A Cumbe of Peace: San Agustin Celebrates Venezuelan Music and Culture

The popular barrio of San Agustín held a festival to honour its musical roots.

The popular barrio of San Agustín was the stage for a recent “Cumbe Music” festival.

Held in the iconic Alameda Theatre last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the event featured a host of concerts by local musicians, seminars, master-classes and an art exhibit devoted to the diverse musical expressions that can be found in the largely Afro-descendant Caracas barrio.

“We organised this festival to pay tribute to the musical history of San Agustín,” Reinaldo Mijares told Venezuelanalysis. He is the director of the Alameda Theatre and one of the people responsible for the event, which was entirely run by volunteers from different cultural organisations in San Agustín.

The music festival will be followed by dance, film and theatre festivals in the coming months as part of a project called “100% San Agustín 2025.” The long term goal is to turn the neighbourhood into Caracas’ main cultural-touristic hub.

“Besides the festivals, we are also going to have a host of other activities, for example in schools,” Mijares explained. “We are a joyful, hard-working, hospitable people, and it is important that we recognise ourselves as such,” he added.

Mijares also pointed out that while state institutions, and the Caracas city council in particular, are allies, this event and the forthcoming ones are organised by the barrio and for the barrio. He also lauded the collaboration from several private companies who provided sound, lighting, screens, stages, etc. for free. Likewise, over 150 musicians, grouped in 18 bands, did not charge for their participation.

While he appreciates the solidarity and collaborative work, Mijares stresses that one of the immediate goals is to have these self-managed cultural projects become more financially sustainable, so as to not depend exclusively on voluntary work.

The festival kicked off with an exhibit called “Caracas, city of son,” a reference to the Cuban genre which had a big influence in this neighbourhood. As explained by its author, Alejandro Calzadilla, the different boards chart the recent history of Venezuela alongside the history of San Agustín and its culture and music in particular.

The Cuban son played a key role in the barrio’s musical development, with young up-and-coming artists heavily influenced by Cuban musicians who came to play, and sometimes ended up staying, in Caracas. In due time, the local groups took the Cuban sounds to create their own original Venezuelan styles.

In addition to paying tribute to the musical heritage of San Agustín, this year’s festival honoured local legendary percussionist Nené Quintero. He is described affectionately in San Agustin as “the best percussionist in the world.”

Quintero gave a “master-class” alongside keyboardist Alfredo Naranjo in which he guided the audience through his percussion set. In addition to an assortment of drums and cymbals, he also wears small rattles around his legs which bring even more life to his performance.

The closing concert was left to perhaps the most emblematic band from San Agustín, the Grupo Madera. The band skyrocketed into the spotlight in the late 1970s with their youthful assortment of sounds and rhythms, before a boat accident in the Orinoco River claimed the lives of 11 of its members.

But Madera regrouped and has been ever present in the hearts and ears of San Agustín residents. They were joined on stage by other musicians and dancers and closed their set with one of their most famous songs, titled “Compañeros.” “Your machete is your dignity. It shall never be oppressed, if your struggle is for bread, work and land,” the lyrics read.

The very name “cumbe” is no accident. Cumbes were the names given to the liberated territories set up by enslaved Africans who freed themselves during Spanish colonisation (known as “palenques” in Colombia or “quilombos” in Brazil).

“We assume San Agustín as a cumbe, a cumbe of peace and freedom,” Mijares concluded. Peace, freedom, solidarity and plenty of rhythm.