Last December, when most of my family gathered at my mother's house for the Christmas holidays, we chatted on a couple of occasions about Free Cover, the cultural phenomenon. In all honesty, the conversation wasn’t an in-depth analysis of a musical initiative. It was a simple exchange of ideas in a relaxed atmosphere.
And so, you may ask, what is Free Cover? First of all, it is a collection of videos posted on a YouTube channel that got going in 2017. Some of them, the most recent ones, played on my brother’s laptop, which was in turn connected to my mom’s living room TV. The aspiration was no other than to provide the family with a relaxed musical backdrop and, at best, bring about a danceable track.
Free Cover, promoted by two musicians from Zulia state (western Venezuela), began by bringing together a handful of particularly talented Venezuelan artists, some of them virtuosos, who offered covers of the vernacular classics (Billo’s Caracas Boys, Pastor López, Dimensión Latina, etc.). Legendary figures also joined in to perform some of their greatest hits (Ricardo Cepeda, Betulio Medina, Neguito Borjas, etc.).
Free Cover is linked to the format known as vis a vis, which was explained to me by my friend David Meire, an expert on the subject: the singers are face to face and close to the audience, which is made up of a few dozen people surrounding the artists.
Both the music and the format (including the length of the videos, which are about ten minutes long) point to the performance happening among friends, an occasion when pals get together not only to have fun, but also to strengthen bonds and remember the good old times by singing songs that evoke fond memories. Free Cover conveys one of those wonderful get-togethers when time flies.
Therein lies, in my opinion, the indisputable success of the project – in its skillful and intelligent way of playing with nostalgia. But that also explains the reservations expressed by several members of my family as well as my own: While we enjoyed the show, something in those videos triggered an almost instinctive rejection. However, we had trouble translating it into words.
I am still not entirely clear about it as of now. As I try to summarize some of what transcended in the conversations at my mom’s house, I would say that there is something phony in the happiness that oozes from the videos. It is obvious that everyone is having a good time and we can relate to that feeling, but it is also clear that the Free Cover creators go further: they seem determined to convince us that both artists and audience are having a good time because it is a meeting of friends, and because everyone there is doing well in life. It is a meeting of winners, the joy of winners.
In other words, Free Cover is an attempt to recreate the well-known propensity to happiness that characterizes Venezuelan culture. It does so by appealing to down-to-Earth Venezuelans, but it has the root issue that the creators happen to be based in Miami. I would not be so foolish as to belittle my fellow Venezuelans just because they live in Florida, which takes nothing away from their artistic virtues. But at the same time living in Miami determines to a great extent many things, including the idea that one has of “Venezuelanness” (“venezolanidad”).
Although not exclusively, Free Cover's “Venezuelanness” is that of a sector of the diaspora with a strong Miami-style imprint. This Venezuelanness expreses itself in the nostalgia for the Venezuela that was or could have been, for the personal and family projects that had to be realized abroad. It is the successful diaspora in dialogue with the Venezuela of the present: with that country that no longer exists but that perhaps could emerge again.
On the eve of the commemoration of the first ten years of the physical departure of Commander Chávez, a new video version of “Chávez corazón del pueblo” [Chávez, heart of the people] was made public. It was interpreted by a group of artists with a lot in common with the original performers. Strictly speaking, more than just a version of the emblematic 2012 campaign song, this production is a seven minute mix which includes several songs alluding to the Bolivarian leader.
I don't know if this was the express intention of its creators – about whom we have little information and they are barely identified on YouTube –, but the mix ended up looking like an officialist [term used for government-aligned] Free Cover production. This is particularly evident in the format. However, there is one difference: while having everything at hand to reduce the distance between artists and the audience, in this mix the producers resort to a set that – as opposed to the video staging in the best Free Cover works – separates the performers from the crowd. The musicians appear on a stage that, while almost level with the dance floor, creates a divide that the audience cannot cross.
From the beginning of the video it is clear that some friends have gathered to sing and dance: they are the artists. On the margins an enthusiastic chorus of young people enjoys the show. The separation between artists and audience is concealed by the curious fact that they are all dressed in black, perhaps to emphasize the importance of the event, or perhaps to highlight its mournful nature. In any case, everyone seems to be having a great time, although some more than others.
And this is precisely the main point: if the Free Cover people seem determined to persuade us that their friends have a good time because they are winners, it is no less true that the officialists seem comfortable naturalizing the fact that only a privileged few can have access to stages and high-end events.
If, for the reasons mentioned above, Free Cover fails to recreate the joy of Venezuelans, in the case of the ruling party, the attempt fails to recreate the popular rebelliousness that was associated with Chávez. And this is so because, as happens with Free Cover, the ruling party is incapable of recognizing itself in a real country that can both sing Billo’s and celebrate the life of Hugo Chávez. A country that, in spite of its existence being denied by both sides, continues to exist and will not cease to remake itself while singing and fighting.
Reinaldo Iturriza López is an activist, writer, and sociologist with a degree from Venezuela’s Central University. He is the author of several books, including 27 de Febrero de 1989: interpretaciones y estrategias and El chavismo salvaje.
Iturriza López, father of Sandra Mikele and Ainhoa Michel and Venezuelan baseball enthusiast, is a former Culture Minister and Communes and Social Movements Minister. He also headed the Audiovisual Production School at Ávila TV. He writes regularly for the blog Saber y Poder.
Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.