Afrovenezuelan Music
A rediscovered tradition


Musical examples

(Video 1 (youtube) - Afrogroup in front of the National Pantheon in Caracas)
As part of the celebration of the abolition of slavery in Venezuela, this band from eastern Venezuela performed on the steps of the National Pantheon in Caracas, where the heroes of the Independence struggle are enshrined. It was a highly symbolical event as it paid homage to the indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan freedom fighters for the first time in history. Amongst the bystanders are many activists of the nationwide Afro-Venezuelan Network.
(see 1 - Introduction)

(Audio 1 - “El saqueo”, Village Group 'Sentir Sabanera', Tierra Del Cacao - Afro-Venezuelan Music And Dance)

El Saqueo (The revolt) is a song of social protest, commenting on the outbreak of a popular revolt on the 27th of february 1989. It spread rapidly, and "El 27" marks a break in the history of Venezuela, preparing the ground for the rise to power of Hugo Chávez. A good illustration too of the vitality of music as a news medium, continuing oral tradition. The style of the song is a parranda, nominally the music played during the Christmas season, and by now one of Venezuela’s many national musical styles (amongst other things, through the huge success of groups like Un Solo Pueblo and constant media-exposure). This composition is by Alexis Laya who also blows the guarura, a sea-shell:
Looting has started!
On the 27th of february in Guarenas there started
a rebellion that set the whole of Venezuela aflame.
The people were sick and tired of corruption
they left the people in a troubled state.

(see 1 - Introduction)

(Video 2 (youtube) - Francisco Pacheco)
Francisco Pacheco – lovingly called “El Negro de Cata” (‘The Black Man from Cata,’ a village on the coast) – is a real star in Venezuela. Over many years he was the voice of the hugely successful band Un Solo Pueblo and now performs with his own band. His popularity contributed to the wider acceptance of black roots music. This song “Viva Venezuela” has become the unofficial national anthem of Venezuela.
(see 1 - Introduction)

(Video 3 (youtube) - Los Vasallos Del Sol performing "Bolivar, Tu Voz Florido")
The Vasallos del Sol is a band sponsored by the Fundación Bigott, which made a huge effort to promote Venezuelan popular culture. The band here performs on the Plaza Sucre in front of the headquarters of the foundation. This song pays homage to Simón Bolivar, Independence hero and the founder of the nation (and one could say, also of the national state religion, as the Bolivarian Revolution is in full swing). The band consists of a group of vocalists – with Betzayda Machado as soloist – and a group of drummers. The only other instrument is the cuatro, which has become a symbol of Venezuelan identity.
(see 1 - Introduction)

(Audio 2 - “Raíces”, San Millán, The drums of freedom)
The song Raices (Roots) reflects the constant roots-searching of the Afro-Venezuelans: Ay donde estan, donde estan las raices de mi raza negra ? (“Where are the roots of my black folks ?”). The band Tambores de San Millán arose out of the “Movement for the Rescue of Afro-Venezuelan Culture in the Community of San Millán, Puerto Cabello,” in 1976. It is a revival group, with the aim to better the position of blacks in society. In 1992, the band was awarded a Casa del Tambor (House of the Drum), and the band was declared “cultural heritage of the state of Carabobo.” Local author Asdrúbal González wrote about San Millán: “Tambor, puro tambor . . . Es el rescate de la africanidad.“ Drums, just drums . . . This is the rescue of the African heritage,” and he continues: “It is the consolidation of popular wisdom expressed through avocado wood and goatskin, through instruments that are the testimony of a race and a language of resistance against oppression, drums that in the hands of those of African descent—all of us born in the Venezuelan melting pot—represent a form of being in the musical universe. This tellurian essence, a voice of the people, African roots, are the rhythms and sounds of the drums”. Respect for tradition has always been guideline for San Millán, but music travels and outside influences have been incorporated. By now, the name of the group has become the name of a rhythm too; to play a sanmillanero means to execute a drum-song in the style of the band San Millán.
(see 2 - Historical background)

(Video 4 (youtube) - the Diablos Danzantes)
The Diablos Danzantes – the Dancing Devils – are a male brotherhood who celebrate their festival at Corpus Cristi. From medieval, Roman Catholic origin, in Latin America this fiesta took on many syncretic forms. In Venezuela the festival only survived in a few isolated black communities, like the one filmed here in Chuao. There is no priest in the village, but this year the bishop came to visit it, thus bestowing great honor on the pueblo.
(see 2 - Historical background)

