long sidelined as a realm of quaint relics and exotic folklore, Afro-Venezuelan culture is achieving greater participation in the national life of this petroleum-rich nation. The controversial Hugo Chávez Frías is Venezuela’s first president with acknowledged African heritage. His rise parallels an intense self-examination of Venezuela’s stark social and ethnic divisions, and a cultural renaissance as well. In this Hip Deep program, ethnomusicologist T.M. Scruggs guides us through the history and music behind the present upsurge in Afro-Venezuelan consciousness.
Most of the news I read about Venezuela comes through a filter, given our current relationship with that country. Any positive news about its “popular movement” – especially related to its arts and music programs – is overshadowed by President Chávez’s criticisms of our current government and various flare ups with rather crude exchanges from both sides. This September, I could not find one US media outlet that ran the story about the expansion of its already legendary “El Sistema” program. The Venezuelan government plans to provide free tuition and instruments to one million kids living in its city slums. Besides this incredible policy – perhaps the most ambitious publicly sponsored music program in human history – Venezuela is building universities and cultural institutions at an unprecedented rate. There’s a lot happening in Venezuela, especially from a cultural standpoint that we should all know about, and fortunately, I had the opportunity to learn about these developments during my interview with ethnomusicologist TM Scruggs. He gave me a firsthand account.
Transcription by Merry Pool
Photos provided by T.M. Scruggs
September 29, 2007
Simon Rentner: When did you get involved with Venezuelan music?
T.M: Scruggs: Well I’m an ethnomusicologist, which I describe as having music as one leg, and anthropology as the other leg, and then somehow you try to walk forward. My area has been Latin America and the Caribbean. I don’t have any Latin background, but I’m kind of a Born-again-Latino. I taught myself Spanish in one of the largest cities of Latin America, Chicago, played in Haitian kompa bands there, and had a lot of involvement with the Latino community. When I went back to school I did my doctoral graduate research in Nicaragua. Four years I and my wife, who does research in Brazil, had the opportunity to visit Venezuela, and we were so impressed! Things were so interesting: the tremendous variety in ecosystems, the changes that were taking place with the new government, and most of all, the people. The northern part of South America was the one part of the continent neither of us had been to, and I was kind of surprised how little music was available for a place that has such large industry and developed economy. There had been ties between the University of Iowa and La Universidad de los Andes in Mérida in the Andean region, and that helped us construct a successful Fulbright proposal. Both myself and my wife, Laura Graham, who is a linguistic anthropologist, and our two sons were able to go to Venezuela in October of 2005. Our grant ended in August the next year, but we liked Venezuela and the Venezuelans so much that our kids went along with us and we stayed an extra semester. We came back in January of this year, 2007, and visited again this August.
S.R: Is there a reason you decided to anchor yourself in Mérida?
T.M: Yeah. We deliberately chose the city of Mérida because it’s not too big, and because it is relatively safe and easy for the children. It wasn’t the most ideal place to be based for my research on music (I’m not particularly interested in the type of Andean music there), so a lot of my research involved traveling throughout Venezuela. Venezuela is an amazing place for its variety of environment and ecological diversity! It goes all the way from the longest Caribbean coast-line to the Andes Mountains. For a Saturday we would drive for less than two hours and move up from 5,000 to 10,000 feet, and then go hiking. There would be no one around.
S.R: What is unique about the region the Llanos?
T.M: The Llanos is a tremendously large area in the southern part of the country that is flat – llano. That’s where the name comes from, and it extends into southern Colombia as well. It’s a shared culture that goes across the borders. It’s a kind of a cowboy culture. But it’s a little different from the dry Southwest in the United States because it floods every spring. I’ve seen the cowboys out there with the water all the way up to the bottom of the horse as they try to herd cattle to a dry area, where they can get their feed. This zone was promoted as the supposed cultural touchstone for the national identity of Venezuela throughout the 20th century. In 1935, Juan Vicente Gomez promoted the Llanos, and also with it, this idea of Mestizaje, or the Venezuelan mestizo. I’m used to thinking of mestizo being a mixture of European and indigenous blood, and then if you have mixture of European and African blood it’s mulatto. But in Venezuela, they use mestizo to mean any kind of mixture, and a myth was created that…‘Well in Venezuela we’re all just mestizos! We’re all mixed together! It’s like café-con-leche.’ It’s so stirred up that it’s all mixed together. And the other side of that coin was that, therefore…‘Let’s not hear any complaints from people of darker color because racism is dead. There’s no racism in our country so don’t complain.’ That put anyone suffering discrimination in a double bind: to raise the issue made them supposedly guilty of being racist just for talking about it.
S.R: So have the majority of Venezuelan’s accepted the fact that racism is a problem in their country?
