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Venezuela : music suffocated by the crisis 

Music is still queen in Vene­zue­la, a land of sal­sa and rhythms inhe­ri­ted from Afri­ca. But the eco­no­mic, poli­ti­cal and social cri­sis in the coun­try has put a serious break on the pro­duc­tion and crea­tion of music in a nation that was once one of the most pro­minent in the Caribbean.

If you want to go sal­sa dan­cing, there are still some excellent spots in Cara­cas that remain open against all odds. A hand­ful of bars and night­clubs still offer concerts that go on until the small hours. For the artists, howe­ver, it’s not enough to make a living. “Before, we would per­form five times a week, and it was enough to live off,” remem­bers Aquiles Baez, one of the great names in jazz and Latin rhythms in Vene­zue­la. “Now, if you see a group in a bar, they’re playing for free, or almost”.

Not only has the num­ber of bars offe­ring concerts fal­len in the last few years, but the ones that are still put­ting them on are havens for enthu­siasts, with nothing to pay their musi­cians other than the odd Cuba Libre to swee­ten the pill. “Those who agree to play for free do so because they get to hang out with their friends, like to keep their hand in and per­form a bit,” explains Cheo Linajes, a com­po­ser of typi­cal­ly Vene­zue­lan music, such as the merengue cara­queño.

 

Hard to make a living

So, how do you sur­vive as an artist in Vene­zue­la ? “Almost eve­ryone has ano­ther job,” says Cheo Linajes, who runs a small busi­ness. “There aren’t many people who can get by on just that”. And those who do, don’t usual­ly earn their money in Vene­zue­la. “I live off concerts I some­times do abroad”, says Aquiles Baez, who says he hasn’t recei­ved a cent in his coun­try for more than a year.

The same is true of Alfre­do Naran­jo, ano­ther big name on Venezuela’s contem­po­ra­ry music scene. This pas­sio­nate sal­sa com­po­ser never­the­less explains that nothing is easy when you’ve made the deci­sion to stay in Vene­zue­la : “Just try convin­cing a label or a concert venue to pay your air­fare from Cara­cas… The prices are much higher than anyw­here else ! We are almost pri­so­ners in our own coun­try”. Accor­ding to him, if you want to be a suc­cess­ful artist and Vene­zue­lan, it’s bet­ter to live abroad. “Look at the Latin Gram­mys,” he explains, “none of the Vene­zue­lan artists nomi­na­ted lives in Venezuela”.

Not least because it’s hard to make a name for your­self if you’re in Vene­zue­la : the few recor­ding stu­dios still open cost a for­tune and it is impos­sible to pro­duce a record. Strea­ming plat­forms like Spo­ti­fy are no lon­ger acces­sible, blo­cked by the main Inter­net pro­vi­der CANTV since 2018.

 

A coun­try with a musi­cal history

It’s a living hell for Vene­zue­lan artists. “Espe­cial­ly when you think that Cara­cas was one of the world capi­tals of Latin music in the 1970s and 80s,” remem­bers his­to­rian Juan Car­los Baez. Back then, Vene­zue­la could afford the big­gest stars in sal­sa thanks to oil reve­nue – the coun­try is home to the lar­gest reserves in the world. The recor­ding indus­try had enough to finance the expan­sion of glo­bal stars in the making, such as Oscar D’León.

 

It was also at that time that conduc­tor José Anto­nio Abreu crea­ted the Sis­te­ma de Orques­tras, a musi­cal edu­ca­tion pro­gramme for the people that put musi­cal ins­tru­ments into the hands of thou­sands of poor Vene­zue­lan chil­dren. “The Sis­te­ma made Vene­zue­la a coun­try of pro­fes­sio­nal musi­cians,” gushes Aquiles Baez. “But like eve­ry­thing here, it’s become a pro­pa­gan­da tool that is being rui­ned”. Fun­ded enti­re­ly by the Vene­zue­lan govern­ment, the Sis­te­ma now claims to have a mil­lion stu­dents in Vene­zue­la, while the coun­try is penniless.

 

Music and politics

Vene­zue­lan musi­cians also have to tackle ano­ther chal­lenge : navi­ga­ting the chop­py waters of poli­ti­cal pola­ri­sa­tion. “There are now three types of artist”, sum­ma­rises Alfre­do Naran­jo. “Those who sup­port the govern­ment, those who sup­port the oppo­si­tion, and those who make music for music’s sake”. He believes that the first two cate­go­ries, des­pite them­selves, often end up condem­ned to pro­du­cing pro­pa­gan­da for one side or the other.

Cheo Linajes defends him­self, making no bones about prai­sing the merits of the Boli­va­rian revo­lu­tion. “Since Hugo Cha­vez, the state intro­du­ced social pro­grammes that were very bene­fi­cial for artists. It allo­wed us to per­form and record for free. But now, with the US blo­ckade, they can’t afford it anymore”.

Aquiles Baez reminds us that only artists who sup­por­ted Cha­vez could access these pro­grammes. “If you didn’t publi­cly defend the govern­ment, it was inac­ces­sible”. Like Alfre­do Naran­jo, he pre­fers to dis­tance him­self as much as pos­sible from poli­tics. Andres Bar­riois, a com­po­ser of expe­ri­men­tal music, joins them : “We make music to create emo­tions, to help people hold on des­pite their dif­fi­cult lives, not to send a poli­ti­cal message”.

But although times are hard, not all these artists are rea­dy to leave Vene­zue­la : the cri­sis is an “ins­pi­ra­tio­nal chaos”, to use the words of Andres Bar­rios. “The cri­sis is a source of end­less musi­cal crea­ti­vi­ty. That’s the sil­ver lining,” explains Alfre­do Naran­jos. “You can’t ima­gine the musi­cal talents that are emer­ging in Vene­zue­la at the moment”. Des­pite this opti­mism, many of these young talents are not patient enough : plen­ty have joi­ned the exo­dus, like the 4.5 mil­lion Vene­zue­lans who have left the coun­try since 2015, accor­ding to UN figures.

 

 

© Hugo Passarello Luna

 

Benjamin Delille is a journalist, impassioned by Latin America and the radio. He is correspondent in Venezuela for several French medias such as RFI, Libération, Radio France or France 24. Living in Caracas since June of 2018, he covers the political, social, and economical situation linked to the Venezuelan crisis. He also focuses on other social topics that are not always visibles in the international media. In 2019, he was nominated for the Bayeux-Calvados award for war correspondents in the category « young reporter ».

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