course, Afrovenezuelan culture is not all about drums: all the string
instruments that were - and are - part and parcel of Venezuelan
popular culture, were also adopted in the isolated black settlements.
In the more accesible regions and in the cities, a never ending
process of mutual adaptation and transculturation occured, an often
spontanuous process based on the choice of individual musicians,
but in the past sometimes enforced by repressive measures (like
the prohibitions imposed on drumming). Especially the relatively
ubiquitious cuatro - a four-stringed little
guitar that has come to symbolize Venezuela (projecting the image
of the nation outwards, but also its presence inwards, into the
isolated communitities) - is often used in the daily life and rituals
of the black communities, alongside the drum ensembles.
The most striking characteristic of traditional Afro-Venezuelan
musical culture is the regional distribution of different drum ensembles.
The family of membranophones - drums - is quite extended: four groups
of drum-ensembles - each with its own geographical niche - might
be described as “typical” Afro-Venezuelan: The chimbangueles;
the mina and curbata;
the tambores redondos,
and the cumacos.
is probably the most widely distributed drum in Venezuela, especially
in the area west from Barlovento; the coastal region stretching
towards the state of Carabobo, and the hinterland.
Here the director of Café
y Panela (the same group as Grupo Osma - see
video) proudly poses next to his drums. These cumacos
are typical for El Litoral, the coastal area near Caracas,
West of Barlovento.
are several African prototypes of this drum, giving credit to the
theory that the name cumaco derived from a Carib
word for slave, as this drum took root especially in some
of the oldest slave-plantations on the Venezuelan coast.
Son de Chuao is another
grupo de tambores. They are from Chuao, a valley,
cocoa hacienda and village on the coast of Aragua State (west
to Caracas). On the left we see a metal scraper, the charrasca.
Adapted from salsa and merengue orchestras, it has become
part of the grupos de tambores, as they produce a much stronger
sound as the maracas.
commonly, the cumaco is made from the wood of a avocado-tree.
The skin - preferably of deer - is attached with ropes or nails
to cover one extreme of the cylindrical drum (that can measure up
to 2 metres and beyond). The cumaco is laid down on the
ground - sometimes parallel to a different-sized one - and the player
sits down on the body of the drum to strike the skin. Behind his
back, one or more people - the paliteros - bench down to
strike rhythms with sticks - the laures - on the wooden
body of the cumaco.
The palitero forcefully strikes
a rhythm against the body of the cumaco, thus giving
a basis to the player of the drumskin. The same rhythm is
maintained, and this continious beat becomes entrancing.
This picture was taken on the beach-front – el malecón
– of Choroní, a small colonial village. Every
weekend a multitude of urbanites invades this place, eager
to hear the sound of the drums and enjoy the - often alcohol
induced - orgiastic atmosphere.
This picture is from an archive, and
probably from the 1950s. The cumacos are at the core
of local identity, and it seems things didn’t change
that much over the last fifty years. The players of the drums
are called the cumaqueros; anyone is allowed to join
in, but physical strength is a benefit.
drums are tuned in a more or less intuitive way: If the sound is
too low, a fire is lighted to heat up the skin, until the pitch
is high enough. The cumaco is played with both hands, but
the heel of the foot can also be used to press against the skin
and thus influence its tone.
8 (youtube) - Vasallos
This song - “Lucero”
(Morning Star) – is a typical drum song. Here the drums
explode full force (tambores trancao). Part of the
Vasallos band is a dance troupe, dressed in a more or less
folklorized fashion. In order to bring the repertoire of the
villages to urban audiences, accomodations have to be made
to the performance. It has to be structured in space and time,
and made more attractive to spectators willing to consume
these performances, be it as part of their own identity or
as a form of ‘local exotism.’
Another type of drums are the chimbangueles. These are
specifically used for the festival in honor of San Benito
Before the festival of San Benito starts,
money has to be collected. To this end, processions with his
statue and drums are organized, especially in places where
many people gather. This picture was taken at the bus station
of Maracay, the capital of Aragua State, just west of Caracas.