T.M: These kinds of myths about the lack of racism die hard. They were cemented under the dictatorial regime of Marcos Perez-Jiménez, who lasted until 1963. The less outspoken part of this mestizo ideology was the truly racist concept that the way to improve the nation was to whiten this “café-con-leche.” ‘We need more leche!’ And the government very deliberately promoted immigration from Europe into Venezuela to try to whiten the country. This is something that was really very common throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century in a lot of countries – Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Colombia – in which the elites claimed that the nation needed to have a more European mixture in the population to advance. Intellectuals were deeply involved in this mestizo project. For example, Angelina Pollak-Eltz, who is an anthropologist, who has done some of the most available and the best descriptive studies of Afro-Venezuelan communities, to this day makes sweeping statements such as in a book that I purchased, that she published just a few years ago, quote: “There is no racism in Venezuela.” One of the fundamental changes that happened with the movement of the people who are of higher African descent, as well as indigenous peoples, is that when they started becoming social actors in the country, and grouping themselves around a platform that would favor their economic interests, they began winning elections. This very much was helped by the dynamic personality of Hugo Chávez. Hugo Chávez is from the Llanos. He comes from a dirt poor family, and he has both indigenous blood and African blood. This fact alone is exceptional in the history of Venezuela, but especially so because he is proud of his heritage: he draws attention to it, and points to it.
S.R: So how many Venezuelans would consider themselves either mestizo or mulatto?
T.M: Well, no one knows for sure, because the national census has never included ethnicity in its survey! In actuality, probably a good 20% of the population in Venezuela has no African or indigenous blood, but is strictly European, and they are very conscious and proud of it. At the same time they might say ‘There’s no racism in Venezuela,’ they would never allow someone who is of discernable African descent to marry into their family. Here in Iowa City, in the School of Music, a graduate student came in from Venezuela. Just from her Italian heritage she stood out here in the whitest of all states in the United States. I knew that she was feeling a little bit like a fish out of water, so we went out to lunch, and while we were talking, without missing a beat, she just referred to President Chávez as, “Oh, yes. We call him the mono macaco.” And in English, you would have to translate that as “monkey” and then the “n” word. It never occurred to her to try and feel me out to see what my beliefs might be. It was just understood. Because I’m white, and because I’m considered a professional, as a professor, that of course I would also share these deeply held racist beliefs. That was my first indication of just how profound and pervasive racism is among the ruling elite of European descent inside Venezuela. Unfortunately, I found that confirmed over and over again when I had the chance to live there.
S.R: Is Hugo Chávez, the first president of Venezuela with Amerindean and/or African ancestry?
T.M: Hugo Chávez is the first president with African heritage, much less mixed African and Indian heritage, and perhaps even more important, the first one who has consistently worked to develop policies that in some way direct all that oil wealth to the 80% of the population, people who have been pretty much kept out of all this wind fall from oil profits over the decades. And those people are not just defined by class, but there is a clear racial difference. All you have to do is look at the demonstrations that are against the current government. Like the more conservative, more right-wing politicians, you see that these marches are overwhelmingly white – almost to the person. Whereas when you see supporters of more progressive politics, leftist politics, in Venezuela they just say ‘Chavista,’ these are people who to a great extent are coming down from the poorer communities around Caracas and are clearly and unmistakably people of color, clearly more color than the opposition.
S.R: So where exactly does the expression “café con leche” come from?
T.M: You know, the expression, “café con leche,” I think you can find it in other parts of Latin America, especially in the Caribbean. But it’s mostly linked with Venezuela. It’s something that’s kind of an expression that has gotten a lot of currency through promotion in intellectual circles as ‘this is the way Venezuela is.’ But the myth that there’s no racism in Venezuela truly exploded in the 1990s. And from all the ferment, the economic collapse and eventually the social collapse, led to a new realignment of forces so that you could have broad coalition that just basically side stepped the previous two parties and elected Hugo Chávez president. At which point, the real feelings of the ruling elite came out in no uncertain terms. You just had undiluted, straight-up racist terminology being used on a regular basis by television and radio broadcasters. It would be like seeing someone on CNN, or NBC routinely referring to the president of the United States with some kind of racial slur. And that’s when this mask that, ‘Everything’s fine. Let’s not talk about race,’ really fell to the ground.
S.R: You’ve often compared the way the culture from the Llanos has been treated as similar to the culture of the Wild West in North America. Can you explain this further?
T.M: The promotion of the Llanos culture is not so different from the promotion of “cowboy culture” in North America. We just take it for granted that the cowboy is such a big part of our national imagery but it wasn’t nearly so much so before Hollywood started making all those movies. In the same way the Llanos were promoted, together with the music of the Llanos, with the amazing harp playing, with maracas that are played with incredibly complex rhythmic lines. Together with the cuatro, the four stringed instrument that is often referred to as the national instrument, that is what is called música llanera, and the dance that goes with it is the joropo llanero. The jorojo llanero was promoted as the national music and dance.
S.R: Did people from Venezuela’s coast – especially around Caracas – respond to música llanera?
T.M: Well, música llanera was heavily promoted, but it was also something that was distant. Very few people from the coast, and then the people from the coast who had moved into the cities, had ever set foot in the Llanos. It was a little like singing cowboy songs when you’re living in a big city and you have never seen a cowboy. So the situation in Venezuela was ripe for other forms of music that were more relevant to the people living in those cities, and living that reality, to come forth and be developed as a newly formed identity.
