New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape
to world jazz
former partner-in-crime of Jesús Garcia in documenting the
Afro-Venezuelan heritage, Miguel Urbina, is still
in Caracas, 'pounding the drums'.
Urbina (to the left) is leader of Grupo Mina.
He also plays with Alfredo Naranjo (on the
right) in his latin jazz band. They stand in front of El
Maní, the nightspot in Caracas for live music.
from recording music together, Miguel and Chucho had a band together
for many years, named after the imposing drum from their native
Barlovento: Grupo Mina. Later their roads separated, Miguel getting
involved as a salsero and santero, and Chucho
immersed in his many Afro-political projects. Miguel’s latest
musical project - the first record of Grupo Mina - can be defined
as “Afro-Venezuelan jazz,” a branch
of latin jazz.
(Audio 9 - “Somos Mina”,
Grupo Mina, Somos Mina) The first record by Grupo Mina is called Somos Mina
(“We are the mina-drum”). It is also the title
of the first song:
“The mina is not just a drum
It is a movement / from Africa to Barlovento...
The mina doesn’t exlude, because we are all mina
Those who feel that in their soul
something new is coming...
Move with the mina / Move.”
continues a line begun by other artists who have also been under
the spell of Chucho, like Alfredo Naranjo and also
Paris-based Orlando Poleo, both stars in the Venezuelan
musical firmament in their own right. But still, Africa isn't really
present in these productions, there is not yet a fusion or cross
over (like in the case of Afro-Cuban music, or for instance with
new Afro-Colombian genres).
Another interesting attempt at this was made by the group Vaya
Mandinga! with members from Venezuela, Gambia, Guinee and
(Audio 10 - “Tumbao Mandinga”,
Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo) "Tumbao Mandinga" is from the first album of
¡Vaya Mandinga!, a group of musicians
from Venezuela, West-Africa and The Netherlands. The ¡Vaya
Mandinga!-project was organised by Fundación
Interchange in an attempt to reconnect indigenous
traditions across the Atlantic. The pairing of the African
and the Venezuelan harp was done to demonstrate that the African
contribution to the evolution of Venezuelan music has been
more intensive than ever believed. The development of the
national musical style joropo -
and especially the playing of the harp - was always explained
in terms of its embeddedness in the grand Western classical
tradition. As if Venezuelan harp music was nothing more than
a manifestation of the music that had been en vogue in Europe
at earlier stages. Although the memory of it might be vague
or even absent, the continuities between the kora
and the harp are deeper than hitherto acknowledged.
Tumbao Mandinga is a calípso, a genre made
popular through the emigration of West Indians:”Listen
to the drums, and how kora and harp resound; with this groove
that invites you to celebrate carnival.” During the
Christian Carnival, the established order is reversed and
turned upside down: The devil and his mob of fools temporarily
reign supreme. In calipso the bumbac
is used, a drum brought by the West Indians. Cissoko from
Guinee plays the balaphone. This song is
an eloquent testimony to the family resemblances between African
and circum-Caribbean musics.
the forefront is a dialogue between the kora and
the Venezuelan harp, and on a deeper level an instrumental
confrontation between several traditions of the global heritage.
(Audio 11 - “Stringed to Senegambia”,
Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo) "Stringed to Senegambia" is a traditional Mandinga
song. The title points to the ‘strings’ between
Venezuela and the Senegambia. Harp and kora weave an intricate
tapestry: So many ‘genetically’ connected strings,
that one gets disoriented at times by this play of mirror
images between kora/Africa and harp/Venezuela.
name of the group derives from a current Venezuelan expression;
'Vaya Mandinga' meaning something like 'go to hell'.
(Audio 12 - “Mambo
del diablo”, Vaya
Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo) "Mambo del diablo" is a song based on the festival
for Saint John the Baptist. The celebrants
dance with the statue of the saint when he leaves his ‘house’:“Take
him outside; I want to see him”. The expression
at the end means “Go back to hell, you evil forces.”
This song is ”¡Vaya Mandinga!’s devil’s
mambo against the forces of darkness.
interesting thing to note is the semantic twist given to the term
‘Mandinga’ in the colonial Latin American context; from
an ethnic designation, it here came to signify “the devil”
(partly due to the reputation of Mandingas as being too rebellious
to be ‘good slaves’).
13 (youtube) - Sutukung)
The band Vaya Mandinga! was created to reestablish
transatlantic musical links. The African kora is seen next
to the Venezuelan harp and the European double bass. This
song derives from Mande culture in West Africa.
It is a praise-song in honor of a powerful man, who lived
in the time of the ancestors and founded the village of Sutukung
in the Gambia.
(Audio 13 - “Ritmos de la humanidad”,
Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo)
In "Ritmos de la Humanidad" the harp provides the
funky foundation for a stylistic experiment. Vocalist ‘Cotufa’
is one of Caracas’ hottest rappers, performing with
a latin hip-hop posse and with a reggae
band. His inspired lyrics speak of universal unity. Jesús
Bosque here plays the vibes; he established himself
as a high-priest of música afro-urbana,
a drum-fusion of rock, jazz and Venezuelan popular music.
Another example of the use of the Afro-Venezuelan percussive heritage
in new contexts, was provided by the recordings made by Cuban pianist
Omar Sosa with Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo
Ovalles. The three afromentioned bands could be classified
as exploring the grounds of ‘world jazz.’ But there
are also other, more salsa-oriented musicians who also pay hommage
to their Afrovenezuelan roots (In The Netherlands, for instance
Marco Toro and Gerado Rosales;
In France, Zumbao; in the USA Luisito Quintero;
and so on).
