I left Venezuela with my family three years ago. We really didn’t want to go, but life got too hard. I had just given birth to our second son, who would spend ten days in an incubator. Every day, my husband and I raced through town, checking pharmacy after pharmacy for the basic medicines my son needed and that were almost impossible to find. It was the scariest thing we had ever gone through. We left for Europe.
Today, I’m still finding my place across the ocean, having had to move yet again to find work, and I think of my country and its people with sadness and longing. Yes, today’s Venezuela is a place of political chaos and acute poverty, but it is also a place of extraordinary traditions and great musical wealth.
Beginning in 2008, I had the immense good fortune to lead a team from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings to my native Venezuela. Back then, their collections held no recent Venezuelan recordings, something I wished to change. I understood that the label, led at the time by Daniel Sheehy, was always on the lookout for projects true to their traditional roots and of the best quality. As we experienced Venezuela’s musical landscape, sounds I grew up with in many cases, I watched the team’s curiosity and enthusiasm sizzle.
Most Venezuelans have a deep appreciation for music. I think this comes from being exposed to music and dance from very early on and literally dancing to a different beat. Most Western traditional and popular music is written in the time signature of four beats per bar—the pace we walk to in the West, the pace our hearts beat to—but traditional Venezuelan merengues are most often five beats per bar.
The often used 5/8 signature lends an exciting and different sense of pulse to our merengue music, one that can be a challenge even for skilled musicians. In Venezuela, even tiny kids sing, dance, and sometimes play in this odd time signature. It’s the musical milk that first nurtures Venezuelan ears. One of the first songs children learn is a traditional merengue called “Compadre Pancho.” I learned it on the cuatro guitar when I was seven, with a teacher we called Tomate because his face would turn bright red when he sang.
Mexican researcher and musicologist Antonio García de León poetically described the transformation of the baroque Spanish fandango into local New World genres as the voyage of a ship that sunk in the Caribbean, its wreckage coming afloat as punto cubano in Cuba, son jarocho in Mexico, galerón in the east of Venezuela, and many more. Smithsonian Folkways is home to all of these sophisticated campesino musics, so I was happy to introduce the team to Venezuela’s three main joropos—the llanero (plains), the central, and the oriental (east coast).
Over five years, Daniel Sheehy and I, along with a videographer and a sound engineer, traveled unforgettable musical pathways. We drove through the emerald green heart of tropical forests and across vast plains dotted with pink flamingos. From the Caribbean coast to the Atlantic coast, we saw an incredible array of drums, from the indigenous maraca shaker to instruments of Arab-Sephardic heritage brought in by Spanish ships. It was a journey that today seems impossible, as my country sometimes goes days without electricity. It was filled with cross-cultural encounters and great music-making. Our recordings resulted in three albums and U.S. concerts for Venezuelan folk musicians who had never traveled abroad. These led to true people-to-people interactions.
Our first trip, organized by the Center for Cultural Diversity, started in the capital city of Caracas. At a wide glance, Venezuela is divided into nine geo-cultural regions. Looking closer, you’ll see at least thirty-four distinct indigenous groups. The center focuses on promoting and preserving these diverse identities and their cultural traditions, making it the perfect host for Smithsonian Folkways.
We listened to a beautiful large vocal ensemble that performed parrandas and aguinaldos, Spanish-rooted festive songs accompanied by maracas and Afro-Venezuelan drums—perhaps the setting through which I first fell in love with Venezuelan music as a young singer in my school’s choir. We heard melancholic violin groups from deep inside the quiet and chilly Andes region and the powerful voices of joropo singers from the cowboy lands of Los Llanos.
From this stop in Caracas came two of the recordings later produced by Folkways: the festive Caribbean group La Sardina de Naiguatá from the central coast and Serenata Guayanesa, the vocal quartet whose music every Venezuelan kid of the last fifty years grew up listening to. You can hear one of my favorite merengues, “El Norte es una Quimera,” an elegant city dance, on the album Canta con Venezuela. In this song, the composer talks about how “the North” (New York) is an illusion because upon his travels, he found “no wine, no watercress, and no love,” a funny reference to life under Prohibition in the United States.
One important note: Venezuelan merengue has nothing to do with the better-known Dominican merengue, except that both accompany couples dance. Born in the mid-nineteenth century and achieving its heights in the Roaring Twenties, the Venezuelan merengue or merengue rucaneao is a Caracas native.
From Caracas we traveled to Oriente, the eastern region where we heard the sublime lyricism of traditional stringed instruments: the cuatro (similar to guitar, with four strings), the bandolin (fifteen strings), and the bandola oriental (eight strings). From this encounter would come the Folkways album ¡Y Que Viva Venezuela! Maestros del Joropo Oriental. My father came from Oriente, and I grew up listening to the tongue-twisting fast speech of the Orientales. The music on this album truly reflects so much of life there: the florid speech and playing, the incredibly sophisticated improvisation, and difficult but seamless rhythmic changes.
Afterward we traveled south to Ciudad Bolivar in the lush Amazonian territory, and then finally to the oil-rich state of Zulia in the extreme west. This is a state I love. Its people are boisterous, colorful, and proud of their culture. It reminds me a bit of Texas, especially as many Zulianos are so fiercely independent. In Maracaibo, we heard two of their most important musical forms: the gaita and the chimbangleros.
During Christmastime, gaita permeates the daily lives of all Venezuelans. The music is cheerful, but the lyrics are based on current events, so some are happy, some are political, and some can be funny. The chimbangleros tradition truly embodies the syncretism of the Afro-Venezuelan identity. In December, musicians play the chimbangle drum as an offering to the black Catholic saint San Benito de Palermo. Thousands accompany the drummers with forceful dancing and euphoric shouting, going house to house and finally to the church where they continue playing until nightfall. I first encountered this form of religious celebration when I saw the Dancing Devils of Yare, a troupe of maraca-playing men, dressed in red costumes and colorful masks celebrating the triumph of good over evil during the Corpus Christi holiday. I was mesmerized by the colors, the music, and the powerful energy they spread through the town.
The musical groups that Folkways eventually selected to record also toured the United States, performing in different festivals and getting to know their new American audience. I look back at those days when such a thing was possible and think, with a heavy heart, on the calamitous state of my country, where the proper rule of law no longer applies and the freedom to dissent has evaporated.
The recent sanctions imposed on the country will have a direct and devastating effect on the population. I worry about those who chose to remain or who could not get out, especially my friends, but I do not worry about the strength of our culture. Amid all the scarcity and insecurity, people find a way. Families continue to cultivate coffee and cacao as they have done for the past 200 years, their small children swirling around them. The traditional fiestas are celebrated just as they were when I was growing up: the “Burial of the Sardine” after Carnaval along the coast, the festivities of San Juan in the Afro-descendant regions, San José in the Llanos, Easter, Christmas, and many more. Our traditional musicians continue to perform, playing music, preserving our traditions, and, most importantly, to teach, perhaps as a form of resistance to the oppressive forces of today.
As guitarist Aquíles Báez once said, “Music that has roots, that has identity, has a powerful strength.” So do the Venezuelan people.
Patricia Abdelnour has served as a producer and translator for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. She is the executive director for the Foundation for Social Action for Music in Madrid, Spain, and co-founder of the Ibero-American Association of Women Music Engineers and Producers.
This project received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.
In 2019 we are celebrating the Smithsonian Year of Music, with 365 days of performances, exhibitions, and other music-related programming around the institution. Learn more at music.si.edu.