S.R: During what years was música llanera promoted the most?
T.M: The promotion of the llano, which began in the early 1900s, really began to flourish in the 40s and 50s. The most famous novel written in Venezuela was Doña Bárbara, by Rómulo Gallegos, in the 1940s. That’s the one where there’s a character who’s a gringo, and he’s not a very nice person. His name in Spanish is, “Mister Danger.” Hugo Chávez recently decided to use that as a metaphor for the current United States government and its policies directed against his own by referring to George Bush as “Mister Danger” when he would give speeches. Expressive culture, especially music, was harnessed to this project of nation building. This is seen in the promotion of the Llanos, the dress, the music, and that joropo – which is in a quick 6/8 time. However, that imagery of the Llanos, began to be displaced somewhat in the 1970s and increasingly through the ‘80s and ‘90s. To back up a second, with the promotion of the llanos culture so heavily, clearly identifiable, African-Venezuelan musical forms end up being relegated to a category of folklore because they’re supposedly unable to adapt, and are destined to die out, or later just be rescued as in a folkloric sense for staged presentations. But, we’ll find is that’s exactly not what happened and that if anything those forms have reemerged and are very vibrant in contemporary communities.
S.R: Did the oil industry help promote Venezuelan culture and music? How did gaita music develop?
T.M: Oil in Venezuela has been both a blessing and a curse because it’s tended to allow people to neglect other parts of the economy. And I think that’s the reason why so many, even Afropop Worldwide listeners, have not had much opportunity to hear Venezuelan music. It really has not left the country very much. And one of the types of music that is a perfect candidate to have much more exposure within the ‘world music’ market, so to speak, is gaita music. It’s not the gaita music that you might have heard from Colombia, it’s gaita music from Venezuela, and it comes from the Maracaibo area. Maracaibo is the second largest city in the country, and Lake Maracaibo is the largest fresh water lake in South America. It’s in the northwest part of the country. And that music has a definite African origin to it. Then in the southeast part of the lake, there were communities that were able to establish themselves as free men and women, and be fairly independent. We know from recent research that back in the mid-nineteenth century, people with money came from Maracaibo and tried to force them to start sugarcane plantations, which is back-breaking, horrible work. The town’s people successfully defended their communities. Using the chimbangueles drums, they brought people out. The social organizations — the Cofradillas — that promote the celebration every year of San Benito in that area, were used as a kind of social glue to bring people in. They actually physically pushed out the people who had tried to semi-enslave them, and maintained their independence for a long time. Some of those same people eventually migrated into Maracaibo, and with other influences, developed a form of music which is known as, gaita. Gaita is a generic term, really, for anything with flutes and several folk traditions use a very high-pitched flute together with the drumming. Gaitas – now without flutes – became a very successful, popular music in Maracaibo, beginning to congeal in the 1930s and ‘40s and really reaching a lot of popularity in the 1950s. From the 1960s, or so, on gaita music, which is played a lot around Christmas time, began to infiltrate the rest of Venezuela, and became so popular that you increasingly began to hear gaita music in all different parts of Venezuela, especially in Caracas. And it began to displace the more traditional Christmas songs, Aguinaldos, that people used to sing. There was some controversy about Christmas being related to a music that you could dance to and was, frankly, a fairly sensual, popular music dance. But, with every passing year, gaitas have become the music that people associate with Christmas time.
S.R: Was Guaco the most influential gaita band?
T.M: The band that was the most innovative, and most successful commercially, as well, was Guaco. Guaco came out of Maracaibo in the 1970s. They experimented by adding some touches of salsa music, and also some elements of rock-and-roll, including a fuzz guitar, and they really transformed gaita without moving it out of its essential form. Guaco became the most successful band inside Venezuela. They’re perhaps not as innovative in the last few years, but they introduced gaita to a lot of Venezuelans in the ‘70s and ‘80s. One aspect of gaita music is that it has always served as a vehicle for social comment, and that is a traditional part of gaita music. This is nothing new. For example, a gaita named El Soberano meaning “The Sovereign People,” that is by Los Gaiteros del Pueblo, a contemporary band from Maracaibo who is saying that when the people vote, however they vote, their vote should be respected.
S.R: Was gaita music the first Afro-Venezuelan music to become popular?
T.M: Gaita music was really the first, uniquely Venezuelan popular music that has a clear African-American basis to it; an aesthetic foundation that was African-American. Although, that aspect was not frequently recognized within the country. No one would exactly trumpet the fact, though it is clearly Afro-Venezuelan.
S.R: Haven’t there been a lot of elections recently in Venezuela?
T.M: One of the characteristics of the movement that has brought Chávez to power has been an absolute dedication to secret ballot elections. And there is no politician or government in the last nine years that has gone through so many national votes. It’s been like a constant referendum. Hugo Chávez was elected President in 1998. One of his main promises was to rewrite the constitution. There was a lot of debate throughout the country, and they came up with a brand new constitution that recognized indigenous rights for the first time, and a lot of other things. In 1999, the constitution went into a referendum and won 70% of the vote. Then, under the new constitution, Hugo Chávez ran for president again in the year 2000. He increased his lead from two years before. Under the new constitution, if enough signatures are garnered you can have a referendum on whether the president continues for the second half of their term. And there were enough signatures from the conservative forces, so a referendum took place. Hugo Chávez won the referendum, again, with an even wider margin than before. And then he was re-elected just in December, 2006 with a margin now so wide it was almost two to one against the opposing candidate. No other person who’s currently in office throughout the hemisphere has had so many national votes.
