Afrovenezuelan Music
A rediscovered tradition


4. Musical instruments

Of 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.

The cumaco 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.

There 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.

Most 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.

The 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.

(Video 8 (youtube) - Vasallos tamborero)
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 de Palermo.

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.

In 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)
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; Chimbanguelero Vaya 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.

The 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 procession.

The 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.

A follower - vassal - of San Benito drums out his devotion on one of the drums of the chimbangueles drum ensemble.


Tambores redondos
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.

Juan 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 ngoma and 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 one.







(Video 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).

Their 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 bands.

(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 region.

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.

Normally 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'.

By the 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.

Another 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, a twaddler:
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

It 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 Afro-Venezuelan network.

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.

(Video 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).

The maracas - 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 rhythm.

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.

(Video 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.

Cachos - 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 rum!”

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