Afrovenezuelan Music
A rediscovered tradition


2. Historical background

During the time of the transatlantic slave trade, Africans from many regional and social backgrounds were forcefully transplanted to the new plantation societies in the Americas.

(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.

In the process they became a commodity in the rising global market. The descendants of the black diaspora in the northern parts of the Americas are called Afro-Americans, and by analogy their descendants in Venezuela are called Afro-Venezuelans. During the period of the slave trade about 120,000 people were sold into slavery in Venezuela. Here slavery came to a relatively early end, although it took longer then the lifetime of El Libertador Simón Bolívar, who promised manumission to the slaves once Independence would be achieved. As a social institution it just seemed to dwindle away; 'an anti-climax,' Lombardi called it, and even 'a non-event'. The ‘early’ dismissal of slavery also meant that blacks became more assimilated to the incipient national society - with its growing overall criollo identity - than elsewhere in the wider Caribbean (in Venezuela criollo means “native, local”, and in its racial sense comes nearest to the term “mestizo”). The enslaved people were the victim to severe shocks and traumas, but there were several escape strategies, real or symbolical: There were active and passive strategies of maroonage. Ethnic diversity and geographical dispersity led to a stronger abandonment of localised 'African' magico-religious practices, but Afro-Venezuelans evolved their own specific discourses and forms of resistance in the context of the slowly consolidating multi-ethnic nation-state Venezuela. Folk Catholicism at times softened the impact of the process of dehumanization and the reign of terror.

(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.

In - and beyond - the religious context, music became the priviliged vehicle for self and collective expression for the uprooted and disinherited, and a niche for the retention of 'African culture elements'.

The caja is here used at the festival of the Diablos Danzantes (see the video). The rhythms direct the stages of the procession and the dances; these are a mix of African and European traditions.

In the context of music and dance, black identity crystallizes most visibly and dramatically.

The festival of the Dancing Devils lasts a few days and nights, and the outcome of this ritualized drama is always the same: The Holy Cross – Christianity – defeats chaos, disorder, and heresy. Originally the festival was about the victory of the Holy Cross over the forces of evil, but nowadays its spiritual significance tends to diminish (and meanwhile its touristic importance increases).

uantitative sources are evidently very unreliable and racial identity itself is subject to strategic ambiguity. In 1950, official statistics had it that about 32% of the Venezuelan population was black (estimates for Brazil and the US being, respectively, 33% and 10%). According to a NACLA-report, 10% of the Venezuelan population is black. That would mean that about 3 million Venezuelans would be ‘statistically black.’ But we have to remember, that all ‘racial’ categories are part of wider criollo society, with overlapping, multiple identities to be situated in their context. It would also be a mistake to consider the “black population” as one homogeneous category: shades of color still hold their significance here. And besides an internal wave of blacks migrating to the cities, many Afro-Antillians (most recently many Haitians) and even more Afro-Colombians migrated towards Venezuelan centres of opportunity and employment.

Apart from dancing in the church and in front of it, the Dancing Devils visit the houses of almost all villagers, especially those of the deceased members of their brotherhood. The house here is a bahareque – the typical dwelling place of adobe of poorer Venezuelans. Even in an isolated village as Chuao, they now tend to be replaced by more modern constructions. It has been suggested that there is an African model for the mask of the devils, but it is very difficult to substantiate this thesis.

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