(Video 5 (youtube) - San Millan)
These images were shot at a live performance in Petare, Caracas. These are the opening shots of a documentary on Afro-Venezuelan music: “Of Saints and Drums” (released under the title “Going Native in Venezuela” by PAN Records). The locations of several black communities are shown on the map. San Millán is one of the most emblematic Afro-Venezuelan bands and in time has come to define a proper style.
(see 3 - The African contribution to Venezuelan music)

(Video 6 (youtube) - Chimbangueles)
This is another, longer selection from the documentary on black subcultures in Venezuela. First we see images from Curiepe – long the archetypical black village in Venezuela, ‘discovered’ by intellectuals in the 1950’s, and still a very popular destination at the time of the local fiestas. It is followed by an interview with Juan de Dios Martínez (1945-2005), “captain of the captains of the Chimbangueleros”. Born in Bobures within its traditions which reach back to Africa, he took these to the aulas and became the defender of “Afrozulianidad” – the African presence in Zulia, Venezuela’s easternmost state. He also recorded the Tambor veleño, the drum music from the area around Coro, which resembles the tambu from the nearby Dutch Antilles. He was Venezuela’s most ardent promotor of the Afro-Venezuelan heritage. Festivals for San Benito and San Juan last for several days and nights without any break. A quite exhausting affair, but to devotees it is unquestionably the most cherised event on the yearly ritual calendar.
(see 3 - The African contribution to Venezuelan music)

(Video 7 (youtube) - Chuao beach session)
During holidays, an exodus starts from the overcrowded cities. Many people flock to the beaches and the party is on. On these images one sees a group of young students bringing back the music from the black villages to its source, a music and a culture they can now identify with. The images were shot on the beach of Chuao. A valley that can only be reached by crossing the sea in small fishing boats. This village evolved out of a hacienda, founded in 1568 as an encomienda of native Amerindians. At an early stage slaves were introduced, in the beginning to work alongside the ‘indians.’ In 1671 the hacienda was donated to the church, and an estimated 350 slaves worked at the Obra Pía de Chuao. Only very recently, the hacienda has become the property of those who work it, a local cooperative. Its cocoa is still renowned as one of the world's finest.
(see 3 - The African contribution to Venezuelan music)

(Video 8 (youtube) - Vasallos tamborero)
This song – “Lucero” (Morning Star) – is a typical drum song. Here the drums explode full force (tambores trancao). Part of the Vasallos band is a dance troupe, dressed in a more or less folklorized fashion. In order to bring the repertoire of the villages to urban audiences, accomodations have to be made to the performance. It has to be structured in space and time, and made more attractive to spectators willing to consume these performances, be it as part of their own identity or as a form of ‘local exotism.’
(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Video 9 (youtube) - The festival of San Benito)
(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Audio 3 - “Ajé/Benito/Ajé”, Villagers of Bobures, Tierra Del Cacao - Afro-Venezuelan Music And Dance)
is one of the rhythms played by San Benito's devotees, los Chimbangueleros. The Chimbangueleros perform different golpes de tambor during the procession for their Afro-Catholic patron saint Ajé/Benito: Ajé when the saints are requested to come out of the church; Chimbanguelero Vaya is played once the saints are out in the streets. Ajé begs the Santo Negro to be one with the pueblo. On this recording from Bobures, the group consists of seven drummers. Ajé is probably a deity of African origin, who later got assimilated to the Catholic cult of San Benito as a means to control a potentially subversive folk religion.

(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Video 10 (youtube) - Mina)
Here we see Grupo Mina in its embryonic form, with a set of culo ‘e puyas and with Chucho García on the left playing the maracas (Miguel Urbina with the blue shirt is playing the drum on the right). Although they have a Workshop of Afro-Venezuelan Percussion in La Pastora, Caracas, the first record they produced was with batá music (the drums of the Cuban Santeriá cult). In 2006 the cd “Somos Mina” appeared, an independent production which is more in a latin-jazz vein.
(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Video 11 (youtube) - Belén Palacios on quitiplas)
(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Audio 4 - “Barlovento”, Caracas Kontambor, Caracas Kontambor - The Bululú Project)
Barlovento is one of Venezuela’s favorite songs, orginally composed as a Venezuelan merengue, it became adapted to every imaginable musical style. It is a hymn to the region of that name—literally “the region where the wind comes from”—and to its inhabitants, who form a multi-ethnic society with a predominance of blacks: “Barlovento, fiery land of drums, of devotional songs and beautiful negresses, who go feasting with their fine dark waists and dance to the rhythm of the drums. How heavenly delicious she moves her body, how marvellous the pounding of the drums resounds.”
As the area—to the east of Caracas and part Miranda State—was renowned for its cocoa plantations, it is also referred to as La Tierra del Cacao. There is a strong black subculture in this impoverished zone, and some popular leaders elaborate on the theme of “afrobarloventeñidad,” using powerful regional symbols — like the mina —to generate a culture of resistance...
This interpretation by Caracas Kontambor starts off with an instrumental version, performed on culo e’puya, cuatro, bass, and sax. In the second part, Betzayda once again gives a superb demonstration of her vocal mastery.