In this way, this picture also shows that he is venerated
in many parts of the country (but most intensely so in Zulia)
and has never been an exclusively Afro-Venezuelan saint.
the larger part of Venezuela - the culture area of the cumaco
and the tambores redondos, including the big cities like
Caracas - San Juan (Saint John the Baptist) is considered to be
the patron saint of the people of Afro-American descendance. But
in the westernmost states of the country, and especially in the
black communities south of the Lake of Maracaibo, San Benito takes
this place. In Bobures village, they talk familiarly of their patron
saint as El Negro. The yearly ritual cycle to honour him
reaches its climax on the first days of january. These days, San
Benito goes singing and dancing with the chimbangueleros
(the term refers to the drums and also to its players).
(Video 9 (youtube) - The
festival of San Benito)
(Audio 3 - “Ajé/Benito/Ajé”,
Villagers of Bobures, Tierra Del Cacao - Afro-Venezuelan
Music And Dance) Ajé-Benito-Ajé is one
of the rhythms played by San Benito's devotees, los Chimbangueleros.
The Chimbangueleros perform different golpes de tambor
during the procession for their Afro-Catholic patron saint
Ajé/Benito: Ajé when the saints are
requested to come out of the church; ChimbangueleroVaya is played once the saints are out in the streets.
Ajé begs the Santo Negro to be one with the
pueblo. On this recording from Bobures, the group
consists of seven drummers. Ajé is probably
a deity of African origin, who later got assimilated to the
Catholic cult of San Benito as a means to control a potentially
subversive folk religion.
ensemble ideally consists of seven different drums: the tambor
mayor (or arriero, the one
that 'pushes' the rest along); the second tambor mayor
- el segundo; the cantante;
and the repuesta (these first four are
classified as the male drums). These are followed by a set of requintas.
The drums measure around 70 to 100 cm in height. The diameter varies
between 20-40 cm (the base is smaller than the top). The skins are
attached with chords to pegs, and the drums are carried around in
Chimbangueleros are organised as a brotherhood with its
own gobierno, its own government, the
most important functions being those of mayordomo,
primer capitán, capitán
de la lengua (treasurer of magical formulas) and the
director de banda.
- vassal - of San Benito drums out his devotion on one of
the drums of the chimbangueles drum ensemble.
The tambores redondos another spectacular example of the
Afro-Venezuelan drums. These drums are better known as culo
'e puya, and also had a specific geographical niche:
Barlovento, the region about a 100 miles east of Caracas.
A set of culo ‘e puyas.
These were made by master-drummer Miguel Urbina
in his workshop in Caracas and are now in the expert hands
of Marco Toro.
Liscano - an important poet who also made field-recordings of Venezuelan
folk music (with Charles Seeger and also Alan Lomax) - ascribed
their origin to the Mangbele people from the Congo.
Morphologically their sense ngoma, nguan
ngomaand their mwana
ngoma - signifying mother, father and child drum -
are identical to the tambores redondos: the cruza’o,
puja’o and the corrío
(or prima, or guía).
In Africa they are played with two sticks, in Venezuela only with
10 (youtube) - Mina)
Here we see Grupo Mina in
its embryonic form, with a set of culo ‘e puyas
and with Chucho García on the left
playing the maracas (Miguel Urbina
with the blue shirt is playing the drum on the right). Although
they have a Workshop of Afro-Venezuelan Percussion in La Pastora,
Caracas, the first record they produced was with batá
music (the drums of the Cuban Santeriá cult). In 2006
the cd “Somos Mina” appeared, an independent production
which is more in a latin-jazz vein.
These drums are made from a very light kind of wood and the slightly
conical, cylindrical drums have skins on both sides, interconnected
by strings. Only one side of the drum is played upon, while the
drum is kept diagonally between the legs of a standing musician.