S.R: Who monitors these elections?
T.M: They’ve been certified by the Carter Center, from the Organization of American States, and the European Union. I can say that when I was in Mérida, I knew foreigners who came in and were poll-watching. There were so many people there it was hard to avoid them: I remember going to the bakery and seeing a car painted as belonging to the European Union that was in town to monitor the vote. The voting machines are electronic, but they also produce a written ballot. You look at that written ballot, and you compare it to what you voted, and only if you agree with it do you push the final button. Besides your vote being recorded electronically, you then take the paper print-out and put it in a separate box. And Venezuela counted almost 20% of all those written ballots with all parties present at the polling place. It’s an unheard of percentage to double check and make sure that the results were fair and honest.
S.R: Can you explain the politics of Venezuela that relates to our political system in the United States?
T.M: I think an easy thumbnail way to understand how the political realignment has taken place in Venezuela in the last two decades has been that for a long time the way that political parties were organized was quite similar to the kind of Democratic/Republican party division within the United States. There were two major parties in Venezuela, organized vertically: in each one there were people who were rich, and people who were middle class, and people who were working-class and below. What happened in Venezuela was that both those parties were so discredited through the 1980s that you had a rejection of political parties as a whole, or at least those two political parties. And the new realignment, that Hugo Chávez has been the symbolic leader of, has now divided more along horizontal lines. And so, both the previous parties are now left representing the people who are of the most economically powerful and financially most well off, which also maps onto a more European ethnic makeup. Hugo Chávez’s own group, the Movement for the Fifth Republic, and the coalition that he formed and stitched together includes most of those who are less economically advantaged. That’s why they keep winning elections, because the fact is that 3/4th of Venezuela has not been able to enjoy the oil wealth of the last few decades. Only now are they beginning to receive some of those fruits through programs that the government has initiated.
S.R: Who are opposed to President Hugo Chávez and his policies?
T.M: See the opposition to the current government of President Chávez is centered in the upper classes but is by no means limited there. You find people of all kinds, from all walks of life who say that they have not voted for Mr. Chávez and don’t plan to in the future, and that certainly includes musicians. In fact, the Maracaibo area has always felt itself a little separate from the rest of Venezuela. There is somewhat of a tradition to ‘whatever happens in the central government, we’re against it.’ And there were quite a few gaita musicians who were vehement in their opposition to Chávez. Interestingly, with the success of governmental programs in the last few years, suddenly I haven’t run across practically any new songs by those same gaita musicians who once wrote material very much against the government. Not that new gaitas aren’t being written! In that song by Los Gaiteros del Pueblo or “The Peoples Gaita Players,” you can see how important elections are, and the peaceful and democratic emphasis of how we’re going to go about change in Venezuela is very much a part of this movement. And that’s why this band Los Gaiteros del Pueblo makes a point of that. ‘It’s the sovereign people who decide who to put in and take out. Their votes are the lessons to teach those who forget.’ No calls for violence. No references to ‘how we’re going to squash those who are opposed to us’. Instead there’s actually a deliberate reference to votes being the way by which we will be able to institute change, which is crucially important. It’s a little bit like being in Chile in the early 70s – except the armed forces are neutral enough to remain loyal to the constitution.
S.R: Can you talk to me about the music from Lara State?
T.M: If you move east from Maracaibo, between there and Caracas there are hilly areas, within that is the state of Lara, which is a fairly large state and is pretty well known within Venezuela as being extremely musical. They claim that the best cuatros are made in Lara. The guitar tradition, in particular, has also been strongly cultivated. But that doesn’t mean that this is such a heavily, strictly European style music that you find there. You not only have this tremendous mixture of people, which in Lara primarily means mixture between African and European, but also indigenous peoples. At the same time, you do have communities that are clearly predominantly African in their cultural background, and it’s from several of those that the most famous folk form to come out of Lara originated. It’s called the tamanangue. The tamanangue is danced in late June, during the festivities for San Antonio, and it consists in a whole series of dances with music that goes along with them. When you listen to the music you can hear maracas, which are perhaps the Indian element, and the Spanish contribute the language and the tonality, and part the timbre of the voice. But another part of the voice, vocal singing, is clearly African. And it’s not just the inclusion of drums, which are obviously an African contribution, but the style and forcefulness of the way that they sing.
S.R: What is one of your favorite bands from that region?
