The symptoms are, in real terms, the presence of expressions – in some cases terrible expressions – of the mass entertainment industry in events organised by the government that should be marked by a traditional character.
The most recent, and not the only one, is the big party that it assembled to celebrate the New Year in Bolivar Plaza in Caracas. Chino y Nacho, LiSquadron and other reggaeton artists, egging on the perreo [sexual dance that is done to reggaeton music] in front the statute of the Liberator. All this under the baton of the authorities of the revolutionary government of Caracas, with Jorge Rodríguez, mayor of the Bolivarian Municipality of Libertador, at the forefront. We could see him doing the perreo in full swing on the stage, via the state channel, Venezolana de Televisión.
Explaining this requires the revision of various factors and I will try to explain one by one.
Our revolution is the logical answer to the years of separation from our roots to which the people have been subjected to over so many years, but it appears the motivations are unclear even for the leaders of the government. After a phase of a marked nationalist character during the government of Pérez Jiménez (1948 - 58), and even during some 20 years after, Venezuelan music reigned on the radio and TV of the country. It was especially notable in the working-class areas, in which only salsa dared to dispute the space with the artists of the traditional music. It was very common that among the best-sellers were Simón Díaz or Rosa Virginia Chacín.
This base was diminishing as the oil boom, in the 70’s, had an effect on the mentality of the Venezuelan, putting at hand greater economic resources and putting in the hands of the government the possibility of importing everything. The imported was preferred to the domestic in all spheres. We converted ourselves into drinkers of whisky, even though we are the producers of some of the best rums. We reached the extreme that in order to make a pabellón, the national dish, one was required to import rice, meat and beans, because here, with more than 500 thousand square kilometers of fertile land, they didn’t produce such food products.
Music didn’t escape the treatment. Suddenly, at the same time that salsa declined, Venezuelan music disappeared from the “record report”, and the disco rhythm, Dominican merengue and pop-rock that had always been there, occupying a couple of spots, incorporated itself rapidly.
The thing is that the objective had been achieved. In the ‘80’s nobody remembered Cecilia Todd, but we all knew Michael Jackson who was all the rage with Thriller. Of course, you don’t try to deny the quality of foreign productions, but illustrate the separation from our roots that it had achieved. Even, Luis Herrera Campins had to decree the 1 for 1 rule that obliged Venezuelan radio stations to program one Venezuelan track for each foreign track.
Just in that moment, Black Friday struck. The Venezuelan economy paid the price given so much irresponsibility and the US dollar shot up into the clouds… then we returned to the music made in house and they appeared with force Ilan Chester, Yordano, Evio di Marzo, Melissa, Karina, Kiara, Montaner, Sergio Pérez, Colina, etc... but all in the key of ballads, pop, rock. No pasajes [a type of Venezuelan music] were made. That lasted a while. Almost all of them continue making good music, but in those years the Venezuelan pasaje, waltz and merengue disappeared completely, and only the Gaita [lively Christmas song] was heard as a national survivor before being swept away. You FM 92.9 [1BC group, owners of RCTV] declared itself “free of gaita” and made fun of our expression with no one, except the people that play gaitas, saying a word.
In the mid-80’s the programs of geography and history were eliminated from the curriculum of the high school diploma. Venezuelans didn’t know what the area of their territory was, what they produced in it; much less who had been the Negro Primero or the fair-skinned Páez and clearly, Zamora didn’t exist. In 1984, Alí Primera died.
In parallel, the population of Colombian origin has grown enormously and we can say with a small margin of error, that 4 million Colombians live in Venezuela, either naturalised or as non-Venezuelans. That is 13% of the population. They spent years crossing the border to seek a more peaceful and habitable country. With two turntables, here they are, working together with us as one more of us. The problem isn’t that they are here; it is what our media decide to play and under what mechanisms.
On the 30th of October 1989 Luis Brito Arocha died. This distinguished man of the media directed for more than 30 years the TV program “This Is What My Homeland Is Like”, which dedicated itself to spreading Venezuelan traditions. There wasn’t even one sad homage to him, and the obituaries of the newspapers were pitifully short.
Three years later Rafael Orozco from el Binomio de Oro passed away. The media made such a display of tributes to the singer that I started to detest him after his death.
When Chávez arrive to power, for many of us it opened an important stage of national recognition, of the re-accommodation of the country, the recovery of lost space, and we started to work hard in this area. Of course, the hard political struggle completely diverted attention from the cultural sector, although the groups continued working for a Law of Culture that might benefit the workers in that area.
Suddenly more than 15 years had passed since those times, and an entire generation of Venezuelans hadn’t ever heard on the radio Serenata Guayanesa or Un solo Pueblo [Venezuelan groups]. There are Venezuelans who think that "Woman del Callao" is by Juan Luis Guerra, being a Guyanese calypso Creole version.
