Our trip to Venezuela involved a series of overnight flights, so we arrived to our destination more than a little bit exhausted after a 16 hour travel day. The Venezuelan coastline along the Caribbean was gorgeous and the mountains along the way to Caracas were astounding as we landed. One of the most stunning aspects visually about Venezuela is its geography, with huge mountain ranges overlooking the coast, rising steeply into the air with lush green vegetation. And as we drove inland, we found the capital city Caracas is situated along that same coastal mountain range, the Cordillera de la Costa. And entire mountainsides in some areas are covered with homes.
Caracas is the capital and largest city of Venezuela, with about 4,000,000 people living in the metropolitan area. From cocoa to oil, the country has a long and varied history economically and politically, and as we all know, rhetoric between the US and Venezuela has been running high of late. Thankfully, none of that came to bear on our own trip, and I’ll leave it to the governments to squabble, as we made many friends and were treated quite hospitably by everyone we met. Unfortunately, for our trip though, crime and muggings are quite prevalent, so we really didn’t have free reign to explore the city as tourists at night besides our embassy schedule. Nonetheless, we got to see some great sights and places and hear some great music in the week we were there!
We just happened to arrive in the midst of Chavez’s 20th anniversary celebration, so the first day featured helicopters, fighter jets, and parades all throughout the city, with leaders from all over the world flying in for the festivities. For us, though, it was time to get some sleep!
After resting up from our flight, the next morning we departed for Petare, one of the largest slums in Central America. The US State Department has been working to bring cultural institutions and performances there in an effort to revitalize and enrich the area. Our performance took place at the Cesar Rengifo Theater, a newly renovated venue seated amongst interesting “colonial“ architecture. The neighborhood was filled with lots of old colonial buildings, churches and interesting architecture, which I again always imagined in the South American writers like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others (of course, this is a foreigner’s broad perspective on South America, as I must confess I haven’t read any Venezuelan authors!).
Our performance at the theater was a double bill also featuring Ismael Querales, a master of the Bandola performing Venezuelan folk songs with his bandmates on electric bass, guitar, and percussion. The Bandola is similar to the mandolin, has 4 strings, and is found only in Venezuela and Colombia. Venezuelan folk music is strongly rooted in ¾ time and is incredibly syncopated with hemiola and more. It’s 3/4 folk music like nothing I’ve ever heard in terms of rhythmic sophistication, except perhaps flamenco music.
While speaking to Ismael, I asked him about some music I had played with some folks here in NYC: the Venezuelan meringue. The merengue is in 5/8 (how many folk musics use 5/8 besides Bulgaria or Indian Karnatic music??) and I wanted to know if this was actually traditional folk music or art music, as I’d been unable to find any recorded examples anywhere. Upon mentioning it, immediately, Ismael’s group pulled out their instruments and started playing in 5/8 with a “tumbao” type bass line syncopating and never hitting beat one, just like a Cuban tumbao. Evidently, this is music they grow up with, so playing in 5/8 is completely second nature (something I would point out to the various musicians I meet who claim that odd meters are entirely “math music” and require counting). I was thrilled to finally hear Venezeluan musicians play this music and tried to record as much as I could while they played. Later on in our tour, I was also fortunate to meet some generous musicians at our hotel in Valencia who gave us a large sampling of traditional Venezuelan folk music on CD. I am looking forward to exploring more of these syncopations and internalizing them in my own playing and especially getting deeper inside the Venezuelan merengue in 5/8, particularly as I’m presently working on a book on “Improvising in 5/4 Time”.
Here are some photos of the performance, as well as a link to hear Ismael Querales on youtube so you can get an idea of his music and playing.
After our performance, we were invited next door to the Petare Museum, an art museum literally next door to the performance space. Not only would we have a chance to view the work of Andean artist Rafaela Baroni, but in fact she was at our performance and would be taking us on a guided tour of her own works. Rafaela is quite a woman. At 75, she has youth, energy and the kind of “magical realism“ that you find in the characters of books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As a young girl, she actually was pronounced dead (if I understood correctly) and then woke up after the fact, having had a seizure of some kind. Her life was transformed afterwards through faith and art. She lives a life dedicated to art and spirit, and crafts madonnas, religious themes, empowered women and more…straight from the trunks and roots of trees. And I mean literally finding a small tree in her backyard, roots and all, and then letting the tree dictate to her to the imagery she will place on it. The exhibit featured much religious imagery and even a her version of a scene from the Nativity. Pictures will speak louder than words—you can literally see the roots of the trees and how she crafted them into human figures based on their natural shape.
You can sense Rafaela is a special woman, someone who lives art and personifies what I envision as a way of life of the past…the lives of artists who dedicated themselves to their art in a time where media and technology had not yet changed our relationship with our immediate environment so much. And on the more adventurous side, this is also a woman who experiments with “performance art” sometimes and has staged her own fake weddings, and even more, funerals with herself in a casket she constructed! Not to mention her special love of parrots…check out the video to see her at work!
The next day we set out east for the city of Valencia. This time, we had three hours to appreciate miles of the Venezuelan mountain ranges and countryside, and the views were spectacular. And some of the heights when we were driving through the mountains on highway were a little bit disconcerting for someone like me, who can get a touch of vertigo (I refrained from taking pictures when we were looking 1/2 mile down a steep mountainside)!
Valencia is the third largest city of Venezuela, seated eastward in the same Cordillera de la Costa Caracas is. The city borders on the huge Lake Valencia, which acts as a reservoir for the area.
We had a great lunch with Ana Colmenares, the musical director of the International Naguanagua Jazz Festival; we found that various NYC jazz musicians like Adam Rogers and Edward Simon (originally from Venezuela) have making trips down to the area to perform and record with the local musicians here.
Our first musical activity in the area was heading to a local music conservatory for a clinic on jazz performance. The students, as usual were quite enthusiastic with a packed room and the room filled with an overflow of standing onlookers. It was a blast playing for them, and answering many of their questions, as many of them were involved in playing jazz and quite interested in getting some perspectives from us. The clinic had a lot of impact; there is no greater compliment than having a couple students approach you how to go about finding an upright bass and learning to play jazz! And one of our new friends Cristina Dominguez was inspired to take on a thesis of jazz as folk music; seeing that kind of passion come out of our performances and clinics is very inspiring!
Our final concert took place in an area of Valencia called “Naguanagua” which basically means “water water” or “abundance of water”. We played in the Theater Villa Olimpica for another great audience and performance, this time with some very interesting lighting from every color of the color spectrum.
Our performances and clinics were complete, but our trip was not over yet. On our way back to Caracas, I had my introduction to a churrascaria, the famed Brazilian meat buffet. I’ve heard about them for years, and finally got a chance to check it out in a country with tons of great beef. The buffet was an absolute feast, so I will leave with my plates of food upon which I engorged myself sumptuously with meats, vegetables and samples of about three desserts. I think I gained a few pounds that day alone and certainly did not need another meal for the rest of the day!
Back at the hotel, we bid adieu to our wonderful Embassy hosts, Beatriz and Sally. They were very generous with their time, and very helpful and we certainly hope to see them again soon! Sally was preparing for her next Embassy residency on the African coast (Ivory Coast??), so once again, my hat goes off to amazing people like her out there away from family helping to make the world a better place.
Ending another week of great food, people, and music, it was off to our last stop on the tour: Lima, Peru!