T.M: One of the most respected groups in Venezuela is a band that’s called Carota Ñema y Tajá. The name refers to a traditional ‘campesino’ dish: carota is a way of referring to black beans, ñema refers to fried egg and tajá the slices of plantain. So right there they’re alluding to a kind of a traditional approach to their music. The person who writes almost all of their songs is Adélis Freitas, who is truly one of Venezuela’s musical treasures. His repertoire consists of songs on a lot of different topics, but he’s also been quite acute in his social and political observations on what is happening. And to my knowledge, Adélis wrote the only song that I know of that has any kind of dissemination, which has not been all that much, that warns the Chavista movement as a whole of the opportunists that are inside. This song is called “Del Pueblo Traigo la Voz,” “I bring the people’s voice with me,” where the lyrics address the President in saying, “be careful Mr. President because there are a lot of opportunists around and they have infiltrated themselves into the movement,” the equivalent of putting on red t-shirts and saying that they are revolutionary, when in fact, they aren’t at all. In this song you can hear the strong vocal projection that is typical from that Lara state area, and this song also is based on a gaita rhythm. You can see how widespread the gaita is because even here in Lara this song is a kind of a semi-gaita.
S.R: Can you talk about the history of Afro-Venezuelan community?
T.M: In the United States, the Africans that were brought in to work on cotton plantations were almost entirely brought into the southeast part of the country, what was then just called the South. Whereas in much of Latin America, the low-lying areas where those types of crops where large labor pools were needed to be forced to work them, don’t necessarily all appear in one part of what is now a nation state. And that happened in Venezuela. Cacao, which is what you make chocolate from, was one of the most profitable crops that could be produced. And the low-lying areas were not just in one place, but were throughout different parts of the coast of Venezuela. So we already mentioned how there were blacks in the southeast part of Lake Maracaibo and then if you turned back to the map on the north part of the coast wherever the rivers would spill out, they would open into a plain, either small or large, that would allow for cacao cultivation. This is where Africans were brought in. And they would be quite isolated from the other small areas where cacao would be produced. So you’d have a situation where the Africans, now an African Venezuelan population, were somewhat isolated from each other. When they retained their African traditions, they would have different traditions coming to the fore depending on which part of Africa they were brought from. And the result is that you have a whole series of different places moving west to east, Puerto Cabello, and Choroní, moving further east. There’re other ones that go all the way to Barlovento, which is the largest area with a very clearly African presence. And each one of these areas has their own tradition and own set of drums in particular. When I started studying Venezuelan music, I began to get a headache. There are more different types of drums in Venezuela than there are in Cuba, because the Cuban Afro population circulated around more and had more contact with each other. And certain traditions came to the fore, and others dropped out early on. The end result is that you have more diversity of Afro musical styles in Venezuela than you do even in a place that has a higher percentage of African population, in the island of Cuba for example.
S.R: Afro-Venezuelan drumming is known for its diversity. Do you have a favorite percussion instrument that is native to Venezuela?
T.M: Of all the instruments that I ran across in Venezuela, and there’s a lot of competition because there’s some pretty interesting indigenous instruments that have very unique sounds, I have to say the sound of the quitiplás has always just grabbed me. It’s made from stocks of bamboo that are cut so that the part that is closed you hit on the ground, and the top part is open-aired. It takes three players, one person takes the two higher pitched, smaller ones, establishes a rhythm, and then the other two play along. And by putting your palm over the top of the open bamboo stamper, you can change the sound as well, and then you can improvise. That’s what is so unique about the quitiplás because you can transform the sound with your hand. It’s a great sound. Such a basic instrument really offers you quite a wide range of different notes or different sounds so that you not only get the rhythmic harmony from the rhythms combining in different ways, but you can also play around with a kind of tonal harmony, the way that the sounds can change as they go along.
S.R: What spurred the move from the country to Venezuela’s cities, especially to the capital, Caracas?
T.M: Beginning around the 1940s and accelerating through the ‘50s and ‘60s on, there was a migration into the major cities, but especially into Caracas. Caracas is in the north central part of the country in a valley. Besides the downtown area the more affluent area are in the east part of Caracas, sometimes just called East Caracas. And in terms of numbers the population density began to tilt towards the rest of Caracas, sometimes just called West Caracas, because that is where there is space for people to construct small ranchos up on the hills. But now these are small houses made with a kind of breezeway brick and corrugated tin roofs. When you are in Caracas you see the tiny flickering of lights that go all up and down the hills throughout West Caracas. It gives you some idea of the numbers of people that are there. And that’s one of the strongest bases for current government support. Within this area is where Grupo Madera or “Group of Wood” came from. They developed in the barrios of San Augustín in the west part of Caracas. They were originally from Barlovento most of all. They suffered a tragic boat accident on tour and lost a lot of their members. But they reformed, and they have been very outspoken in their support of the current process and in President Chávez in particular.
S.R: What is the most popular music in Caracas?
T.M: Within West Caracas, salsa still reign. Both in San Augustín and also another area called Saría drumming groups formed in the 1970s to try and investigate African music. There was nothing happening in the schools of music or departments of music or in the conservatories. People were pretty much on their own to try and investigate this. And they began by looking at Cuban music, because they were inspired from salsa. But eventually they began to question, ‘Well, why don’t we start studying our own music?’ And that’s when they started integrating Venezuelan percussion. One of the most creative and important players to come out of that is Miguel Urbina, and he formed a band called Grupo Mina that to my mind released the most interesting CD in Venezuela last year, in 2006.
