Music Brings Down Walls: A Conversation with Sandino Primera

We talk to the singer and songwriter about the intersection of art and politics in his work and about his father, Alí Primera.


Sandino Primera is a politically-engaged artist who weaves poetry with down-to-earth commentary in his cultural production. Years ago, that led him to break his ties with the commercial music industry. Like his father Alí Primera, Venezuela’s most prominent popular singer and songwriter, Sandino Primera works to build bridges between people. In this interview, he talks to us about his own music and reflects on the work of Alí Primera who was born 80 years ago.

Part of Alí Primera’s legacy is the fusion of politics and music. How do you pursue that goal in your own life and cultural work?

When I was 8 or 9 years old, something special would happen to me when I listened to Víctor Jara. His music moved me a great deal and would bring tears to my eyes. Later, when I was 11, I learned about the history of the Chilean singer, and I understood that in his voice politics and music came together as one. In other words, it wasn’t my father who fused music and politics for me: it was Víctor Jara.

Of course, when I was a child, I was aware that my father was a political activist, but the connection between his songs and his politics wasn’t immediately obvious to me. I only understood that years later.

For Alí there was no barrier between music and politics. Later, when I understood this, it left an imprint in me. But I was also inspired by César Rengifo [Venezuelan playwright and painter], Violeta Parra, and Roque Dalton, among others. Composition, melody, harmony, and poetry… When it all comes together with political participation, with ideology, then the cursed poets and the singers of the people emerge.

I belong to a continental or even worldwide movement of committed musicians. The movement is quite powerful in Venezuela, and it has nourished me.

The place of the committed singer in society is often complex. Most of us are opposed to the status quo, opposed to existing regimes. Alí was no different: he opposed the corrupt political leadership of the 4th Republic [1958-98], and he was a thorn in the side of established power. Of course, it is not always like that: many Cuban singers joined the revolution and were able to sing about the victories of the people.

Things are complex for committed singers in Venezuela today. We have a government that generally pursues a revolutionary project: a peaceful revolution and 21st Century Socialism are part of its discourse. However, we live in a capitalist reality and that must be said. That is why my music attempts to navigate the contradictions in our reality, while pointing toward a horizon of full political participation that should be rich with poetry and beauty.

That sums up my project as a musician. However, when we talk about straightforward politics, I have also had the chance to participate in spaces of political representation. In 2017 cultural producers and friends from the social movements encouraged me to run in the Constituent Assembly elections, even though I’m not affiliated with any political party. That allowed me to enter into spaces of formal politics.

My tenure in the Constituent Assembly taught me that one can exercise pressure from those spaces. However, formal politics has limitations, voices are often censored. The time that I spent there was enriching, but most of all it helped me to understand the importance of music as a social resource. It further strengthened my commitment to culture with revolutionary autonomy.

The government is with the revolution, but at the same time, the logic of capitalism permeates everything. On the other hand, culture, and particularly music, can also reach every corner. So that is why I do what I do, and I do it with a profound commitment to life itself.

To escape the cultural industry’s restrictions, Alí Primera created his own music label. You also have a past in commercial music but broke with it. How have you managed to generate a space of greater autonomy for your music?

Alí created Cigarrón, but it wasn’t registered or formalized as a label. Cigarrón was more of a symbolic gesture to bring musicians together and encourage artists with militant activity and social commitment to organize and participate politically. However, Alí released most of his albums with the commercial label Promús.

From 1997 until 2001 I was part of a powerful commercial label called “Hecho a mano,” but the industry’s rules of the game caused me to lose my freedom: the interests of the market didn’t allow me to grow musically. That’s why I left the label in 2001.

In Venezuela today, there are no record labels producing albums with the kind of content that we produce. In fact, there are practically no record labels! That forces us to look for ways to produce and finance the whole process – from pre-production, recording, and editing to live concerts and music videos (which are very important nowadays).

We have had to learn a great deal, from technical sound production and instrumental execution, video, and photography, to sound and visual effects, and so on.

These are difficult times for those of us who don’t conform to the precepts of the music industry, but I have enjoyed the support of many friends, institutions, private initiatives with social responsibility. All that is very important, but it is also ephemeral… That’s why we constantly struggle for economic independence.

