Searching for Venezuela in its folk music
In February 2014, 92 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the United States. By December 2016, the monthly total had risen to 2,334.
Although no one knows exactly how many have fled the nation, in 2015 sociologist Tomas Paez put the figure at between 4 and 6% of the total population. Once a wealthy, powerful country that attracted immigrants from around the world, Venezuela “is experiencing an exodus without precedent,” he wrote. (Translation mine.)
Most of this out-migration has occurred since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, but the roots of the nation’s troubles stretch much further back in time. A longstanding overreliance on petroleum exports and decades of weak institutions and poor economic management have all contributed to the current meltdown.
As headlines around the world track Venezuela’s worsening political authoritarianism, food scarcity, and violence, neighboring countries are bracing for growing waves of refugees.
“It feels like another country—where I grow up and the Venezuela that I see now,” Guillermo Lares told me. Like many who have left, he isn’t sure if he’ll ever be able to move back. The 37-year-old Caracas native spent almost a decade in Barcelona and Berlin before settling in Bogotá, close enough to visit his hometown but far enough away to avoid its problems. “I have two children, and with my family it would be very hard to live in Venezuela,” he said.
An architect and sound artist, Lares is currently working on a project exploring the condition of exile. “When you’re outside of your country you start to have another view of [it],” he said. “Your relationship to your country starts to be very particular.” Over the past few months, he’s been reaching out to other Venezuelan artists living abroad, asking them to reinterpret samples of the nation’s music.
While the project is grounded in the reality of today’s Venezuelan diaspora, it’s also a continuation of a family legacy. The music Lares is using as a starting point for the project was recorded by his father Oswaldo. Oswaldo, in turn, was inspired by his uncle Juan Liscano, one of the country’s first ethnomusicologists.
For the three men, the study and promotion of Venezuelan folk music has been about more than just the music itself. For each generation, traditional culture has provided a means to grapple with the nation’s identity during a century of dramatic change.
Born in 1917 to a wealthy Caracas family, Juan Liscano spent much of his childhood in Europe. After returning to Venezuela in his 20s he became associated with a literary movement that responded to the rising violence in Europe by seeking a new, specifically American spiritual ideal. This led to a fascination with his country’s folkways. He began to travel the country with a notebook and recording equipment, documenting and analyzing the music played in remote villages.
In this era, rural Venezuela was largely a mystery to sophisticated caraqueños like Liscano. For centuries Caracas had been the largest and most important city, the cosmopolitan node of exchange between the nation’s producers of cacao, coffee, and cattle and the Europeans and North Americans they traded with. In the early 20th century, its modern amenities and sizable professional class clearly differentiated it from second-tier cities, let alone the unmapped hinterlands where most Venezuelans spent their lives. The European-style capital gave little hint of the tremendous cultural diversity found in outlying regions, the result of centuries of interaction among the three main groups whose ancestors make up the country's population today: indigenous people, Spanish settlers, and African slaves.
Venezuela’s vast scale (two and a half Germanies could fit within its borders) and poor infrastructure contributed to the gulf between metropolitan center and rural periphery. But the rapid transformation taking place during this period made Liscano and other Caracas intellectuals determined to bridge this divide.
Oil was responsible for many of these changes. After Shell established the nation’s first commercial well in 1914, the industry quickly exploded—altering the nation in the process. “The generations active between 1920 and 1960 experienced a compression of historical time and an acceleration of cause and effect that stuns the observer,” wrote historian John V. Lombardi in his book Venezuela: The Search for Order, the Dream of Progress. “From a primitive, rural, isolated, agricultural dependency on North Atlantic markets, Venezuela became a complex, sophisticated, urbanized, industrializing, extractive, mining society closely attached to the ebb and flow of North Atlantic politics and economics.”
In the boom’s early years, the promise of well-paying jobs began luring people from the countryside to the cities. Most of these employment-seekers headed to the capital; between 1920 and 1935, its population rose from 92,000 to 260,000. The government devoted a significant amount of its newfound wealth to improving amenities and services in Caracas (with particular attention to the needs of the elite).
But oil wasn’t the only force reshaping Venezuela during this period. Political and cultural shifts from at home and abroad also had an impact. After longtime dictator Juan Vicente Gomez died in 1935 (two years after Hitler rose to power in Germany), his successor began to make tentative moves toward democratic rule.
Meanwhile, the rise of mass media had begun to alter tastes and leisure habits. Nightlife in Caracas and other cities was growing in popularity and variety. Movie theaters, record players, and radio brought international popular culture to eager audiences; music and dance styles from Cuba and other nearby countries were especially popular.
Facing upheaval both at home and abroad, Liscano set out in search of a more stable way of life. “I began studying folklore as a real life experience,” he said decades later, “in order to get close to the primitive, down-to-earth man, to what I thought to be that “integrated” Venezuelan, because he was integrated with nature and tradition.”
Liscano and other early Venezuelan musicologists “were true pioneers,” wrote anthropologist Angelina Pollak-Eltz. “They often had to ride on horseback for hours or travel in Jeeps on nonexistent highways to visit remote areas in the llanos (plains) and mountains. There were no hotels and the lodgings were uncomfortable, without running water or electricity.” (Translation mine.)