Revolution and Propaganda
When the media war became so severe that the government fell for 47 hours in April 2002, the government understood that while the opposition controlled the media, there wasn’t an effective manner of making the message heard, except by the mouth of the mega-leader, president and godmother’s boyfriend, Hugo Chávez. Therefore it must look for ways to democratise radio and television space.
Community radio stations then appear, but the process of the allocation of signals and frequencies is so disordered and risky that many radio stations end up in the hands of the opposition. In other cases, those responsible for the concessions don’t understand the objectives of a community radio station and far from dedicating themselves to the matters of their communities, they dedicate themselves to competing with commercial radio stations. Then they fill the community radio stations with Jerry Rivera, Jorge Celedón, Shakira, Wisin and Yandel, etc. Zero spaces for the kids from the choir of the neighbourhood school. The rappers from the corner? Nooooo, those don’t get broadcasted here.
Very few of the however many hundreds of alternative or community radio stations have carried out their role of strengthening the local approaches, that necessarily must broadcast the traditional aspect of the Venezuelan identity.
But it is the case that in the government, serious mistakes also occur. In the Mayoralty of the Greater Metropolitan Area, under the leadership of Juan Barreto (who I respect and appreciate as a professor in the School of Social Communication in UCV, and who I partially owe the capacity of analysing this), they brought out a CD on the front sleeve of which appears Bolívar and Guaicaipuro [a historic Venezuelan indigenous leader]. The title: “The Sounds of Caracas”. When I saw the songs, I suffered a big disappointment. The first track was “La Gasolina” (a commercial reggaeton song)… Give more petrol is a sound of Caracas?...
In that same administration an unusual dialogue occurred with the director of Culture, in which she showed that she doesn’t know the traditional music of Caracas. Making mention to her of Los Antaños del Estadium, of the Rucaneao merengue, striker music and the pasodoble, she shrugged her shoulders… and the present music as well. To that woman it wasn’t fair to destroy an ignorance so well cultivated. But she was the director of Culture… of Caracas.
In any moment our revolution needed singers, persons that take charge of singing to the people, because Alí isn’t here anymore, and although his songs continue to exist, it isn’t just by Alí that the people live.
First the Drizzling Songs collective appeared. They make revolutionary songs, recycle others by artists of the South, and that don’t have a single track in Venezuelan rhythms. Surely because the principal composer of that collective, Wilson Barba, is Ecuadorian. But it is the beginning. Besides, these singers appear anywhere in which they are required and strengthen the message everywhere.
Immediately and in order to spice up the mix, the Madera group appears. It settles on the [rhythms and style of] El Son to sing [the electoral campaign song] "Uh Ah, Chávez no se va". They carried out their objective and became a tremendous propaganda element. They also made parranda, fulía [types of Venezuela songs] and many Afro-Venezuelan rhythms, but with their demagogic subject matter and their lack of musical originality they wore themselves out, therefore they aren’t those called to generate the necessary discourse.
With their particular style, SonTizón does an excellent job in the Son genre, with hip hop mixes and an enormous quantity of urban elements, but in a high sounding language that isn’t the most appropriate for the whole public. They did a tremendous job for Ávila TV and they project themselves tremendously from that platform. But they don’t make traditional Venezuelan music.
More recently, in 2007, various collectives appeared that looked like they understood the necessity of talking to the person in their own language. La Cantera, La Liga, La Gente and so many others pick up the cuatro [a Venezuelan type of small guitar] off the floor and start to do what they can, in a Venezuelan and revolutionary language.
We believe that these guys have the clearest vision and that they will do great things; sadly one of the best exponents of this group, Solimar Cadenas, left us physically on 23rd of December 2009, so his creations remain in the revolutionary memory.
The Government and Venezuelan Music: Three (Failed) Cases and a System
1) Sangueo para el regreso: As Alí is Alí, from the Ministry of Communications and Information it occurred to someone to do a cover of El Sangueo para el regreso, by Alí Primera. They looked through I don’t know how many musicians and assembled the track with a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm livened with rap and hip hop. It was painful to listen to a negroid song turned into that out of tune and unnatural mix up. It reminded me of the version that Ilan Chester did of the National Anthem, in the timing of a ballad. A sweetened version that made you forget that el Gloria al Bravo Pueblo is a war song, a rallying cry to battle. El sangueo is also like that, but they turned it into a media product.
2) Florentino y El Diablo: After this gesture, they decided to return the drawing board. They made a Rap version of the famous joropo [Venezuelan folk song] Florentino y El Diablo, a masterpiece of Venezuelan improvised musical dialogue. Bringing the duel into urban scenes, putting in females voices that don’t sing, but that talk, they made unnatural a track that makes direct reference to the major heroic deed of General Zamora, the Battle of Santa Inés.
Rap is rap and joropo is joropo. If you want to make fusions, you are welcome to do it, but respect Florentino y El Diablo. With regard to the latter, try to see if there is consistency when one talks of the thorny shrubs of the plains and the foundation that a slum of Caracas has.
