THE BEST KEPT SECRET IN THE CARIBBEAN
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
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"
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
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
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.