Sunday 27 January 2019

The Popular Music of Venezuela

El Cantor del Pueblo (The People's Singer)

By pushing the sun,
the dawn gets closer.
- 'Sombrero Azul' by Ali Primera

Ali Primera was born on October 31 1942, in the small coastal town of Coro, Falcon State, in the north of Venezuela. During his tragically short lifetime he became one of the leading lights of the Venezuelan Nueva Cancion ("new song"), a movement that inspired musicians across Latin America during the 1960s, 70s and into the 80s, by combining both the instruments and rhythms of traditional indigenous folk music of the region with the politically-engaged themes of North American protest singers like Dylan and Seeger.
The songs of Primera were a cry of condemnation against exploitation and repression, which at that time was afflicting the hemisphere in the form of a seemingly endless cycle of CIA-backed military dictatorships, under which an extreme form of capitalism was unleashed upon the countries of south and central America and the Caribbean. But his songs were also a celebration of popular resistance.
He first began to write songs as a student in the 1960s, when he studied at the Central University of Venezuela, initially as a hobby. It was only when his songs 'Humanidad' and 'No basta rezar' were presented at the Festival of Protest Songs in 1967 to some success that he found himself propelled into the spotlight and began to take songwriting more seriously.
Even the most moderate progressives in Latin America at this time were liable to be targeted for disappearance, so with little to lose and potentially a world to gain, Primera accepted a scholarship from the Communist Party of Venezuela to continue his studies in Europe - Romania, to be precise -  where he lived and studied between 1969 and 1973. His first album Gente de mi tierra was recorded in Germany around this time. More albums were soon to follow, and he returned to South America a star.
Sadly, on February 16 1985 he became involved in a fatal car accident on the Autopista Valle-Coche in Caracas. He was just 42.
The album he had been working on at the time of his untimely death had only 4 songs completed, so his brother, the musician Jose Montecano, stepped in to record the remaining songs. They included familiar themes of social justice and peace, alongside what was for Primera new musical styles like 'gaita' - a musical form native to Zulia state, to the west of Lake Maracaibo. The resulting LP Por si no lo sabia (If you didn't know) was a success, even receiving some television promotion, which had eluded Primera during his lifetime.
It is possible to find a little video footage of Primera's performances online, notably from the 1983 Concert for Peace in Nicaragua. It was here that he performed his song 'Sombrero Azul', a message of solidarity to the people of El Salvador, which I quoted a part of at the start of this piece.
Today, a monument to Primera stands in Caujarao, close to the town of his birth in Falcon state. It was unveiled in 2005 by the new socialist Bolivarian government, which declared the music of Ali Primera a national heritage.

Soledad Bravo

Born in the Spanish town of Logrono, La Rioja on January 1 1943 and raised in Venezuela, Soledad Bravo has been one of the other great leading lights of the Venezuelan Nueva Cancion. Although equally proficient at singing traditional folk melodies as she has been at pop songs, Bravo made her greatest impact as a protest singer. Billboard declared that "her voice is an exceptional instrument," and the Madrid-based newspaper Diario described how "her voice captivates you, the range is so wide and its strength is amazing."
Bravo's left-wing political convictions seem natural when we consider that her father was a Spanish republican during the civil war of 1936-39. The family left Spain (then under fascist dictatorship) and emigrated to Venezuela when Soledad was just seven, and it was here that she attended school, and where she first began singing with a group. 
She continued to sing while studying at the Central University of Venezuela. Shortly after her graduation in 1967, Bravo was hired to perform daily on the morning television show 'Buenos Dias', which she appeared on for many years. 
Her debut album, Soledad Bravo Canta, released in 1968, included her interpretation of the Cuban troubadour Carlos Puebla's tribute to the recently murdered Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera, 'Hasta Siempre.' 
The title comes from Guevara's well-known saying “Hasta la victoria siempre!” (“Until victory, always!”) and was the first and best known of many cover versions over the years.

Between 1969 and 1976, Bravo focused on popularising both the traditional and radical protest songs of Latin America, releasing three commercially successful albums - Soledad (1969), Soledad Bravo Vol. 3 (1970) and Soledad Bravo Vol. 4 (1973) - touring throughout other Latin American countries like Peru, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. 
Politically engaged folk music has always been a way of preserving and disseminating stories of popular struggle, of the successes and failures of popular movements, and just as British musicians like Ewan MacColl and Chumbawumba have sought out and recorded their own versions of traditional ballads and anthems of revolutionary movements of the British radical past, so too have the musicians of Latin America. Her 1972 double-album, En Vivo, featured songs of the Spanish Civil war, and she also released Cantos de la Nueva Trova Cubana in 1974, Nueva Trova being the Cuban version of the Nueva Cancion which was initiated after the revolution by artists like Carlos Puebla. 
When Bravo was invited to perform in Spain an appearance on Spanish television, in which she was accompanied by flamenco guitarist Manolo Sanlucar, helped bring her national recognition in that country. 
During the four years that she remained in Spain she recorded several albums, including one with Spanish poet Rafael Alberti in 1977, and a collection of songs of the Spanish Jews, Cantos Sefardies (1980), that received a Grand Prix Du Disque award in France. 
From Spain she next traveled to New York, USA, where she adopted a more tropical repertoire, working with salsa musician Willie Colon on the album Caribe (1982). Four years later, she recorded a self-titled album with accompaniment by Eddie Gomez, Airto Moreira, Paquito D'Rivera, Jorge Dalto, Ray Barreto, Yomo Toro and Spyro Gyra.”

Folk music can often be seen as sombre, despite moments of stunning tenderness and sweet simplicity, such as we hear in a peace song like 'Punto y Raya' (Dots and Lines), a song of such gentle subversiveness against war you almost don't notice it at first (especially if Spanish is not your first language). But we must not forget that the Venezuelan musical scene has always been quite broad and diverse. If, for example, you just want to get down in a mosh pit then the energetic ska beats of Desorden Publico may be more to your taste.

In contrast to the Nueva Cancion folk singers like Primera and Bravo, the group Los Amigos Invisibles sound like music from another era, which of course they are. Much like the "Bolivarian Revolution" they emerged during the 1990s, and English-speakers may find their humorous lyrics and cheeky music videos more reminiscent of bands like Madness (from the UK) or the B-52s (from the US).

It is anyone's guess how the country's present challenges will impact its cultural output. If the US-installed President takes root, then a lifting of the economic sanctions that have been strangling the economy for the last few years could make it easier for Venezuelans to export their culture to the world once more. If the international support the Maduro government has received enables it to resist foreign interference, it is anyone's guess what music such resistance could inspire.

Hopefully this briefest of overviews of some of the shining lights of Venezuelan popular music over the last half century shows that, where Venezuela is concerned, any outcome will likely inspire music with a unique richness and variety.