Much of his work focused on a cocoa-producing region in the country’s northern coast. Populated by the descendants of African slaves, the settlements in this area were relatively small and isolated, leading to a high degree of differentiation in the music played from town to town.
In several years of travel, Liscano amassed a vast trove of recordings, which the US Library of Congress eventually duplicated for its own collection. He collaborated with Charles Seeger to turn a selection of these recordings into an LP, complete with extensive liner notes.
In 1946, he was asked to lead the country’s new center for folklore studies. Two years later, he brought rural culture to Caracas through an event celebrating the inauguration of the nation’s first popularly elected president, novelist Romulo Gallegos. Called La Fiesta de la Tradición, the five-day spectacle gave thousands of audience members a sampling of the music and dances found throughout the nation. It remains a landmark in Venezuela’s cultural history.
But within a few months Gallegos was overthrown by a military coup. A few years later, Liscano fled Venezuela for Europe. During this period he shifted away from musicology, devoting the rest of his life to poetry and literature.
One of Liscano’s visitors during his Parisian exile was his wife’s nephew, a young Cornell architecture student named Oswaldo Lares. Like many in Caracas, Lares had first been exposed to Venezuelan folk music by his uncle; his sonic diet had otherwise consisted largely of popular dance music like the mambo and the cha-cha-cha. His interest in Venezuelan music increased at Cornell, where conversations with other Latin American students convinced him that his country lagged far behind its neighbors in developing a musical identity.
After finishing his degree in the late 1950s, Lares moved back to Caracas, where he began practicing architecture and teaching at the university. In an era when the nation’s per-capita GDP approached that of the United States, design work was plentiful. But Lares was also determined to continue his uncle’s investigations of traditional culture.
His work in this realm began when he met a man known as El Indio Figueredo, a master of the harp music played in the llano, or plains, region. Lares drove with a camera and Nagra 4-channel audio recorder to Figueredo’s hometown of San Fernando de Apure.
“I was looking for his house and I came to an open window, as it was very hot. I heard harp music and approached,” he told me on a phone call from his Caracas home. “He was there, seated in the living room, playing the harp. And that harp—to see it in front of you personally was something special. I said, ‘Maestro Figueredo, can I take your photograph?’ ‘Yes, of course,’ he said.
I took that first photo, which I remember with a great deal of affection. Then he said, ‘Come in, please!’ He called his sons and they came in. His grandchild, tiny, maybe four years old, picked up the maracas. And with harp, cuatro [a four-stringed instrument], and maracas they began to offer examples of the music of the llano.”
He decided to make a record with El Indio Figueredo. “Not a normal record,” he said, “but something more, a work of investigation, studying all the musical genres of the llano region, with photography and explanations of every example.” He released English- and Spanish-language versions of the album in 1969.
With this experience, Lares was hooked. Every weekend for several decades he set off to explore a different region. Arriving in a new town, “I would ask, ‘Who plays music in this town?’ And they always received me with open arms,” he told me. “It was an era when Venezuelan hospitality was admirable.”
In 1978, he began producing a weekly show for the national radio station. In its decade-long run he produced about 450 half-hour episodes exploring music from throughout Venezuela as well as styles from neighboring countries.
An upbeat introduction kicking off each episode described the program’s ambitious goal: “to spread our popular culture, and in particular our traditional music, within its ethno-geographic context, and highlight the deep identity of the folkloric manifestations of our continent’s people, with a view to forging a creative identification and a Latin American consciousness.” (Translation mine.)
Many of these episodes are in the collection of Venezeula’s national library, where they have sat untouched for decades. Guillermo Lares and his wife, filmmaker Laura Jordan, have devoted the past five years to bringing the work back to life.
In 2015 they produced an exhibition at a Berlin gallery that invited viewers to listen to recordings of music linked to different locations on the Venezeulan map. Through the show, they met Dusseldorf-based musician Stefan Schneider, whose young record label TAL had released several albums by Kenyan singer Ogoya Nengo. They decided to work together to produce a new album featuring remixes of Oswaldo’s work by members of the Caracas diaspora.
“The plan is that first people can use this material as their own and make their own creative speech with those original recordings,” Lares told me. “Sometimes people living inside the country are never interested in Venezuelan music—the folk music or traditional activities—but living outside this music represents them, and people have another approach to it.”
The diaspora project is only one part of the couple’s plans. They’re working to digitize as much of Oswaldo’s archive as possible and find new ways for people to access it, from exhibitions and concerts to an online library.
For Guillermo Lares, this dive into Venezuela’s cultural history is a bittersweet reminder of where the country has been as well as where it’s headed. “The country has changed—some things not so good, some things very bad, some beautiful too,” he told me over Skype. “We can try to build the future from what we have now, but it’s not going to be what we had in the past.”
He believes that Venezuela's younger generations are ready to work together to create positive change, and hopes that his work with his father's archive can help the effort in some way.
He sent me a quote from 2002's Music Archiving in the World that summarizes his ambitions: "As archivists we are not the curators of passive repositories, but rather active participants in all the ambiguities of contemporary life, with responsibilities inherited from the past that reach into the future."
Top image: Dancers dressed as devils for Naiguata's Corpus Christi festival, 1973. Credit: Oswaldo Lares