I have no doubt that Alí would have supported the Bolivarian Process. However, I also think he would have been critical when necessary. What is the role of a committed singer and songwriter in a political process like ours, with all its virtues and contradictions?

I agree: Alí would be with the Bolivarian revolution, but he wouldn’t be complacent with anyone. I think that among musicians, what should be common is solidarity and commitment. All that should come with no fear of the consequences that might result when speaking frankly about contradictions within.

For me, it is important to emphasize that the state is one thing and the government is another, and also that the prevailing system in Venezuela is capitalist. When we criticize, we are criticizing the system and the injustices that the state continues to commit.

I believe that one of our tasks is precisely that: to promote down-to-earth reflection. When we say that this is capitalism, not socialism, there are people who are shocked… However, we are not talking about ideas, we are pointing to a reality!

It is important to dispel the shadows of idealism, but not to get rid of our ideals. We have to understand where we stand and accept the reality in which we live, in order to transform it. All this should be framed in a context of sisterhood and commitment.

In these times, almost everything remains to be done: very little of what has been done is useful to us. It is necessary to promote the creation of a new temporality and to create another culture – it is important to compose, paint, write, sing, talk, and build the new.

I believe that the main commitment of a singer today should be to create new music to accompany the emergence of a new form of thinking. We must stimulate a conversation and not point fingers at each other. Instead, it is up to us to reflect on things together. In the end, we are all part of the same problem.

It is necessary to encourage new ways of thinking with music of any style, any genre. The important thing is to stimulate reflection. That is one of the most important roles of the singer today.

What were Alí Primera’s main musical influences, and how do they intersect (or differ) with your own?

Rancheras [Mexican music] were the most important influence on Alí, including those of Pedro Infante and Pepe Aguilar. In the 40s and 50s, in small Venezuelan towns, Mexican cinema and music had a great impact.

Later, Alí came to Caracas and began to listen to boleros and salsa, and he also was influenced by Atahualpa Yupanqui. Alí was always very sincere in his creations. Many artists influenced him, but his songs were very much his own.

As I mentioned before, I was influenced by Violeta Parra and Victor Jara among others, and when I was 14, I started listening to Bob Marley. I listened to rock but Alí didn’t have rock in his collection. Maybe we would have had some differences regarding rock, I don’t know. The same goes for hip hop, which left an important mark on my production. However, the music Alí listened to, and his music, are important to me.

You often say that one of your goals is to “organize enthusiasm.” Could you explain what you mean by this?

The idea of organizing enthusiasm is Ali’s, although it left its imprint on many of us. I would say that the Watuyusay collective in Paraguaná [Falcón state] is great at organizing enthusiasm.

I’m a musician and agitator, someone who wants to overthrow the existing paradigms and idealistic crap. I work to take down walls, to bring people and ideas together, to build an independent and sovereign homeland, both politically and culturally.

Certainly, it is very important to organize enthusiasm. There are many people who want to do things but abstain out of fear, because we come from so many historical tensions. On the other hand, many are worn out and even depoliticized…

That is why we are looking to channel that power that comes from enthusiasm. I want to be useful in building an independent and sovereign Venezuela. That is why I want to knock down idealism and build real bridges, allowing us to recognize one another. We are all part of the same problem, and therefore we have to come together to find the solution.

Now, 80 years after Alí’s birth, and beyond his extraordinary musical talent and his political commitment, what do you consider to be his main legacy?

I believe that his main legacy is his unflagging endurance and his creative and constructive capacity. Alí was a very prolific being with enormous talent, and he put his talent at the service of the people.

In his discography we discover our history, our ancestors, and the struggles that bring us together. Alí teaches all that in a very simple and intimate way. He managed to synthesize Latin America and Venezuela’s rich and long history, and he did it with an extraordinary poetic capacity.

His energy is felt in every note. His legacy is linked to his political coherence, to his generosity and solidarity, even if he was – as we all are – an imperfect human being. But again, above all, Alí’s legacy is bound up with his commitment and his endurance.