The Zulian gaita is one of the truly original things from Western Venezuela and, like every true original, it stands alone by the weight of its own greatness. My first memories with the holiday gaita music are fun; I remember enjoying Gaiteros de Pillopo’s El Barbero a lot. In fact, it almost made me laugh as much as Bugs Bunny’s Rabbit of Seville, the two haircut-related pieces of culture elemental to my childhood. It always blew my mind that my grandfather got his haircuts with “El Maneto,” one the characters from the song.
This familiarity I feel with gaitas is ubiquitous to anyone born here in its cradle, Zulia state. Whether you’re a big fan or just a casual listener, Zulianos have gaitas in their DNA. That’s why I felt qualified to find out if gaitas are stuck in a better place from the past, or if there’s a present and future for this musical expression that, like everything in Venezuela, have mutated in the juncture we stand in.
Moraima Gutierrez is a cultural promoter that gave me a lot of perspective on gaita’s modern state. I was particularly interested in gaitas as means of protest, one of the trademarks of this rich musical expression.
She guided me to the systematic disappearance of protest gaita that went hand in hand with the closure of TV and radio stations, starting in the 2000’s. 15 years ago, musical directors (that commonly are the owners of gaita groups) recorded an album every year, an output quelled to one or two songs. The costs of a band and everything that entails (recording processes, promotion, salaries of some 15 musicians) are way too high for most to make it. This has a direct impact in the content of the songs recorded nowadays.
Most (if not all) groups, choose positive themes when selecting new material, songs of joy that will give them a bigger chance of mainstream promotion, considering that the bigger the success, the bigger the chance for paid public appearances.
There’s no chance to be on the air with a protest song against the regime, because most radio stations will self-censor fearing “administrative measures” by the Telecommunications National Commission.
There’s no chance to be on the air with a protest song against the regime, because most radio stations will self-censor fearing “administrative measures” by the Telecommunications National Commission (CONATEL). Even if someone is brave enough to give it airtime, there’s no publicity that can brave the consequences and give a song some sort of cult status.
Another aspect shaping the content of the few gaitas currently released is music festivals. Festivals are a big part of every gaita season, where songs compete in popularity contests that usually come with enticing monetary prizes, not to mention bragging rights. Well, it just so happens that those festivals are organized by government bodies, and there’s truly just one government in Venezuela, so the possibility of a song with the slightest hint of discontent in its lyrics taking part in a government sponsored competition is, you guessed it, less than zero.
There are worthy efforts being recorded today, like “Yo volveré y cantaré” by Barrio Obrero, a song that appeals to the mass of Venezuelans abroad, speaking about the yearn to come back, using a nostalgic hook that seems popular in every activity made by Venezuelan migrants, from foodmaking, to baseball, to comedy and even journalism.
Protest gaitas, made and played in Venezuela, are today a thing of the past. They’re nowhere to be found when they’re needed the most.
Ms. Gutierrez said it best when she told me that “old time composers made protest gaitas inspired by everyday motives. They were flags of defense or representation of a majority that demanded a better quality of life, education and hospitals; they raised their voices asking for respect from government authorities of neighboring countries for border issues; they were calls for attention in defense of the Lake Maracaibo; they complained to thee government for promises unkept and erratic economic measures against workers; even religion was part of the protest.”
That tradition is almost lost. When I go around Maracaibo sometimes I feel like I’m roaming streets too dead for dreaming, a city that needs Ricardo Aguirre’s La Grey Zuliana, just like the world needed Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, Miriam Makeba’s Soweto Blues or Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. Because La Grey Zuliana in particular, and protest gaitas in general, are an icon of this society. Without it, we’re lost in a whirlwind of personality crisis. We need an identity to know what we stand for and where we stride to.
We need that aspirational quality of La Grey Zuliana, and all the songs it inspires, to survive.
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