S.R: How is it that salsa, this Afro-Cuban popular dance music, reinterpreted by mostly Puerto Ricans in New York City in the mid-‘60s, grows to become and remains to the present day the music that most people identify with in West Caracas?
T.M: I think if we think in terms of a diaspora of Africa throughout the Americas and broaden our conception of who people are past national borders, we can see how it’s so easy for that music to resonate with the people of African descent. Venezuelans are going through some of the same things that the Puerto Ricans went through. Many Puerto Ricans emigrated from a more rural, small town environment and for economic reasons found themselves in big cities, like New York City with a hard street reality. And not only the lyrics changed to reflect that, with Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe for some of the first recordings, but the music changed. And beginning with Eddie Palmieri and La Perfecta, the strong blaring trombones gives you that feeling of the hard streets and the tough life, and to try and make it when you’re in a depressed community, in New York City. It was exactly the same situation that was happening for many people who had moved into Caracas, and were trying to make their lives better in some of the same situations. Salsa music became so much a part of the community that to this day salsa dura, hard tough salsa, especially the Fania recordings from the 1970s, is the music of choice to party, and a music that people strongly identify with. Last year I took the public bus from West Caracas out to Barlovento. It was a bus with no air conditioning in the hot sun. And all the way through the four hour ride they blasted out music from the 1970s Fania recordings. That’s what people wanted to hear. People were drumming on the seats, knew the lyrics to all the songs, and so did I. I thought I was back in a time machine, back to the 1970s.
S.R: How did the Ley de Responsabilidad Social en Radio y Televisión of 2004 change Venezuela?
T.M: The Ley de Responsabilidad Social en Radio y Televisión really transformed commercial radio broadcasting. It means The Law of Social Responsibility for Radio and Television, known as the Ley de RESORTE from the initials. The law tried to even the musical playing field a bit by requiring that half of what stations play have at least some connection with Venezuela, be it artists, composer, style of music, or even just references in the lyrics. But there have been other things that have transformed the media landscape in Venezuela in ways that have been quite positive for Venezuelan music of all kinds. There’s a new television station, VIVE, that features cultural programming a lot, which means that they have many music programs. And then when the license for a longstanding commercial station, RCTV, expired the government created a new public station in its place, TVes, that features even more music on it. In fact the director of the station is Lil Rodriguez, who’s a very well known music commentator. She has a weekly newspaper column and is one of the most informed people on salsa music inside the country. On top of that you have some community television stations that have been started up. You also have access to the Internet for people who never had it before. They have the buildings with computers just put in, and they’re for free. The government subsidizes someone to watch the machines so that they’re not stolen. They’ve placed these in the poorest parts of the country to start with, so that people who otherwise would never be able to have access to the Internet are now able to expand their horizons and access all kinds of things. But clearly the most important change has been from an explosion of new community radio stations. They actually created more than 300 stations in four years. That has never been duplicated in the history of the Americas.
S.R: Where do the community radio stations get their funding?
T.M: These stations get some money from federal, state and local sources as well as from private advertising, and they are free to play anything they want. And one of the things that they play is music from all over Venezuela, just jumbled together in an amazing eclectic way, as well as individuals will have their own show that features music from a certain area or a certain type of music. One of the few places you could ever hear European classical music will be on these community radio stations, as well as a lot of talk show type programs, where people come in and complain that the government hasn’t done this when they said they would. It’s very much served as a forum for people to be able to express themselves openly.
S.R: Doesn’t the famous singer, Alí Primera get a lot of airplay on these community radio stations?
T.M: One of the most and some would say the most important singer-songwriter in the last half of the 20th century was Alí Primera and he was very politically committed. There were several attempts on his life, and he was killed in a perhaps suspicious car accident in the 1980s. And he was the leader of the equivalent of the Nueva Canción or New Song movement in Venezuela. And his music has been a mainstay for a lot of the community radio stations, because he was never played on commercial stations before. He had his own record label because the record labels would not record him. And he used to go station to station with his albums, and try to convince the local disc jockey to maybe put on some of his songs. He was banned from television, and Alí Primera himself then said, “I’m not going to even try to get on television.” Now with the proliferation of all these community radio stations suddenly there’s been an explosion of Alí Primera music being played, which has also been spurred on by the fact that Hugo Chávez is very well familiar with the music of Alí Primera and even sometimes sings some of his songs throughout his speeches.
S.R: Are there music licensing regulations in Venezuela? If so, are they enforced?
T.M: One thing that community radio stations don’t have to worry about, or any other commercial radio stations, is the licensing of music to play, because copyright has really fallen apart in Venezuela, as it is falling apart worldwide. The duplication of CDs for sale on the streets is the overwhelmingly most common way that people buy CDs. Slowly the stores are closing and the pressure on labels continues to grow. Where this is going to lead to no one really knows. There has been talk of the government starting a new label. But nothing has really taken place up to this point. In Venezuela, as well as in the United States the music industries are rapidly, daily, losing their longstanding ability to pretty much determine the market. Retail outlets are only contracting, they’re never expanding anymore. In the United States and Europe that’s mainly due to peer to peer mp3 file sharing, but in Venezuela it comes mostly from the duplication of CDs as a home industry and selling them on the streets. It would be interesting to find out how many people, say, under the age of 30 in Venezuela own a CD that has liner notes or have ever even seen liner notes to a CD.