(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Audio 5 - “Bocón (Chatterbox)”, Belén Palacios, Heide, Miguel Urbina, Chucho García, Bocón - Afro-Hispanic Music From Venezuela)
This song derives its magic from the quitiplás. Belén and Heide - from the cocoa village of Tapipa - now form the nucleus of an all-female band: Eleguá. With the help of their manager they started to perform on other stages far from home and by now are one of the foremost neo-African bands of Venezuela. The title of this song refers to a bigmouth, a twaddler:
Stop tattling and flying rumor, else your fiancée will drop you
Leave those lies behind, ’cause I know the truth:
I fear no one, because I have a strong voice

(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Audio 6 - “Tonada De Quitiplás”, Toro Ensamble, Barrio Latino)
Songs played on the quitiplás, typical of Barlovento and nominally only played during the fiesta of San Juan. The verses belong to oral tradition and have become quite standardized (de-localized).

(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Video 12 (youtube) - Osma)
The band Café y Panela is from the village of Osma, located on the coastal stretch near Caracas called El Litoral (near to La Sabana and Chuspa). They make their own drums and these help to create the impression of a very powerful band (see also the picture). In the video we see a “Baile de Tambor”, one of the typical Afro-Venezuelan dances. We also see the guaruras, here played by women. These images were shot during a performance in honor of San Juan in Caracas, thus bringing the black saint and his people to the center of the national stage.
(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Audio 7- “Carángano”, Santiago Muñoz, Bernardo Sanz & Erasmo Llasmoza, Bocón - Afro-Hispanic Music From Venezuela)
The carángano is made from the trunk of a coconut palm. A horizontal incision is made in the stem and is put under tension by two wooden pieces that are inserted between it and the trunk. The strand of bark is struck with sticks, and - supplementing this percussive effect - a bowl with corn seeds is placed on top and moved along it, thus producing different maracas-like vibrations. The song is comical: “The monkey tomfool smokes a pipe and drinks cocoa. The monkey of Juan Ramón smoked a pipe and drank our rum!”

(see 4 - Musical instruments)

(Audio 8 - “El Nieto Del Retorno”, Grupo Mina, Somos Mina)
The second song by Grupo Mina “El Nieto del Retorno” (The Grandchild of the Return) is a theme by Chucho García, and it ‘returns’ as a bonus track as well. Here Chucho only plays the thumb-piano and sings with a soft-spoken voice (very contrary to his more rethorical voice): ”I came back to you as the grandchild of memory/to shelter in your naked and tender breast/Muakaka koko ya kento....” The song was inspired by a trip to the Kongo in 1987; the first in situ confrontation with the roots of Afro-Venezuelan culture, the first “Salto al Atlantico”(the title of a 1989 documentary based on the experience of the return, which shows the intimate similarities between Afrovenezuelean and ‘African’ culture). Miguel Urbina also made the return trip in search of “nuestra africanía” – “our Africanness” and went to Senegal. Grupo Mina elaborates on the rhytmical affinities and family resemblances between African and Venezuelan - and Cuban - musical traditions.

(see 5 - From invisibility to empowerment - Cultural resistance and afrocentricity)

(Audio 9 - “Somos Mina”, Grupo Mina, Somos Mina)
The first record by Grupo Mina is called Somos Mina (“We are the mina-drum”). It is also the title of the first song:
The mina is not just a drum
It is a movement/from Africa to Barlovento...
The mina doesn’t exlude, because we are all mina
Those who feel that in their soul
something new is coming...
Move with the mina/Move.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)

(Audio 10 - “Tumbao Mandinga”, Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo)
"Tumbao Mandinga" is from the first album of ¡Vaya Mandinga!, a group of musicians from Venezuela, West-Africa and The Netherlands. The ¡Vaya Mandinga!-project was organised by Fundación Interchange in an attempt to reconnect indigenous traditions across the Atlantic. The pairing of the African and the Venezuelan harp was done to demonstrate that the African contribution to the evolution of Venezuelan music has been more intensive than ever believed. The development of the national musical style joropo – and especially the playing of the harp – was always explained in terms of its embeddedness in the grand Western classical tradition. As if Venezuelan harp music was nothing more than a manifestation of the music that had been en vogue in Europe at earlier stages. Although the memory of it might be vague or even absent, the continuities between the kora and the harp are deeper than hitherto acknowledged.
Tumbao Mandinga is a calípso, a genre made popular through the emigration of West Indians:”Listen to the drums, and how kora and harp resound; with this groove that invites you to celebrate carnival.” During the Christian Carnival the established order is reversed and turned upside down: The devil and his mob of fools temporarily reign supreme. In calipso the bumbac is used, a drum brought by the West Indians. Cissoko from Guinee plays the balaphone. This song is an eloquent testimony to the family resemblances between African and circum-Caribbean musics.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)

