I kicked off Black History Month 2007 by kicking it with some Afro-Venezuelans.
Last Thursday, I visited the Venezuelan embassy to interview members of Eleggua, an Afro-Venezuelan music group of seven women and two men. I wondered what “Eleggua” meant in Spanish.
Absolutely nothing, it turns out. “Eleggua” isn’t a Spanish word. It’s Yoruba, the name of an African orisha, or god.
“He’s the god who opens the ways,” said Jorge Guerrero, one of the men in the group. “Another way of saying ‘opens the ways’ is ‘solves the problems.’”
The main problem this group of black folks had on what was their third visit to the United States was the weather. Coming from Venezuela, which one of the women in Eleggua said “is a tropical country,” they could barely tolerate the chill of last week.
But they were more than up to the task of performing for groups of school children in the nation’s capital. Last Friday, they performed for over 500 students from 11 District of Columbia schools. On Monday, they were scheduled to perform at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is just over the D.C. border in Prince George’s County, Md. Last Saturday, Eleggua performed at the Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium. It was the folks at the Smithsonian who invited Eleggua to the United States this year to kick off Black History Month.
The group, which has been together 12 years, first came to this country for a New York rally whose participants expressed solidarity with the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Eleggua was in Minneapolis, Minn., last year for a similar rally. Kalenka Valazquez, an Eleggua member who also acts as interpreter for the group, said there’s been a greater focus on Afro-Venezuelan culture and history since Chavez took office. When she was asked if Afro-Venezuelan history and culture were honored in the pre-Chavez era, Valazquez answered “Not very much. Not really.”
That may be why, according to Guerrero, Chavez won a near-unanimous vote in predominantly Afro-Venezuelan districts in the country’s last election. Afro-Venezuelan history and culture are now not only honored in Venezuela, thanks to Chavez, but Afro-Americans now have an opportunity to learn about that history and culture. Members of Eleggua are eager to learn ours.
I asked the group what they knew about the history of Afro-Americans and what they would like Afro-Americans to know about the history of Afro-Venezuelans.
“On this occasion of Black History Month in the United States,” Guerrero said, “as part of the diaspora in Venezuela, we would like to exchange experiences. We want to use this as an opportunity for Afro-Americans to come close to the Afro-Venezuelan community and for us to come close to them. We have known of important Afro-Americans in the civil rights struggle and in the struggle against slavery. There were also important Afro-Venezuelans involved in the struggle against slavery we would like for them to know. It’s the same struggle with a different scenario.”
Guerrero cited as an example the 1552 rebellion of King Michael, an African who, with his wife Giomar, organized blacks and Native Americans working in the Buria mines and led one of the first rebellions against slavery.
“That was one of the precursors of the independence movement in Venezuela,” Guerrero said. The King Michael-Giomar revolt led to the establishment of some of the first palenque settlements in Venezuela (Palenques were free territories set up by maroons, slaves who rebelled and fought for their freedom.).
Patricia Abdelnour, a cultural attache at the Venezuelan embassy, briefly interrupted Guerrero’s history lesson to make a particularly astute observation.
“There should be a book in Venezuela about the black history of Venezuela,” Abdelnour said. “I didn’t learn this in school.”
Afro-Venezuelans, Guerrero continued, were also prominent in other rebellions and the fight for independence from Spain. He added that the cultural, economic and political contribution of blacks to Venezuela has been substantial.
“The slave trade has to be seen with other eyes,” Guerrero said. “What came from Africa was a transfer of technology and intellectual ideas.”
Some of those ideas and some of that technology are evident in the instruments members of Eleggua use when they perform. Most of the songs are in Yoruba. Percussion instruments are used for most of the melodies. Some of those instruments are bamboo cylinders that have to be cut when the moon is waning to produce the proper sound.
Traditional African songs performed with traditional African instruments by descendants of Africans in the Western hemisphere. Now, there’s a sound that will always be proper to my ears.