S.R: How did rap music become popular in Venezuela?
T.M: Well, all these upheavals in the modes of production and consumption mean that the previous commercial structure, which enjoyed a certain level of monopoly for decades, has really cracked apart. And in Venezuela this monopoly is truly crumbling. And that has allowed for the consciousness of African identity and class identity to emerge. Not much rap and hip hop has been pushed commercially, but from the Internet and other sources, rap music from the United States has become to achieve a certain level of popularity within West Caracas and other places in the country. It really hasn’t taken off like it has in other parts of the world, but it is very much listened to, and there are some local rap bands in Caracas. For example, Grupo Madera has a famous song that’s based on Michaela, originally a boogaloo from New York City, then redone as a salsa tune by Sonora Caruseles. That reminded people of the song, and on the street in demonstrations, especially during the referendum on Chávez’s presidency in 2004, in the marches spontaneously someone invented a slogan that just has become almost the symbol of all slogans for anyone supporting Hugo Chávez: “Uh, Ah. Chávez No Se Va.” It’s pronounced “ooh, ahh”, with the words “He’s not going to go.” When Grupo Madera does the “Uh Ah” song, they drop in a new rap section right in the middle of this salsa influenced boogaloo originally from New York City.
S.R: Can you talk about why the Venezuelan salsa/rap band Sontizón became popular?
T.M: Sontizón became known nationally because they wrote a song for the literacy campaign. Venezuela was able to teach a million and a half people to read and write who had been illiterate. This was in a period of two or three years, and UNESCO has now certified that Venezuela is effectively free of illiteracy for the first time. And that was one of the various Missions of the government, as they’re called, misiones. The literacy Mission was named after Mr. Robinson, who was a contemporary of Simón Bolívar during the independence struggle during the 1810s and 1820s, and in fact, was one of his teachers. He worked to reform the educational system, both in Venezuela and elsewhere. To honor him, they named the literacy effort Misión Robinson. In Spanish the two words have a nice rhyming rhythm, and Sontizón had a song by that name which became quite well known throughout the country. And if you look on YouTube, you can find a clip of Hugo Chávez halfway dancing along with them when Sontizón performed that song live to an auditorium full of literacy graduates and teachers.
S.R: You’ve described Caracas as a city very divided by culture and class. Has Afro-Venezuelan music become popular in the more affluent parts of Caracas?
T.M: Even in Caracas, with its division between the majority in West Caracas of working poor and working class, and East Caracas, that’s more affluent in general, you still have a consciousness of the African Venezuelan identity that has been filtering into East Caracas. And a good example of that musically would be the great band Disorden Público which means “disorderly conduct in public.” It’s referring to a law that was used back in the 1970s to repress youth of color on the streets by the police. They’re a mixed band and actually the best selling and most actively touring band outside of Venezuela in the last 15 years. One of their songs directly addresses this idea that we need to really think of ourselves as being part of the Caribbean, and not just because of palm trees and beaches and tropical music in a generic sense, but because we’re part of an Afro-Caribbean. Many times Caracas is referred to as being a Caribbean city, even though it’s technically a couple thousand feet up and away from the coast. But culturally, especially with so many people that have moved in from the coast, it’s very much a part of the Caribbean, the Afro-Caribbean.
S.R: Isn’t Disorden Público a ska band? How did ska become popular in Venezuela?
T.M: You know there’s been a tremendous growth of ska music in Latin America. Ska may qualify as the music that’s been revived most often to date! coming out of Jamaica in the early ‘60s and going through three revivals through the ‘70s in Britain, and the last one caught fire in the United States, and then that got revived even once again in the early ‘80s. I played in a ska band in Austin, Texas at that time. Soon after that it started to catching on throughout Latin America, and in places like Chile and Argentina, which you wouldn’t necessarily think of being fertile ground for ska. It’s an incredibly popular music still among young people.
S.R: Can you talk about the joropo musical tradition in the Tuy Valley?
T.M: So far we’ve been talking about identifiably African-Venezuelan areas in Venezuela, and they’ve all been on the coast, as long as we think of the edge of Lake Maracaibo as being coastal. But there’s one other place in particular that’s highly concentrated with a population of people with African descent, in the valleys due south of Caracas. And it’s called the Tuy Valley, pronounced too-whee. There is a harp tradition from there that is distinct from the harp tradition of the Llanos. The music and dance is another type of joropo, called a joropo tuyero, or joropo from the Tuy area. We can trace the instrument, the arpa tuyera, the Tuy Harp, pretty much directly back to Spain. But there’s an open question about how much we can credit only Spain with the reason for the acceptance of this instrument and its transformation by the people living there. After all, there were griots who played koras in West Africa. There’s a tradition of playing stringed instruments of that nature and singing that is not necessarily directly tied back to Europe.
