Venezuela’s San Juan Festival: The Drums of Curiepe Ring On

After almost three centuries, and a constant struggle for tradition and freedom, the drums continue to ring on for one of Venezuela’s most important Afro-Venezuelan celebrations.

They are the first things you see as you arrive to town.  Beyond life-sized models that seem to guard the entrance to the village: long and slender, perpetual and steady.  Almost whispering their story, their tradition and their history.  Nourished in this land from “whence the wind blows” but brought from halfway across the globe when grandmothers and grandfathers were robbed from their families and their homes, chained, enslaved and sent to the new world to work the plantations of Gran Colombia.  The drums of Curiepe ring on.

The sun beats down on the residents of this tiny town and even when it rains, it’s still hot.  By the beginning of the Festival on Friday, the streets (like always during San Juan) are already packed, and tasty smoke rises from the various vendors selling hot dogs, tequeños, empanadas, and tostones.  It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in words; euphoria mixed with Carnival, Christianity, Paganism and a big family reunion.  Where former Curiepe residents of this almost entirely black community, and their friends and their families, and their families’ families all descend upon this tiny village for three days during the summer solstice to pay homage to Saint John the Baptist and to celebrate this holiday and tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation for more than three centuries.

It is difficult to fully comprehend the importance of the Festival for the Afro-Venezuelan communities from Barlovento and Yaracuy: The cheers, exuberance and celebration.  For three days life is transformed, and so it has always been.  During the time of slavery, in Venezuela, for three days in June, Venezuela’s slaves where allowed off.  Three days during the San Juan Festival to do whatever they pleased.  Three days to celebrate, to plan revolts, to flirt and make love: the sensuality of the dance, the power of the drums and the song, the emotion- for three days.  “So” they said “we had better make the most of it, because it will soon be over.”  The spirit has not been lost.

All weekend long the plaza is full.  For nearly three days straight, there is at least one group performing- improvising.  Another group of children pops up just across the plaza, near the church.  Both beating the typical Barlovento culo e’ puya – long, narrow, hollowed out wooden drums, played by numerous people simultaneously in an amazing syncopation that could only have been born in Africa. 

“Everywhere is the sound of drums…”
Credito: Silvia Leindecker

Everywhere is the sound of drums, and the corresponding dance and chants.  Everywhere you look there is a group performing; in front of homes, in the Cultural Center, elderly grandfathers alternating turns with small children, and always accompanied by the dance; male and female twisting, turning and gliding as if with the wind for which this region is known, as if upon the waves of the nearby ocean.

“…and the dance”
Credito: Silvia Leindecker

Down side streets, families sit outside their homes.  Elderly dark-skinned women dressed all in white (representative of the Santarismo religion brought from Africa and Cuba), children playing in the street, and everywhere is the color red.  Red shirts, red handkerchiefs that are waved as the tiny saint passes each home in precession across the town.

In Curiepe, Saint John is in the figure of a young boy.  He is cared for like a real child, who lives all year long in the home of a local family and during the Festival is carried across town to a neighbor’s house for a birthday celebration, and to the alter in the Cultural Center.  Curiously, the saint is white,* although there are other Venezuelan communities who worship both white and black adult Saint Johns.  Most Curiepe residents don’t seem to notice, and laughed when asked why a predominantly black community would worship a white saint.  They are proud of their history and traditions.  Worshipers give thanks to the saint and nearly everyone has their own story of the miracles that Saint John has performed for them or someone they know.   

Curiepe is a long way from Caracas.  Only two hours by car, but the distance is not measured in miles, it is measured in culture and history.  For many, Curiepe is considered the heart of the loosely defined region known as Barlovento, which rests just inland from the coast east of Caracas and is one of the centers of the Afro-Venezuelan community.  It was here that large plantations filled the Venezuelan countryside and worked countless Africans, stolen from their homes and brought to Venezuela via Cuba.  Life is different in Barlovento.  You can feel it as you roll down the highway, lush vegetation hanging off the hills and mountainsides, small eateries, warm dark smiles. 

The town of Curiepe was founded in the early 1700’s, by a group of freed and liberated slaves, led by a man named Juan del Rosario Blanco.  Curiepe still only has a population of 10 to 15,000, but the history and the fame has lent Curiepe international attention and the centerpiece of the yearly San Juan Festival, which may not always be a good thing.

