Venezuela’s Rich Musical Tapestry

Professor T.M. Scruggs, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Iowa, has spent six years specializing in Venezuelan music and culture. In this interview he paints a fascinating portrait of a musical heritage that is one of Latin America’s richest.
Simon Rentner

Simon Rentner: Let’s start withLlanero music. 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. 

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 theLlanos, 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.  Thejoropo 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 theLlanos, 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: Moving on to Gaita music. It’s from the oil region of Maracaibo right? Did the oil industry help promote Venezuelan culture and music? 

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 thechimbangueles 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, ongaita 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: What has been 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:  What is special about as Gaita music?

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:  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 tamanangueis 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 hearmaracas, 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 that warns the Chavista movement 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 into the movement,” i.e. 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 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 of late.

S.R:  How is it that salsa 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 rap music become popular in Venezuela?

T.M: Well, in the last ten years, the social and political upheavals has meant 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 salsainfluenced 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 Sontizónperformed 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? 

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 theLlanos. 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 (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.

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