During the festival of San Juan, it is possible
to see drums - you may have looked for anxiously during your
stay in Venezuela - on every corner of the street. Here two
young boys demonstrate their drumming technique to a group
of bystanders (in Curiepe).
length is about one metre, and their diameter varies between more
or less 15 and 25 cm. The corrío starts to play
first and calls the cruzao, who follows in a lower tone
in the same rhythm. The pujao then 'pushes' the other two
along, improvising freely. With swift movements of the hands, the
tension on the skin can be manipulated, thus changing its pitch
(resembling the sound of a talking drum). Originally confined to
a very limited area, by now these drums have become adopted by many
(Audio 4 - “Barlovento”,
Caracas Kontambor, Caracas Kontambor - The Bululú
Project) Barlovento is one of Venezuela’s
favorite songs, orginally composed as a Venezuelan merengue,
it became adapted to every imaginable musical style. It is
a hymn to the region of that name - literally “the region
where the wind comes from” - and to its inhabitants,
who form a multi-ethnic society with a predominance of blacks:
“Barlovento, fiery land of drums, of devotional songs
and beautiful negresses, who go feasting with their fine dark
waists and dance to the rhythm of the drums. How heavenly
delicious she moves her body, how marvellous the pounding
of the drums resounds.”
As the area - to the east of Caracas and part Miranda State
- was renowned for its cocoa plantations, it is also referred
to as La Tierra del Cacao. There is a strong black
subculture in this impoverished zone, and some popular leaders
elaborate on the theme of “afrobarloventeñidad,”
using powerful regional symbols - like the mina -
to generate a culture of resistance...
This interpretation by Caracas Kontambor starts off with an
instrumental version, performed on culo e’puya,
cuatro, bass, and sax. In the second part, Betzayda
once again gives a superb demonstration of her vocal mastery.
Another drum from this same culture area, Barlovento, is the enormous
mina, a drum measuring two to up to four metres (with a
boca - literally mouth; diameter - of about 50 cm).
El Teatro Negro de Barlovento is also from
the heartland of Venezuelan cocoa culture. Like Elegua,
they actively try to recover their African roots, and both
have come to adopt a pan-African repertoire recently. Teatro
Negro opted for a more diversified instrumentation though,
and their sound resembles that of world music pioneers Osibisa,
or of the afrobeat more in vogue nowadays. In front of the
band stands the 'mina' - the typical drum of the
It is paired with the curbata, and both are played during
the festival of San Juan.
Here we see the mina and its partner the curbata
in a museum setting: At the FUNDEF which - during revolutionary
times - was being rebaptized as the Centre for Diversity.
This is the hothouse of national popular culture.
the mina rests diagonally on two crossed poles, so that
drummers can play on it while standing; one in front of the drum
on its skin, and several around it with sticks. The curbata
is the guide of this ensemble, its height being about one metre,
played with two sticks, and resting on three 'feet'.
way, the most common drum in Venezuela is the tambora
- a small cylindrical drum - of mostly avocado-wood. Normally
the drum is worn on a cord, which leaves the musician free to sing
and walk, or even dance. This drum has become part of national folklore,
and just like the furruco - the Spanish
zambomba - and the more modern redoblante
- a solo drum of the industrial type - and congas
(tumbadoras), they can't be considered as properly Afro-Venezuelan.
The furruco - a type of frotting
drum - is mostly used at parrandas. This might refer
to a spontanously mounted party, or to a genre of Christmas
music. This picture was taken during a nightly procession
through the village of Chuao. They go from house to house,
play in front of the door and when the door is opened the
party is on in the living room of the mostly very humble dwellings.
During the day this woman works in the cocoa hacienda.
During festival time and parrandas the drums are
intensely used (not to say abused). Often skins have to be
replaced, or sticks, or the attachment of the skin renewed.
But still even the youngest children can’t resist the
drums; they have to play them and else they fabricate their
own instruments from what they find.
very appealing Afro-Venezuelan percussion instrument is called quitiplás;
its name imitates the sound.
(Audio 5 - “Bocón (Chatterbox)”,
Belén Palacios, Heide, Miguel Urbina, Chucho García,
Bocón - Afro-Hispanic Music From Venezuela) This song derives its magic from the quitiplás.