S.R: Harps from the Tuy Valley are pretty unusual, aren’t they? Don’t they have metal strings?
T.M: You play it with your fingernails which gives it such a sharp sound. A band that took that music and transformed it in the 1970s, and have just reappeared again with a new album, is a really interesting band by the name of Uno, Dos, Tres y Fuera, in English, “One, Two, Three, and We’re Off.” And they took the same music, from the Tuy area, which is very much identified with an Afro-Tuyero population there, and essentially plugged it in, that is, they transformed it using rock instruments. In fact, they talk about one of the very first times they played in public was at a rock festival in another city on the coast. A band from the Netherlands had just finished playing and they were scheduled to be next, so they asked the Dutch band if they could borrow their instruments. Then they got on stage and picked up an electric bass, an electric guitar, and the saxophonist brought his own saxophone. They used the keyboard that was there, and the singer had maracas. They played music from the Tuy region but on electric instruments. Kind of the equivalent of Bob Dylan suddenly plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival. However, the reception was completely different, because people went wild and crazy in favor of the music when they heard it. It was accepted from the first moment on.
S.R: So it seems that Venezuela is rapidly evolving culturally, and embracing its African heritage and identity like never before?
T.M: What we are seeing in Venezuela with this new validation of more African-based forms is part of a general movement of the majority of population that have previously been passive. They are now moving to being more active participants in the nation’s political life. The election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 was the first visible result of this mobilization. In turn, the various initiatives by the government have helped further stimulate the base that elected it. One of the challenges for the movement is that you have a government that initiates something, but it takes the people at the grassroots to really take it and do something with it. Increasingly initiatives are coming from the bottom up. As a result you have this kind of play going on between regions, between the government, between grassroots organizations, between ethnic groups, and between classes. Venezuela is changing every six months.
S.R: The news in the United States doesn’t seem to report anything positive going on in Venezuela…
T.M: When I read the press in the United States, I feel like I’m reading about another country. Every single thing I hear about Hugo Chávez is uniformly negative. It seems the only good story we get to hear about Venezuela, that is deservedly positive, is the introduction of music into the poorest parts of Caracas: what they call in Venezuela “El Sistema.” This program to learn European classical music has been so successful, and it promises to be even more successful. Just in early September, the government announced that they were working together with Dr. Abreu, the man who created this and they’re going to greatly expand the program to reach even more people. Today Venezuelans are receiving some of the fruits of those projects that have gone on to help train people on musical instruments. Expanding that program even more can only promise to develop even more musical creativity in Venezuela. I, myself, would like them to reflect a little bit. It doesn’t have to be just the European classical that can be taught to students in various parts of the country. What about the African Venezuelan music? What about some of the more mixed forms that are found throughout the country? Learning a musical instrument teaches you such good things, like discipline, group cooperation, and reaching long-term objectives, but all of those things can happen with training in other forms of music, not just in the European classical tradition
S.R: Can you reveal some of the other positive investments Venezuela has made toward its culture?
T.M: Things are really exciting in Venezuela right now. There are so many positive things happening. In the U.S., I work at a university where the issue is, “How big will the cutbacks be this year?” In Venezuela, the question is, “Where will we build the new university?” It is really true: the construction of a dozen new universities was announced this Sunday (Sept. 30). Outside the sphere of music, they have redone the network of bookstores, now renamed “Bookstores of the South” and they are quite beautiful. The Ministry of Culture has done a good job re-stimulating the governmental publishing houses. They are putting out a lot of material, and it is relatively inexpensive. But, they have not been so successful in the musical field. There aren’t music labels putting out the classical music that these students are learning. There is not even support for socially conscious music. People are recording and distributing all on their own and at their own expense. At this point, the internet and community radio stations help get things out to a certain extent, but there is sure a lot to be done. At the same time, in film, they just created a huge new film institute to help promote the production of Venezuelan films. They are building small film theaters that they are placing all around the country.
S.R: Is Hugo Chávez mostly responsible for all of these developments?
T.M: From what we hear in the United States, one might think that Hugo Chávez is Venezuela, because all they ever talk about is this one man. As a symbol alone, he has had tremendous importance as someone who came from a poor area, worked his way through the military, and was always interested in educating and bettering himself. He is of mixed African and indigenous ancestry and proud of it, and makes of point it. He says, “Look at these lips! Look at this hair! This didn’t come from Europe.” The national media in the United States tends to report as if Hugo Chávez is only person living in Venezuela. What’s more interesting is everybody else, and how if you go to the smallest town somewhere, and you go to the poorest parts of Caracas, things are a little different than they were before, several years ago. Perhaps what you notice most of all is the way people talk about things. There is a contagious spirit of, “We can make things better.” They’ve lost a lot of the despair that you find in New Orleans, in the south side of Chicago, so many of the depressed areas in the United States. I think a friend of mine, who’s lived in Venezuela for some 35 years in some of the more impoverished communities, summed that feeling up when she said, “Well whatever the problems are, everybody is studying, and that’s got to be a good thing.”