Declawing Gaita: How Protest Music Disappeared from Zulia’s Airwaves

Venezuela’s Western state of Zulia has a long and proud tradition of protest music: gaiteros have always raised their voices against injustice. But under growing pressure from the government, radio stations no longer dare to air it.

Photo: Barrio Obrero retrieved.

If you’ve never heard of it, Gaita can seem a strange animal: a festive musical genre with enormously deep roots in one state: Zulia. Sometimes sometimes described as Venezuela’s Texas, its Westernmost state has its own peculiar accent, culture, propensity to deep-fry everything, and torrid love affair with its own music. But if Gaita has Zulia in its DNA, it’s no less true that Gaita has protest running through its veins.

Today, protest gaita is no longer played on Maracaibo radio stations. Station owners know they might be shut down if they break the unwritten rule. With the government insisting on the “not renewing expired concessions” pretext,  stations like Zuliana 102.1 FM, one of the most famous Zulian gaita stations, have been pulled from the air, no explanations given.

Anyone born in Zulia can tell you how one of the country’s very own musical expressions is undiluted honesty when it’s time to put people’s suffering into poetry. But with chavismo in power, gaita groups, their owners, composers and frontmen, all play a single note: self-censorship. It’s not only how gaitas won’t be played on the radio, it’s the contracts for La Feria de la Chinita and the Christmas festivities, where most of the gaita shows happen, now at risk if songs say a little bit too much.

When Hugo Chávez took power, he says, compositions had to adopt a more humorous style, less confrontative, because gaitas made for AD and COPEI were perfectly suited for the Revolution.

For Alejandro “Nano” Silva, general director, frontman and composer of Barrio Obrero de Cabimas, which has offered for the last 60 years a gaita for La Chinita and a protest gaita, his band is one of the last that dares say the truth. When Hugo Chávez took power, he says, compositions had to adopt a more humorous style, less confrontative, because gaitas made for AD and COPEI were perfectly suited for the Revolution—and everyone could see it.

“The other groups dropped protest gaita,” says Nano, now living in Houston, after personally suffering the labor injustice and political persecution when he was fired from Zulia’s Fundación de la Gaita, an institution that’s part of the Zulia’s Governor’s Office. “They might have their reasons, but Barrio Obrero de Cabimas has always been a band that sings protest gaita every season, since its foundation in 1964.”

For another Zulian icon, Abdenago Borjas, best known as “Neguito Borjas,” the gaita de furro has always had a protest heart, with its afro-descendant origins.

“Communities living south of the Maracaibo lake, coming from Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, were the ones that, due to the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of their oppressors, filled their songs with protest verses in double-entendre or codes only they could decipher.”

“The style and composition of the gaita de furro comes from the gaita de tambora, and that’s the origin of the Zulian gaita we know today.”

For the composer of hits like “Onomatopéyica,” “Sin recor” and “Punta Icotea,” gaita will always be protest, but today “nobody touches it. There’s self-censorship by media owners and gaiteros themselves.”

There’s self-censorship by media owners and gaiteros themselves.

Political polarization has also sent gaiteros to a boxing ring, with dissidents in one corner and regime militants in another. Picture it, dedicating yourself in body and soul for nine months, starting in March, to plan the gaita season for the year. First, you compose and select the gaitas, then you choose the singers and musical arrays and then you record. Releasing singles is for August, building an atmosphere that reaches its ultimate expression in La Feria de la Chinita. The season closes with Christmas festivities and New Year.

If all of this is already hard with an economic crisis and the availability of talent, those gaiteros remaining insist: “It’s a risk to do protest gaita. We’ll be left without a job.”

Will protest gaita ever return to the radio? Will gaiteros remain quiet, or will they end up denouncing people’s suffering from other latitudes? Questions that perhaps only freedom can answer, as Grito de Gloria, by Wolfgang Romero and Leandro “Papi” Zuleta, sung by gaitero Carlos Méndez, tells us:

Pregunto… quién me responde,

me limito a preguntar.

Si la gaita es protestar,

protesta donde te escondes.

La protesta me responde

en el canto de un gaitero

que lo rebelde y sincero

del sentimiento del hombre…

La gaita grito de gloria

Del pueblo maracaibero.

Mario Pérez

Muchos vivimos en una ciudad de la furia... a mi me tocó Maracaibo, para contarla a través de mis cuentos y fotografías.