Belén and Heide -
from the cocoa village of Tapipa - now form the nucleus of
an all-female band: Eleguá. With the
help of their manager they started to perform on other stages
far from home and by now are one of the foremost neo-African
bands of Venezuela. The title of this song refers to a bigmouth,
“Stop tattling and flying rumor, else your fiancée
will drop you
Leave those lies behind, ’cause I know the truth:
I fear no one, because I have a strong voice”
usually consists of a set of 4 bamboo sticks (of more or less 40
cm length). One player, holding one tube in each hand, provides
the basic rhythm by alternatingly pounding them on the ground and
against each other.
Two bigger tubes (called cruza’o
and puja'o), each played by one person,
complete the ensemble. When pounded on the ground, one hand partly
covers the upper orifice of the tube, thus manipulating the pitch.
Though classified as idiophones, these sticks produce very drum-like
sounds. Juan Liscano has been credited with the
rediscovery of this instrument when he encountered it in Barlovento
around 1940. Since then, the quitiplás have been
revitalised through its adoption by folklore groups.
This is an all-female band from a small cocoa village in Barlovento:
Elegúa here performs on the quitiplás,
a percussion ensemble consisting of hollow bamboo tubes. The
director of the band is Alexis Machado (who
has his own Afro-Venezuelan band: Akende). He ‘invented’
the name of the band and is responsible for their presentation
(repertoire, dress and so on). All musicians belong to the
Belén Palacios always worked on her
own cocoa hacienda and conuco, and as a popular artist
maintained the traditions of her village. Here she plays the
quitiplás in her backyard; with the all-female
band Elegúa, she has been performing
on various international stages recently.
11 (youtube) - Belén
Palacios on quitiplas)
(Audio 6 - “Tonada De Quitiplás”,
Toro Ensamble, Barrio Latino) Songs played on the quitiplás, typical
of Barlovento and nominally only played during the fiesta
of San Juan. The verses belong to oral tradition and have
become quite standardized (de-localized).
- shakers made of dried gourds, filled with specific seeds - have
become indispensable to Venezuelan music. Once this instrument was
intimately related to Amerindian shamanistic practices
(in the Afro-Venezuelan context, something of this magical power
has been retained). The maracas has become omnipresent
in Venezuelan music, generally accompanying all song, melody and
The marimbula, a wooden box with a hole
in the middle and with four or more metal strips, produces a bass-like
sound. This instrument might have evolved out of the African thumb-piano,
or another African ‘ancestor’, and is also present in
other Afro-Caribbean settings.
The most conspicuous of the aerophonic instruments is the guarura,
a sea-shell used as a trumpet, accentuating rhythms. Especially
cumaco-ensembles from the coast use this instrument.
12 (youtube) - Osma)
The band Café y Panela
is from the village of Osma, located on the coastal stretch
near Caracas called El Litoral (near to La Sabana and Chuspa).
They make their own drums and these help to create the impression
of a very powerful band (see also the picture).
In the video we see a “Baile de Tambor”, one of
the typical Afro-Venezuelan dances. We also see the guaruras,
here played by women. These images were shot during a performance
in honor of San Juan in Caracas, thus bringing the black saint
and his people to the center of the national stage.
- horns of animals - might also be used.
A third type of aerophones is formed by a collection of one-toned
tubes, like the transverse metal flute used by the Chimbangueleros
(they also use a flute played with the nose, the wooden orumo).
The only string instrument - cordophone - used in the Afro-Venezuelan
enclaves seems to have been the carángano.
It is a monochord made from a branch of the cocos-palm tree and
about 1.30 metre in length. A 'chord' is put under tension and a
resonance body - a bowl - is put on it. When sticks sart to beat
the chord, it produces different vibrations. The Congolese music-bow
might be at its origin.
(Audio 7- “Carángano”,
Santiago Muñoz, Bernardo Sanz & Erasmo Llasmoza,
Bocón - Afro-Hispanic Music From Venezuela) The carángano is made from the trunk
of a coconut palm. A horizontal incision is made in the stem
and is put under tension by two wooden pieces that are inserted
between it and the trunk. The strand of bark is struck with
sticks, and - supplementing this percussive effect - a bowl
with corn seeds is placed on top and moved along it, thus
producing different maracas-like vibrations. The song is comical:
“The monkey tomfool smokes a pipe and drinks cocoa.
The monkey of Juan Ramón smoked a pipe and drank our