Afrovenezuelan Music
A rediscovered tradition


6. New directions in Afro-Venezuelan music - From localised soundscape to world jazz

The former partner-in-crime of Jesús Garcia in documenting the Afro-Venezuelan heritage, Miguel Urbina, is still in Caracas, 'pounding the drums'.

Miguel 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.

Apart 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.

It 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 the Netherlands.

(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.

On 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.

The 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.

The 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’).

(Video 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.

Marco Toro 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.

And 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 ?

By 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 stages.

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!).

And 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 identity.

(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.

And to return to the question posed by political analyst Richard Gott at the beginning of this article: Yes, the Afro-Venezuelans are Venezuelans !

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