by Saúl Zavarce


             Above the Equator where the Caribbean Sea meets South America and the Atlantic Ocean, Venezuela is a melting pot of musical expressions. Full of African, Indigenous and European influences it is one of the most eclectic in the world as well as unknown and unexploited.

             From the Zulia state on the Western coast where millions of Petroleum Barrels are filled everyday comes the only Christmas carol that you can dance to, "Gaita Zuliana" as hot as the land itself the Gaita is also used as a protest vehicle in Venezuela. With unique instruments like the "Furruco" a drum that provides background bass, Cuatro *, Tamboras used like you have never seen before and the "Charrasca" (similar to a Guiro with a metallic sound) the Gaita is the queen of December. Groups like Guaco have developed a fusion of Gaita with other Afro-Caribbean music and jazz that will make you enjoy music like never before.

             The Central Coast belongs to the drums African style, with local made instruments like "Kitipla" and "Culo e' pulla" to name a few, the street parties are a unique event that involves the community as a whole. There is also another Christmas Carol called "Parranda Navideña" (Christmas Party) where lyrics are made of improvised verses with unique tunes that will have you tapping your feet unwillingly. Within the "Tambores" genre there are many different styles like the above-mentioned "Parranda". Groups like "Un Solo Pueblo", "Grupo Vera" are genuine performers of this kind of music.

             The Venezuela has its own kind of "Merengue" quite different from the “dancing Merengue” originated at the Dominican Republic. That Merengue came from a combination of popular rhythms like polka, la danza and tango. It does not relate to the Argentinean tango but to the Spanish tango or tango gaditano. In the 1920s, especially in Caracas, the merengue developed into a musical form. It generally has a short rhythmic melody, usually accompanied by humorous lyrics. The merengue is written in 2/4 time, but often sounds like a 5/8. The Venezuelans refer to it as “merengue atravesa’ito” or “a little out of time.” This characteristic makes the merengue rhythm specially interesting and difficult to play and analyse.

             The Eastern Coast and Margarita Island has a very romantic kind music, the mandolin gives an Italian touch, and the Cuatro guitar is also present. The European classical influence is well identified. One of the most popular styles from the East is called “Golpe” and “Estribillo” the first one is a waltz and the second one is played also in waltz time but faster, they are normally played one after the other without interruptions, very danceable indeed.

             On the South East is the Bolivar State (named after Simon Bolivar The Liberator)** which share frontiers with Brazil and Guyana is the home of Calypso which is not sung in Spanish, but in a language called "Papiamento" which is a mix of English, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. Calypso is a genuine fusion of different elements like Samba, Soca, Bossa, etc. Groups like "Serenata Guayanesa" and "Un Solo Pueblo" play that kind of music.  Quite in contrast the Venezuelan waltz best interpreted by the great Guitarist and composer Antonio Lauro, born in Ciudad Bolivar, takes that rhythm to another level, so much so that Classic Guitar courses in Music Institutes all around the world includes Lauro's compositions as a hurdle to graduate. 

             On the South West we find the "Llanos" (plains) the "Cowboy Land" where the "Joropo" is the king of the parties with a substantial set of rhythms which include Seis por Derecho, Pajarillo, Carnaval, Periquera, and Merecure to name a few; Harp, Cuatro and Maracas alone of with a "Bandola" guitar or may be a "coplero" (singer) improvising verses.  The party heats up when two people start a "Contrapunteo" which is a friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) argument done in a rhyme, basically is a singing discussion totally improvised which sometimes gives birth to a song, just like "Caballo Viejo" by Simón Díaz, a tune that Gypsy Kings re-arranged and named "Bamboleo" song that took them to the top of the pop charts.

             Another interesting sound of the Llanos is the "Tonada", with somewhat melancholic and nostalgic lyrics that (before the industrial revolution) the Cowboys sing at dawn while milking the cows and performing the various rodeo chores; the melodic messages contained within would comfort them and would get them going on the hard day ahead. Composer and singer Simón Diaz single-handedly rescued "Tonada" from extinction.

 Half way between Caracas and the Zulia state in the midlands we find Falcon state that together with the Lara state are a nest of the most prolific and diverse of the Venezuelan musical styles like El Golpe Tocuyano, Tamunangue, Corrios & Pasajes.  Groups like "Ensamble Gurrifío", "El Cuarteto", "Carota, Ñema y Taja", "El Tramao De Venezuela" give an instrumental approach to those styles.

             Venezuela is a South American country with a Caribbean spirit; the integration of many migrants from all over the world over the last century makes the fusion even greater. You might not see Venezuela winning the Soccer World Cup but when it comes down to music it is regarded by the best musicians and composers in the world as an endless source of great music, difficult to play and very complex to write. Unfortunately still the best kept secret in the Caribbean.


* Venezuelan Cuatro: Like the cuatro in Puerto Rico, the Venezuelan cuatro is deeply and lovingly ingrained into the folkloric traditions of its people. A feather-light, four string tiny guitar, it hails back to the tiny guitarrillo and guitarra requinta of medieval Spain. Indeed, it often is strummed in a way that recalls the flamenco style of Spanish guitar playing. Like in Puerto Rico, the native Venezuelan cuatro provides the fundamental cultural underpinning for the music of their rural peasant farmers, themselves a product of the ancient mixing of European, Aboriginal and African ancestors.

Like the ukelele, the Venezuelan cuatro is strung in what is called "re-entrant" tuning, that is, that instead of the strings being tuned across the neck from high to low, one of the strings jump up in pitch while its neighbours drop progressively. Betraying a common ancestor, the ukelele and the Venezuelan cuatro are tuned alike, B, F#, D, A, except one in reverse order of the other!) Re-entrant tuning is found on most instruments that are primarily strummed, so the up-stroke and the down-stroke sound the same.

** Simon Bolivar: Born in Caracas left the richness of his family to fight against the Spanish Empire and liberated 5 countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.