Afrovenezuelan Music
A rediscovered tradition


1. Introduction

The Caribbean shores of the country throb to the rhythms of the progeny of former slaves from Africa: Are they Venezuelans ?” (Richard Gott: 2005)

The 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.

Slowly 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.

In 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 national consciousness.

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 presence.

(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.

Several 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.

The 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).

Thus, 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.

(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.

(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.

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.

A side-effect to the rediscovery of this music (though still mostly for interior consumption), has recently been a certain 're-africanisation' of national music styles.

Here 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.

Also 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).

Dr. Bartolomé Duijsens
Fundación Interchange


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