(Audio 14 - “Agua
que va a caer” (Rain
that’s gonna fall),
Vaya Mandinga!, El Mambo Del Diablo)
Venezuelan-Dutch percussionist and bandleader Marco
Bernal (born in Caracas, 1969) founded rock band
Laberinto in 1989, and in 1992 these “latin-metal
rockers” made the jump to Amsterdam. In time,
Laberinto achieved a certain notoriety, but Marco
never lost his rootedness in Venezuelan popular culture, in
which pan-Latin and Afro-Venezuelan rhythmic patterns predominate.
As he matured, he embarked on a new project: The Toro
Ensamble (2004). With this band he returns to Venezuelan
popular music and to the salsa brava of his youth, integrating
these with new soundscapes of the global village. This song
modernized and salsafied drum-dance; San Juan
being associated with summer solstice and the beginning of
the rainy season.
is an all-round percussionist who started his career as a
heavy metal drummer, but in time returned
to the Afro-Venezuelan traditions too. He is the founder of
the Toro Ensamble.
there are many more bands in Venezuela - ranging in style from metalatino
to ska, and from progressive rock
to hip-hop - that include Afro-Venezuelan instruments
in their performances.
But Afro-Venezuelan rhythms still remain something of a terra
incognita to the outside world. In the second edition of the
‘Bible of World Music’ - The Rough Guide to World
Music (2000) - for the first time a chapter on Venezuela was
included. Its author, Dan Rosenberg concludes: “While Afro-Venezuelan
culture is as strong as ever in isolated villages along the northern
Caribbean coast, it is growing more and more apparent, that, at
least for now, if you want to see and hear it, you’ll have
to travel to South America to do so.”
Another scene from a village
parranda. The parranda is one way to pass
on local traditions and songs to the younger generation. The
atmosphere tends to be very relaxed and informal, even in
the church. Drums - and bottles with liquor - are carried
around the village and everyone is invited to join the party.
Ecstasy is on the faces of the participants, but if it is
out of religious fervour ?
now, we hope to have demonstrated that enormous progress has been
made during the last two decades: The Afro-Venezuelan drums now
conspiciously herald the formerly negated African heritage of Venezuela
to the world. The drums moved from the periphery to the core, and
the time seems ripe for Afro-Venezuelan music to conquer international
The dancers/chorus girls
of Tambor Urbano demonstrate the use of the
guarura. This picture was taken
on the beach of Choroní, while a commercial for a soft
drink was being shot. To ‘purists’, the band has
lost credibility for its outright commercialism, but on the
other hand they did well on the national music market, reaching
new audiences with their local exotism.
By way of conclusion, we might say that Afro-Venezuelan music serves
as a vehicle to mediate the identity of “black” Venezuelans
to the global arena. In the case of the Afro-Venezuelan imagined
community, the cultural identity of the Afro-Venezuelans evolves
as a local response to a globalised discourse on black ethnicity,
the black diaspora and Africa.
For most Afro-Venezuelans,
the lives of blacks in the USA and in Africa are beyond their
horizon. Malcolm X was a relatively unknown
‘entity,’ foreign to Venezuelan reality. But some
city-based militants adopted his image when he became ‘rediscovered’
in the predominantly black youth subcultures of rap and hip-hop.
This flyer was spread around by “an Afro-Venezuelan
free jazz band” named Cacri Jazz,
directed by Pablo García (none other
then the one participating in Vaya Mandinga!).
this discourse - part of a politics of identity - finds its most
exuberant expression in music and dance. The dynamic form of music
we here described as Afro-Venezuelan music, can be understood as
a highly localized, but globally mediated form of Venezuelan musical
(Audio 15 - “Comadre Juana”,
Caracas Kontambor, The Bululú Project)
Comadre Juana is a composition with three parts, based on
a very popular Afro-Venezuelan song: “Comadre Juana
take my hand and make me dance with you!” This version
gives a daring new interpretation of this song, as it is included
in a ‘suite’ about contemporary Venezuela (here
Comadre Juana becomes Godmother of all the Venezuelans and
a metaphor for Venezuela). Comadre Juana represents the intimacy
of relations in a small-scale society. Lead vocalist Betzayda
Machado - ”La Perla Negra de Barlovento,”
being herself from a typical Barloventean village of small
cocoa-hacienda owners - also sings with Vasallos del Sol,
Un Solo Pueblo and Vaya Mandinga! The chorus sings: “Sí
es, no es,” echoing the Shakespearean dictum “To
be or not to be.” The second part delivers a message
about the broken dream of progress in Venezuela. The third
part represents the continuity in Venezuelan history, symbolized
by the harp - the basic instrument of joropo, the
national dance and a kind of musical key to the national soul.
Its sound is reminscent of the West African kora, and blends
harmoniously with the African derived percussive traditions
of Venezuela. The band Caracas Kontambor
was formed in 2001 by Bartolomé Duijsens
and Gilberto Simoza. The Bululú
Project derives its name from “Bululú”
- disorder - a common theme in the history of Venezuela. Caracas
Kontambor presents a musical fusion that might be dubbed “world
jazz,” reflecting the variegated musical styles of a
multi-ethnic society in a global soundscape, an alchemical
blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and homegrown anarchy.
to return to the question posed by political analyst Richard Gott
at the beginning of this article: Yes, the Afro-Venezuelans
are Venezuelans !