Nervous tension fills the air as we walk through the streets to a group of restaurants on the other side of the plaza.  Only one thing is on everyone’s minds and we catch words from conversations; “murdered”, “killed”, “Caracas”.  We pass the location, now surrounded by Police, in the middle of what was—an hour ago—a blistering celebration.  The blood is still fresh on the ground, and a single dark hat lies nearby.  The silence of the drums fills the blank air.  We heard they were confiscated by the police.  I guess it’s hard to continue a party when someone has been shot and killed.  Rumor has it he was from Caracas, and so was the killer. 

The air is stagnant and the mood, difficult. One after another, the locals shake their heads and lament, “That hasn’t ever happened… They brought their problems from Caracas.” One of the highlights of the Festival, the Saturday all-night-long party, has been cut short.  Even the crowd at the Cultural Center, where the most devoted perform and dance the traditional songs to Saint John (all night long), has slowly faded.  But then, in the distance, from blocks away, you can make out the faint sound and the steady beat.  The drums have begun again.  They will not be silenced.  Not during San Juan.

The violent influence of nearby Caracas is not the only problem.  With the International exposure, many complain that the Festival has lost some of its most conservative traditions.  There was a time when short pants and bathing suits were not allowed, and when alcohol in the presence of the Saint was prohibited.  Nevertheless, Curiepe residents have fought hard to protect what they have, and it has not been easy.  Years ago, beer companies moved in to take advantage of the growing national exposure of the San Juan Festival, plastering posters all over town and donating t-shirts with their logos.  The community fought hard, and outlawed it.  Nevertheless, the huge consumption of alcohol still plays a central roll and various licorerias (liquor stores) still play into the game.  At the most frequented liquor stores in the main plaza, each major beer company hires a beautiful young woman to represent their logo.  If you want to buy a bottle of Regional, you must do it from the Regional girl.  Or the beer companies figure, “if you want to talk to the Regional girl, you should purchase Regional.” 

Coca-Cola is also trying to get their feet in on the action.  This Sunday, they offered to supply the carriers of Saint John with their own red shirts (the official color of the Festival), and pushed for a photo op.  According to local residents, the shirts prominently displayed Coca-Cola, but failed to even mention the drums or the saint for which the Festival is held.  The pallbearers declined the honor and rejected the shirts, a move applauded by most of the community.   

“Hundreds of people surround the saint, who is carried above the crowd”
Credito: Silvia Leindecker

Sunday is the grand climax of the celebration and we jog to catch up to the precession, which has already begun and is just now covering the first leg of its 5-hour journey across Curiepe.  Hundreds of people, mostly dark-skinned and wearing red or white, surround the saint, who is carried above the crowd in his tiny wooden carriage.  Steady song, the beat of drums fills the air, and just about everyone carries a bottle of whisky or rum, and some ice to ward off the intense heat. 

“Steady song, the beat of drums fills the air”
Credito: Silvia Leindecker

Suddenly the saint arrives at an intersection.  “Hea! Hea!” screams the crowd and the drums beat and all hell breaks lose, like a cross between holy week and a mosh pit.  The saint bearers rocking and shaking and running; the crowd dancing and chanting, shouting and scrambling to get out of the way.  And just as suddenly, the drums stop and run ahead to prepare for the next stop of Festive chaos in front of another home or another intersection.  The dance across town continues until the sun hangs low in the sky and until the sweaty and intoxicated crowd finally arrives at the church.  There, amidst shouts and cheers and church bells, Saint John enters into church and the Festival comes to an abrupt end.

In the days of slavery, tomorrow everyone would have to return to work—return to bondage.  362 days left before the next weekend.  Here in Curiepe, in 2006, the Festival slowly winds down (although the remnants of the unjust system of slavery, racism, and discrimination still linger in Venezuela as elsewhere).  Tonight, friends and family say goodbye, or perhaps stay one more night before they wake up and drive home early Monday morning.  The vendors and the stores eek out one more evening of sales from the largest weekend in Curiepe each year.  And the powerful drums are put to rest, at least for the moment.

*As story holds- the worship of the young white saint (San Juan Bautista) is as a result of a nearby family’s refusal to lend out their black saint (San Juan Congo) for celebrations over a century ago. 

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