Afrovenezuelan Music
A rediscovered tradition


3. The African contribution to Venezuelan music

Nowadays it cannot be denied anymore that much of the corpus of national music got permeated with elements derived from African traditions, giving a specific 'coloring' to Venezuelan music. The music is the outcome of a process of creolization, and some genres – especially the drum dances (with many regional varieties), but also the guasa, fulía, parranda, tamunangue, and so on – have a more Afro-Venezuelan character than others.

La Burra - the donkey - is a part of village lore which has become part of national folklore. It is a very amusing song during which a donkey messes around with the bystanders. In its version by Un Solo Pueblo it became a huge success.

Musicologically, the most important aspect of Afro-Venezuelan music is its use of polyrhythms; the synchronic unfolding of more than two melodic motives or percussive rhythms at the same time. Next to an inventive play with polyrhythms, and a general emphasis on rhythm as the most important aesthetic organizing principle (instead of for instance melody or harmony), other characteristics of 'African music' are the use of call-and-response patterns and the repetition of phrases. The lyrics may also contribute to the 'African' flavour of the music, the sabor africano. One might also note the use of syncopation and even the democratic nature of the performance itself, in the sense that nobody is excluded from actively participating in the musical process.

Afro-Venezuelan music absorbs the spheres of dance, literary invention and lyrical improvisation. This makes this part of expressive culture into a synaesthetic experience; a sensually encompassing artistical musical complex. The dance that in a generalized way has come to typify this complex is el baile de tambor, the drum dance of great sensuality and almost ritual intensity, but now mostly considered as a purely secular dance. The spectators-participants gather in such a way around the tambores that a small circular space is left open for one ‘couple’ to start the dance.




El baile del tambor is the generalized description of the various drum dances. When drums resound, it doesn’t take long before a couple starts to dance and soon bystanders follow.

They start to dance close to each other, with undulating body movements and gyrations, and with pelvic thrusts that accentuate the 'meaning' of the dance as a game of erotic challenge. The couple might break up any moment, as any of the bystanders might jump into the circle and push the person of his or her sex out of it. In this way, at the end of the dance all of the participants of one sex might have danced with all of the participants of the opposite sex in the enchanted space formed by the community in celebration, achieving a form of danced communitas.













Afro-Venezuelan musical traditions are most intimately related to the festivals of the “black folk saintsSan Juan and San Benito. Specific songs are related to the different stages of the festival and of the procession, when the saints start their yearly paseo – stroll - through the community to dance with their people.

Saint John the Baptist in full glory on his altar. Here we see the typical Catholic iconography, but in some villages we encountered black statues taking the place of this ‘Eurocentric’ image.

This picture was taken during the festival of San Juan in 'his house,’ in the village of Chuao. This was one of the first cocoa haciendas on the Venezuelan coast and due to its isolation many Afro-Catholic traditions are still honoured. Celebrants sing and dance for the saint.

The society of Sanjuaneras is a female association and each year they select someone amongst them to take care of San Juan in ‘his house’. When the fiesta is nearing, San Juan dresses up for the event and the women talk and sing to him. During the dawns of the festival, they sing sirenas in front of his statue when he comes back from his visits to the church.

San Benito, two drums and pilón.

(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.

The original context of this music is thus Roman Catholicism as it provides a ritual calendar for the fiestas (and a context for syncretic processes that can be subversive to a certain degree). These fiestas are part of winter and summer cycles, and the festivals demand a real effort of the community, mobilising the people and demanding much of their resources (as it is also a question of local pride to organise a good fiesta).

Los Pastores is another Roman Catholic tradition that is playfully reinterpreted by the people from these isolated communities. These are the shepherds that guarded the cave where the Holy Virgin gave birth. A whole spectacle evolved around this theme in the village of Chuao, including an innocent version of a transvestite dance in the church. Nowadays they also sometimes put a black Jesus Christ in the crib, mostly next to the ‘official’ white one. On the picture we see a cachero who amuses the bystanders.

Here we see the cumacos just in front of the Holy Cross.

In the month of may, the summer festival cycle starts with the Cruz de Mayo (The Cross of the month of may). Every Holy Cross is adorned and a procession is held to visit them all. These are spread over the whole territory of the community. At each cross, prayers are said, and at the main cross in the village, drums and songs might be played all night.

In former times, Afro-Venezuelan music was much more embedded in a magico-religious order, be it in the form of syncretic “Afro-Catholicism” or in a form of maroonaged ethnicity.

(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.

Nowadays, instruments and songs are often played out of their original context, as a leisure activity, and often for an outside audience of tourists and urbanites, or just for the sake of fun, as the Afrovenezuelans seem especially dedicated to the art of parrandear (mounting improvised parties).

(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.

Concludingly, we may state that it is justified to speak of a well-defined “Afro-Venezuelan Musical Complex,” in which music, dance and song are united.

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