Caribbean shores of the country throb to the rhythms of the progeny
of former slaves from Africa: Are they Venezuelans ?”
(Richard Gott: 2005)
Venezuelans are generally described as a 'café con leche-people',
meaning that almost everybody is of mixed descendancy and - as the
metaphor suggests - that everybody is at least partially ‘black’.
But racist attitudes were not alien to this society, and the heritage
of slavery combined with the ideology of whitening, resulted in
the depreciation of everything remotely recognisable as 'African'
in personal life and national culture. This resulted in the 'invisibility'
of the blacks as a group in Venezuela, and to cultural
amnesia regarding the African roots of - and contribution
to - contemporary Venezuelan society.
This is a wall-painting in the mansion of a
family belonging to the colonial elite of slave-owners (the
so-called mantuanos). The name of this mansion is
Quinta de Anauco - which gave its name too to one of the most
emblematic musical compositions of Venezuela. Once on the
outskirts of Caracas, it was swallowed up by the metropole.
Constructed in 1797, it now harbours the Museo de Arte Colonial.
The picture shows a white lady being carried around by her
servant. It is part of legend that El Libertador Simón
Bolivar stayed at this place.
something of a rediscovery and revalidation of the African heritage
started - especially by writers of the indigenistic school
in the 1940-50s. Before, anthropologists were almost only
interested in the Amerindian legacy of Venezuela, but from then
on social scientists also started to do do research on the neglected
descendants of the slave population. This forgotten group also returned
in other ways back to the centre of the national stage: Especially
after World War II, the rural exodus took on new momentum and many
impoverished rural blacks “voted with their feet.”
A representation of a group of musicians belonging to the
popular tradition. A small theatre with puppets on a string.
Some might object to it as caricaturistic, or outright racist,
but this view would probably not be understood in Venezuela,
as attitudes towards ‘race’ are more relaxed as
they are in the USA.
Caracas, some rapidly growing neighbourhoods became almost extensions
of the regions of origin: San Augustín,
for instance harboured many people from Barlovento,
and social movements originating in that barrio - like El Afinque
de Marín, and the band Madera - did much to revitalize
the traditions of the homeland. In this way, Afro-Venezuelan traditions
and drums also came back to the cities, to new audiences and the
In the last two decades of the 20th century, a new generation of
cultural entrepreneurs – most notable amongst them some Afro-Venezuelan
activists – and also some institutions (especially the state
funded FUNDEF – Society for Etnomusicology
and Folklore – and the Fundación Bigott,
offspring of a tobacco multinational) started to research and promote
the Afro-Venezuelan heritage. With the coming to power of Hugo
Chávez in 1998, and the political and cultural project
of the Bolivarian Revolution, he forcefully promoted,
once almost invisible and unheard - indigenous, native - voices
have come to the forefront of the national scene and reclaimed their
(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
indigenous leaders became members of the national parliament, and
a lot has been done to better their position in society. As the
Afro-Venezuelans are much more integrated into Venezuelan society,
specific policies to better their lot have been more difficult to
formulate and to implementate, but changes have come here too.
(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.
celebration of the emancipation of the slaves, was a historic
event in Venezuela (2004). The highest government officials
participated in it, thus officially acknowledging the historical
debt of the nation towards the Afro-Venezuelans (as had been
done for the indigenous peoples in the new constitution of
the Fifth Republic some years before).
although the African heritage in Venezuela is very diluted, in the
field that interest us most here - that of music and dance - it
made a spectacular renaissance. In popular culture, the 'black'
drum dances that were once forbidden by the authorities, have by
now become indispensable in any representation of national culture.
Pioneering groups like Un Solo Pueblo, Madera,
Vasallos del Sol and Convenezuela,
already testified of this move, and by now most Venezuelan artists
are eager to include elements of “Afro-Venezuelan music”
in their repertoire.
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.
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.
Palenque Son Karibe is a band that strives
to represent Afro-Venezuelan as well as Afro-Colombian musical
traditions. And they also perform other more contemporary
genres, adapting these to their group format.
to the rediscovery of this music (though still mostly for interior
consumption), has recently been a certain 're-africanisation'
of national music styles.
the tambores de fulía are being played, a
set of smaller drums from Barlovento. They look like small
tambores redondos. The fulía is another important genre,
originally from Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands, it
became very popular in the black communities.
there is a wider acceptance now of a neo-African identity.
Another symptom of this revalorization seems to be the wider acceptance
of the term “Afro-Venezuelan” itself (although many
“black Venezuelans” perceive themselves just as Venezuelans,
citizens of a modern state).