(Audio 11 - “Stringed to Senegambia”, Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo)
"Stringed to Senegambia" is a traditional Mandinga song. The title points to the ‘strings’ between Venezuela and the Senegambia. Harp and kora weave an intricate tapestry: So many ‘genetically’ connected strings, that one gets disoriented at times by this play of mirror images between kora/Africa and harp/Venezuela.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)

(Audio 12 - “Mambo del diablo”, Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo)
"Mambo del diablo" is a song based on the festival for Saint John the Baptist. The celebrants dance with the statue of the saint when he leaves his ‘house’:“Take him outside; I want to see him”. The expression at the end means “Go back to hell, you evil forces.” This song is ”¡Vaya Mandinga!’s devil’s mambo against the forces of darkness.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)

(Video 13 (youtube) - Sutukung)
The band Vaya Mandinga! was created to reestablish transatlantic musical links. The African kora is seen next to the Venezuelan harp and the European double bass. This song derives from Mande culture in West Africa. It is a praise-song in honor of a powerful man, who lived in the time of the ancestors and founded the village of Sutukung in the Gambia.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)

(Audio 13 - “Ritmos de la humanidad”, Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo)
In "Ritmos de la Humanidad" the harp provides the funky foundation for a stylistic experiment. Vocalist ‘Cotufa’ is one of Caracas’ hottest rappers, performing with a latin hip-hop posse and with a reggae band. His inspired lyrics speak of universal unity. Jesús Bosque here plays the vibes; he established himself as a high-priest of música afro-urbana, a drum-fusion of rock, jazz and Venezuelan popular music.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)

(Audio 14 - “Agua que va a caer(Rain that’s gonna fall), Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo)
Venezuelan-Dutch percussionist and bandleader Marco Bernal (born in Caracas, 1969) founded rock band Laberinto in 1989, and in 1992 these “latin-metal rockers” made the jump to Amsterdam. In time, Laberinto achieved a certain notoriety, but Marco never lost his rootedness in Venezuelan popular culture, in which pan-Latin and Afro-Venezuelan rhythmic patterns predominate. As he matured, he embarked on a new project: The Toro Ensamble (2004). With this band he returns to Venezuelan popular music and to the salsa brava of his youth, integrating these with new soundscapes of the global village. This song modernized and salsafied drum-dance; San Juan being associated with summer solstice and the beginning of the rainy season.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)

(Audio 15 - “Comadre Juana”, Caracas Kontambor, The Bululú Project)
Comadre Juana is a composition with three parts, based on a very popular Afro-Venezuelan song: “Comadre Juana take my hand and make me dance with you!” This version gives a daring new interpretation of this song, as it is included in a ‘suite’ about contemporary Venezuela (here Comadre Juana becomes Godmother of all the Venezuelans and a metaphor for Venezuela). Comadre Juana represents the intimacy of relations in a small-scale society. Lead vocalist Betzayda Machado — ”La Perla Negra de Barlovento,” being herself from a typical Barloventean village of small cocoa-hacienda owners — also sings with Vasallos del Sol, Un Solo Pueblo and Vaya Mandinga! The chorus sings:“Sí es, no es,” echoing the Shakespearean dictum “To be or not to be.” The second part delivers a message about the broken dream of progress in Venezuela. The third part represents the continuity in Venezuelan history, symbolized by the harp - the basic instrument of joropo, the national dance and a kind of musical key to the national soul. Its sound is reminscent of the West African kora, and blends harmoniously with the African derived percussive traditions of Venezuela. The band Caracas Kontambor was formed in 2001 by Bartolomé
Duijsens and Gilberto Simoza. The Bululú Project derives its name from “Bululú” – disorder – a common theme in the history of Venezuela. Caracas Kontambor presents a musical fusion that might be dubbed “world jazz,” reflecting the variegated musical styles of a multi-ethnic society in a global soundscape, an alchemical blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and homegrown anarchy.
(see 6 - New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz)


Afrovenezuelan Music

1- Introduction
2- Historical background
3- The African contribution to Venezuelan musical culture – Afro-Venezuelan music
4- Musical instruments
5- From invisibility to empowerment – Cultural resistance and afrocentricity
6- New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music – From localised soundscape to world jazz
Musical examples