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Opinion and Analysis: Culture | Social Movements

Remembering Ali Primera: The People's Singer of Venezuela

Venezuela commemorates the birthday and life of revolutionary icon Ali Primera every Oct. 31, and the day he died every Feb. 16. Since he rose to fame in the late 1960s, Primera's folk songs of oppression, tough times and liberation have resonated among not only Venezuelans, but throughout the Spanish speaking world. Primera sang in simple language about issues ranging from U.S. imperialism to land ownership to worker exploitation.

Even more than two decades after his death, Primera remains a giant of Venezuelan culture, and emblematic of the Nueva Cancion movement (new music). Nueva Cancion in itself used simple, traditional musical instruments to express international frustration at the curbing of civil liberties under right-wing governments across Latin America and in Spain under the Franco regime.

In many countries, Nueva Cancion artists were persecuted by military dictatorships and conservative governments. Under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, Nueva Cancion singers faced some of the most extreme political persecution, including torture and extrajudicial killings. Dictators like Augusto Pinochet viewed the messages espoused by nueva cancion singers as threats to authoritarianism, and advocacy of revolution.

Listen to a few of Primera's songs, and it's not difficult to see why.

“Working more and more, doesn't even pay for my sweat … I’m leaving with the guys, to go and start the revolution,” Primera sang in one of his most famous anthems of resistance, "I Don’t Know How to Philosophize" (Yo No Se Filosofar).

Today, that particular song is regularly used by Venezuelan state media, and is one of the favorites of the Venezuelan people. However, songs from all of Primera's 17 albums are littered with political messages just as cutting.

“How sad the rain sounds on the cardboard rooftops,” Primera sang in his 1975 song, Houses of Cardboard (Casas de Carton). That line is repeated over and over to ram home to the listener the hopelessness of extreme poverty faced by so many Venezuelans in the 20th Century.

While reviled by Venezuela's conservative upper crust, ordinary people and the poor could associate with Primera's lyrics. After all, even though the rich may have never heard the sound of rain on a cardboard roof, denizens of Venezuela's barrios know the sound all too well. As his popularity gained steam, Primera became known across Venezuela as “the people's singer.”

To the right-wing government though, Primera was increasingly targeted as a suspected subversive. By the 1980s, Primera was regularly receiving death threats.

Yet it wasn't an assassin that eventually killed Primera, but a freak car accident in 1985. The legendary singer was killed instantly. However, Primera's story doesn't end in 1985.

Since his death the revolutionary's songs have been etched into Venezuela's cultural history. His words gained renewed meaning in 1989, when tens of thousands of Venezuelans protested against a government increasingly embracing neoliberalism.

The popular anger that Primera's songs so eloquently reflected had suddenly spilled onto the streets – and was likewise met with a response Primera would likely have expected. The protests were violently put down by security forces.

Thousands of mostly poor Venezuelans were gunned down in the streets as security forces were given a free hand by the government to shoot to kill. Today, many Venezuelans are fighting for the revolution Primera called for.

Unlike the right-wing regimes of his time, today Venezuela has swung to the left, under a government that has empowered the poor.

Primera's legacy has likewise been empowered. In 2004, the government of Hugo Chavez founded a museum commemorating Primera's life at his family home in Falcon state. The following year, the Chavez government officially recognized Primera's music as an integral part of Venezuela's cultural heritage.

Primera lives on.