Tour Brings Venezuelan Rhythms and Styles to American Ears

The Venezuelan Sounds 2006 tour, which includes concerts in Washington , D.C., New York, Berkeley, and Puerto Rico, showcases some of the South American nation's finest musicians.

BERKELEY, Calif. — When petroleum prices hit record highs last year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made headlines by selling more than 12 million gallons of home-heating oil to low-income Americans in the Northeast at below-market prices.

Now Venezuela is offering Bostonians an option on another natural resource: The Venezuelan Sounds 2006 tour, which includes concerts in Washington , D.C., New York, Berkeley, and Puerto Rico, showcases some of the South American nation’s finest musicians. It comes to the Regattabar on Wednesday.

The Boston portion of the festival features two stellar bands led by Venezuelan players who have settled in the United States. On the bill are multi-instrumentalist Jackeline Rago and her band Snake Trio, based in the San Francisco area, and Boston-based pianist Leo Blanco’s jazz trio with bassist Peter Slavov and percussionist Jamey Haddad.

While the heating oil program was widely seen as an effort by Chavez to thumb his nose at the Bush administration (the blustery Venezuelan president has been outspoken in his opposition to US economic policy in Latin America) Venezuelan Sounds is a rather more sincere initiative to increase awareness of the country’s largely untapped musical riches.

“Venezuela is full of wonderful music and artists, and there are more than 150 different rhythms throughout the territory, so we should try to project our culture abroad," Berklee graduate and Venezuelan cultural attache Patricia Abdelnour says from Washington. A violist and recording engineer who graduated from Berklee in the mid-’90s, Abdelnour has played a leading role in promoting Venezuelan music in the United States since she launched the Venezuelan Sounds festival in 2004.

“Music can help build bridges with the embassy and the Venezuelan community in the US," Abdelnour continues, “and between our countries."

It’s certainly true that the music of Venezuela is one of the great cultural treasures of the Americas, a fabulously rich tradition in which the intermingling of indigenous, European, and West African influences has yielded an array of musical forms.

So why isn’t it better known outside of South America?

One reason is that until recently, most Venezuelan musicians tended to stay close to home.

“Venezuela is a country where people consume what they produce, including music," says Rago in an interview after a Snake Trio performance in Berkeley.

“Our artists are famous within the country, and we’re really proud of our musical roots. It’s something like Brazil or Cuba on a smaller scale. But meeting a Venezuelan musician outside of the country is rare, because there are few of us here."

Rago, who was raised in Caracas, started playing mandolin at age 5 and grew up performing in folkloric ensembles. She moved to the Bay Area to continue her music studies in 1982, eventually graduating from the now defunct Music and Arts Institute of San Francisco, where she majored in classical mandolin.

Although she’s a master of Afro-Venezuelan percussion, her main instrument is the cuatro, the four-string national instrument of Venezuela that she points out should also be considered a percussion instrument.

“It’s a little Renaissance guitar from the Andalusian part of Spain, and it’s traditionally been used in Venezuela to accompany other instruments," Rago says.

Rago and Viscuso, best known as a founding member of the world jazz band Wild Mango, founded Snake Trio in 1996 with the goal of blending traditional Venezuelan forms and jazz. They produced and recorded an excellent album in 2000, “The Dance of the Snake," but the trio took a deeper turn during a 2002 trip to Venezuela, where it recorded rhythm tracks with a battery of top Venezuelan percussionists.

The resulting album, “Light the Candle," captures the Snake Trio’s latest incarnation, which is built on the sinuous bass work of Saul Sierra, a Berklee alum who hails from Mexico City. With a rhythmic palette that encompasses much of Latin America, from Venezuela’s joropo beat to Dominican merengue, the group has developed a captivating repertoire of original material and classic jazz compositions such as Wayne Shorter’s “Footsteps," Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat , " and John Coltrane’s “Mr. PC."

“We try to bring the different cultures together," Viscuso says. “We don’t play traditional music. I bring in my influences, and Saul brings in his. When we played at functions in Venezuela, the people were impressed. Jackie’s one of the few musicians doing this kind of thing."

Rago’s evangelical approach to her country’s music made her a regular presence at the Venezuelan embassy, where the culture-minded ambassador has converted a wing of the building into an intimate concert hall. She’s performed in every Venezuelan Sounds festival and returns to Venezuela often to continue studying folkloric styles.

“Jackie’s prodigious," Abdelnour says. “She’s in love with Venezuelan music, rhythms , and traditions, and that comes through whenever she’s playing or talking." 

Original Source: Boston Globe