The Sound of Venezuela’s Restlessness

As protests continue to rage in Venezuela, a traditional Venezuelan spirit is on display. It is thoughtful and reflective, yet opaque. It might be best understood through the music.

Above: Fist painted in colors of Venezuela flag image from Image from Shutterstock.com.

While much of the world has been either basking in cold war nostalgia while catching up on events in Crimea or indulging in conspiracy theories while dreaming up explanations for exactly what happen to that Malaysian Airlines plane, a political struggle has gripped one of the most powerful nations in the Western Hemisphere.

For over a month, Venezuelans have been taking to the streets with a variety of complaints—a corrupt government, a broken economy, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.The participants in the protests are as varied as their complaints, from students who demand reforms to longtime supporters of the state who see the protests as just another plot concocted by outside agitators, chiefly the United States, to discredit and overthrow the Venezuelan government.

While the causes and objectives of the protests are elusive, the results are very real: 25 Venezuelans are known to have died in the last month, with countless others injured or imprisoned. Flaming roadblocks have blocked the streets, and protesters have taken to using the app, Zello, to circumvent the authorities attack on social media. Recent events can be seen as the continuation of a restless intellectual culture that has helped define Venezuelan culture since Simon Bolivar led the country to independence in 1811. This spirit of roiling reflection can be heard in Venezuelan music, as well.

Central to Venezuelans’ sense of national musical identity is El Sistema, a publicly funded classical music education program that incorporates more than 100 youth orchestras throughout the country. Founded in 1975, the goal of El Sistema is to enrich the lives of children in the poorest neighborhoods through the discipline and humanizing effect of studying music. In addition to providing a musical education to countless Venezuelans, El Sistema has given the world the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, a world famous youth orchestra that routinely performs in the most hallowed European and American music halls.The orchestra’s repertoire is hot, featuring music from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story or Mexican composer Arturo Marquez’s orchestra settings of “salon music”.

A number of internationally known classical musicians are products of El Sistema, including Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The program has survived numerous political regimes due to its success and purposeful apolitical posture— a stance which drew great criticism when El Sistema’s prize product, Dudamel, who had been criticized in the past for his close relationship with Hugo Chavez, was publicly mum on the current, protests and even conducted a program in Venezuela’s capital Caracas during the unrest.

This is not to say that all of Venezuela’s classical musicians have been reticent to speak up. Pianist Gabriela Montero (also La Sistema alumn) recently posted a musical protest video “Hasta Cuando?” (roughly translated “how long”) on her YouTube channel.

It is not only in the world of classical music that the spirit of Venezuela can be seen and heard. The country has a wealth of traditional and popular music. One of the most interesting musicians to come out of Venezuela is Aldemaro Romero. Originally the product of the ’50s rhumba-craze, Romero worked in Cuba and then New York, before returning to Venezuela. He would spend the better part of 50 years creating unique and varied music, working with everyone from pop musicians ranging from Dean Martin to Jerry Lee Lewis, to renowned orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra. Romero is credited with the creation of Onda Nueva or New Wave, a genre that not unlike Brazilian bossa nova, combined local and popular musics with a heavy dose of psychedelica. The results are otherworldly.

There are also great folk songwriting traditions in Venezuela. Originating in the northwestern Venezuelan state of Zalia, Gaita is an improvised popular music form traditionally heard in social settings during holidays. As with many South American musics, in Gaita listeners can hear the the cultural history of the people through the blending of native, Iberian, and African influences. In traditional Gaita the verses are improvised, with subject matter ranging from romantic love, local stories, or social commentary, regardless of the pre-composed choruses.

In addition to producing the Gaita, the state of Zalia is one of the world’s largest oil producers, and tied into the lyrics of the songs is the idea that the people of Zalia have not profited from the abundant natural resources endemic to the land. In the ’50s and ’60s, as the music of the villages began being recorded, Gaitas became more formalized and became the popular music of Venezuela, with none more popular than Ricardo Aguirre’s “La Grey Zulliana”, a song which gave voice to the peoples’ sense of economic injustice.

Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, in large part due to his conviction that all Venezuelans should profit from the country’s resources. Evoking the name of Latin American hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez’s Bolivarianism sought to bring independence, prosperity, and equality to the country. But poverty is still a very real fact of life for many. Economic pressures became overbearing after Chavez’s passing on 3 March 2013, and the past year has been one of trepidation. Despite Venezuela’s role as one of the worlds largest oil producers, in the last year inflation has skyrocketed and the economic deprivations felt by the poorest Venezuelans have begun to spread.

Clearly, the future of the country’s economy is of growing concern, but what initially prompted protesters to take to the streets was something far more palpable—terror. In Venezuela crime is rampant and corruption endemic, putting the country 99 out of 99 countries in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. On 6 January 2014, Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and her husband were killed in front of her five year old daughter. A month later, the rape of a university student prompted the first in what would become a series of student protests.

This pervasive sense of terror can be heard in the music of La Vida Boheme. Inspired by The Clash, which made timeless music out of the hopes and hopelessness of working-class youth in economically depressed England, La Vida Bohemme create sometimes delicate, sometimes brutal music that has become the soundtrack to the protests for many young people. Here, in “Radio Capital”, the band gives listeners a glimpse into the daily fear experienced by Venezuelans.

Just as the protests were beginning, the Venezuelan people lost one of their most cherished musicians—Simon Diaz. While Diaz is sometimes compared to Bob Dylan for beginning his career writing songs of social commentary, before turning to more abstract and introspective themes in his later work, his impact on Venezuelan music is arguably greater than that of Dylan on American music. In addition to being a singer-songwriter, Diaz was a television and radio host who presented folk music to the entire country throughout the ’70s and ’80s. On its surface Diaz’s most famous song, “Caballo Viejo”, is about the tenacity of love, but it can just as easily be seen as encapsulating the spirit in the streets of the cities and villages of Venezuela today. It is a restless spirit. A spirit that is thoughtful and reflective but at the same time opaque. And as the unrest continues, it is anyone’s guess where this spirit will take the people of Venezuela.