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