3) The Colombo-Venezuelans: With the agreement between the Yankees and Colombia, the US war bases are a fact in the neighbouring territory, so the Government decided to carry out a campaign of strengthening of the friendship between our peoples. An excellent initiative. With music and lyrics from Gustavo Arreaza, it produced the video clip of a track that praised the brotherhood “because we are all Colombo-Venezuelans”. The video was divided into a Colombian part and another Venezuelan part.
The Colombian comrades – who sadly passed away in a terrible accident after recording the video – used all the icons of Colombia: hat, remangao pants, accordion, and the rhythm of cumbia. In contrast, when it was Venezuela’s turn, Cacayara, the vocalist of Dame Pa Matala appeared rapping. And one asks and the liquiliqui [a clothing]? And the cuatrico? And the maracas?
They play that to our revolutionary medias? Are we turning into a country of hip hoppers and rappers?
The System of National Orchestras and Mission Music: It is curious, very curious, that the opposition doesn’t attack this system. For us the system is about a tremendous project, very well organised by the maestro José Antonio Abreum who was a deputy in the old congress, Minister of Culture and director of CONAC [National Culture Commission] during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Hey! He was a minister during the Fourth Republic? But wasn’t it in those decades that Venezuelan music was abandoned? Wasn’t it in that period that 90% of the budget of CONAC stayed in Caracas? Wasn’t it in that stage that 70% went to the Maccsi (in the hands of Sofía Imber), the Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex and the Arts and Science Association of Caracas (Carmen Ramia)?
But we reviewed the system. It is about a work of social action that incorporates children and youth putting them in touch with music and serves close to 250 thousand people throughout the country, in a way that has given everyone access to musical education in Venezuela. Plácido Domingo cried upon listening to the young people from the system. Very good. But the system consumes close to 35% of the budget of the Ministry of the Communes, and doesn’t teach Venezuelan music. The greatest exponent of the system, Gustavo Dudamel, considered the musician most emblematic of the country, by his international profile, is a wonderful conductor that doesn’t know how to play the cuatro.
We have given everyone access to the teaching of European music to the children of Venezuela, but the most emblematic Venezuelan musician doesn’t play the cuatro. And that costs 35% of the budget of a ministry.
2009, The Terrible Year
For those of us who defend the cultural values of Venezuela, last year was particularly difficult. The crisis of capitalism affected everyone and consequently, starting in 2009 the government decided to cut the sumptuary expenses, a sensible and necessary measure for the financial health of the nation.
The problem is that when it defined what a sumptuary expense was and what wasn’t, it determined among other things that publicity, festive events and other things, are sumptuary expenses and in order to be able to approve their consumption they require the review of the Vice President of the Republic. Among the sumptuary expenses also was the hiring of musicians. That had an immediate impact in a negative way on this profession, but very especially on those musicians that identify themselves with the revolution.
Nevertheless, the reality is that in many events in the year 2009, we saw how national and imported artists of different tendencies were hired, but practically none that made traditional Venezuelan music. It appears that those are only a sumptuary expense.
During the anniversary week of Caracas, in July, the pressure of the cultural sector managed to call off a party with Jorge Celedón and Don Omar. That is the music to celebrate the birthday of Caracas? Is it still the same director there?
In the event corresponding to the anniversary of Alí Primera, the attitude of the organisers generated discontent among Venezuelan musicians who supposedly should have played that day, but they ended up pulling out, including the children of Alí!
The event favoured [the music group] Residente Calle 13 and while the Puerto Rican described how he would go through the intestines to women, the image of Alí Primera was in the background, surely crying at the stupidity of the functionaries that, in an revolutionary government like Chávez’ one, offer him such a grotesque tribute.
The lesson wasn’t learned, a good friend told me, and not even at the death of Solimar Cadenas did it consider Venezuelan musicians for the end of year in Caracas. Not even the two previous events and the sound criticisms made the mayor reflect on what he was cooking up or at least refuse to do the perreo on the stage.
Outside of all aesthetic consideration, how much does this all cost the government?
The country has enormous musical resources (without mentioning the other areas of tradition): more than 100 rhythms exclusive to Venezuela, thousands and thousands of good musicians, extraordinary live performers. Researchers in abundance, people willing to spread their values without charging a cent. And it continues maintaining these people in obscurity. Only the La Estancia Centre of Art rescues them every once in a while. The Centre of Cultural Diversity pays small sums to some scholarship holders, and eventually they it hires them present their work. But those are isolated approaches in the midst of a revolution that continues reading Marx, Che and Gramsci, without understanding them and without realizing that they correspond to their particular contexts. They are valid and necessary influences; but not our roots.
Meanwhile, there continue, latent, waiting to be summoned, the true roots. They are there, in the place that has been least looked at, despite that Nazoa indicated the way: in the creative powers of the people.
Final Note: I subscribe to that set out by Luigino Bracci and recommend the reading of his thoughts on this matter.
This article was originally published on January 3rd 2010. It was translated by Sean Seymour-Jones for Venezuelanalysis.com.