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.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. This is sad. The years I spent living in Venezuela in the early 1980’s, my wife and her family introduced me to many Venezuelan traditions. One of which was listening to Gaitas during the Christmas Holidays. Their favorite groups included Los Cardinales del exito, Maracaibo 15, and Gran Coquivacoa. I had the opportunity hear Maracaibo 15 up close in a small Caracas Club. My ears are still ring from that experience.

    Even thought we’ve been in the us for 30+ years Gitas is still heard in our home during the Christmas Holidays.

    Here is a related article.

    https://www.noticiasbarquisimeto.com/2018/07/11/los-cardenales-se-van-del-pais-porque-no-hay-estado-de-derecho-en-venezuela-anuncio-su-propietario/

  2. This is a show of the weak and uncoordinated resistance. If all stations play a protest gaita at the same time, the government can certainly close some but not all. Someone may said, well who would pay me if I get closed but that is exactly the arrangement, if one gets closed then the rest should stop playing music or keep playing the protest gaita until they are all open again.
    Coordinated peaceful resistance with everyone on the same side. Not like the gue$#n Capriles that throw Lopez under the bus when it was the time to show unity…see how that ended.
    Unity and bold action that is resistance! – Red February!

  3. Gaitas were exclusively played in Maracaibo until the early sixties when they took Caracas by storm and became a Christmas staple .hundreds of neighborhood amateur groups started playing the gaita all around Caracas , and the Gaita musical tradition became appreciated everywhere ……!! The traditional christmas music in Caracas and elsewhere in Venezuela were sweet chorus songs called aguinaldos , and they could be lovely but they usually lacked the gaiety and strong beat of the gaita…..!! Gaitas were less christmas like and took on subjects that just made people laugh loud , Famous were the gaitas de las locas in which fun was poked by a very talented and popular comedian of the time , joselo , to people of the gay persuasion ….., then the Protest gaitas became popular and they took on any one and anybody , they werent just funny but showed indignation ……….., the protest gaitas havent died out but they are played via internet and other like media rather than in public places or the radio .

    • Appreciated? Appreciated? I have nothing, really nothing against Zulianos and their gaitas but appreciated? I still remember one of the most popular radio stations in Greater Valencia…one of the slogans was about how
      you could count on it for not having a single gaita ever

  4. As a Gringo, it took me several years to “hear” Gaita instinctively as Christmas music during Christmas, like I would hear American songs associated with the season.

    The American stuff still wins out for me because of my background, but I’ve at least learned to “get” Gaita and appreciate it.

    However, because of my lousy Spanish…and the fact that my wife doesn’t lean toward complex explanations of VZ culture…

    I had no idea Gaita was used as a form of political expression!

    This, after 30 years.

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