Gaita: the Ultimate Venezuelan Holiday Music

Every December, a musical genre specific to Zulia state spreads to the rest of the country and its diaspora. But for Zulianos, it’s way more than Christmas songs

Now that the holiday season is beginning, I can’t think of a better moment to bring gaita to the forefront. Venezuelan folk music is largely dominated by two genres, joropo and gaita, both of which are regional in nature but national in popularity. Gaita, in particular, is essentially linked to Zulia. It was born there and its lyrics usually revolve around Zulian themes. It’s consistently considered the main cultural expression of Zulian folklore. At the same time, it’s not usually identified with a specific way of life—unlike joropo linked to Venezuelan farmers in the Llanos—but with a specific season of the year: gaita is the quintessential Venezuelan holiday music. There’s an essential difference that sets it apart from traditional Christmas carols, though.

Whereas those are thematically dependent on the concept of Christmas and its derivative lore and tend to have mellow melodies, gaita isn’t lyrically bound to any particular subject matter and its melodies are almost always festive, strong and upbeat.

Gaitas are normally associated not with Christmas as a sole holiday, but with all of the Zulian holiday season that starts in November with Our Lady of Chiquinquirá’s festivities, goes all the way through December, including Christmas and New Year and ends in January.

Of all of these, gaita has a deep-rooted relationship with the Virgin of Chiquinquirá that finds its origin in the Saladillo neighborhood of central Maracaibo, with the use of the gaita as a medium for religious devotion of that specific Catholic figure. As a consequence, gaita has become the trademark musical genre of the more lay and less heavenly aspects of Chiquinquirá’s cult: the marathon, booze-fueled Feria de la Chinita, the center of which is precisely the party-till-dawn amanecer gaitero.

Those ties to the Virgin of Chiquinquirá and other Catholic figures like Saint Lucia and Saint Benedict of Palermo have made gaita a mostly religious musical genre in the collective mindset of non-Zulian Venezuelans, when the truth is that religious gaita is just a subgenre, albeit one of the three most important, of a much broader lyrical tradition. The other two subgenres that complete this triad are protest gaita and costumbrista gaita, about everyday traditions and customs. But the list goes on with the likes of parrandera (party) gaita, humorous gaita, historic gaita, etc.

Despite being commonly associated with the holidays, when its presence dramatically increases in the region, gaita isn’t contained to November, December and January. Gaita is an ever-present phenomenon in its homeland, being listened to all-year-round. There are radio stations and TV shows entirely dedicated to gaita and venues where gaita is played live all year. Many schools and universities have their own gaita groups and organize gaita festivals. Every single political rally held in Zulia plays gaita as accompanying music. Gaita is also commonly used for many commercial jingles. All in all, gaita is an integral part of Zulian life and identity.

And probably because of that, gaiteros (gaita musicians) have a special status in Zulian society. They’re not seen as any other musician, but as unofficial representatives of Zulian culture. The gaitero way of life is characterized by a sense of community, passion for Zulian traditions, religious fervor and lively and partying predisposition.

Some gaiteros are admired and loved figures, like Abdénago “Neguito” Borjas, Enrique Gotera, Danelo Badell, Jesús “Chichilo” Urribarrí, Ricardo Portillo, Germán Ávila, Nelson “Ayayero” Romero, Carlos Méndez, Lenin Pulgar or Betulio Medina, others have reached legendary status after their passing, like Virgilio Carruyo, Bernardo Bracho, Gladys Vera and Humberto “Mamaota” Rodríguez, and yet a select few have became authentic icons for the whole of Zulia, namely Ricardo “El Monumental” Aguirre, Ricardo “El Colosal” Cepeda, Astolfo “El Parroquiano” Romero and Rafael Rincón Morales, more of a multi-faceted musician than a man confined to the limits of gaita.

In the same way, some gaita groups are part of the cultural heritage of Zulia and Venezuela as a whole: Cardenales del Éxito, Saladillo, Gran Coquivacoa, Rincón Morales, Gaiteros de Pillopo, Barrio Obrero de Cabimas and VHG are among the ones that have contributed to keeping gaita traditions alive, modernizing it and expanding its popularity.

The Uncertain Origins of Gaita

The actual origins of this popular genre are quite obscure and imprecise, with some theories proposing that the first gaitas were completely religious in nature, later migrating from the church toward unholier places, whilst other theories state that gaita was intrinsically protest music, from its inception, informally created as grievance chants by slaves against their masters, much like the blues were born in the U.S. This eventually led to its transformation into a politically charged genre through which people generally ventilated their complaints and affirmed their freedom and rights. Another theory suggests that gaita wasn’t even born as a music genre at all, but in casual social gatherings where participants would sing improvised verses to the beat of any available instrument, and that it was over the course of time that the music played at those neighborhood parties became standardized as a proper genre.

Be as it may, what’s universally accepted is that gaita is a product of mestizo culture, generated from the intermixing of Spanish, African and Indigenous musical traditions.

The Hispanic element contributed to the formation and structure of gaita both providing the language used to sing it and two of the five staple instruments used to play it: the cuatro, a four-string descendant of the Spanish guitar, and the percussion furro, derived from the Spanish zambomba, that generates sound through friction.

The African element is prominently present via the charrasca (a hollow metal cylinder that makes a rattling sound by striking and rasping it with a stick) and the tambora (a wooden drum with a leather membrane), both percussion instruments of Sub-Saharan origins. Lastly, Amerindians contributed with another percussion tool, the widely known maracas.

The first known gaita dates to the second half of the 17th century and is an ode to Saint Sebastian, patron saint of the city of Maracaibo. It doesn’t necessarily fit the musical parameters of the modern gaita genre, so its status as a proper gaita is debated. Researcher Agustín Pérez Piñango discovered the manuscript that had its lyrics and notes written down. That document is now lost, making it impossible to conduct proper tests to ascertain its authenticity. The expertise of the late Mr. Pérez is the best proof we can get.

That is not to say that “Glorioso San Sebastián”—if ultimately a genuine colonial song and indeed a gaita—was the first gaita to ever be composed, but only the first one to be attested with documentation in modern times.

There are plenty of other later examples of gaita verses that date back to at least the 19th century and show the constant use of this musical tradition by Zulian people throughout time. Most of those are charged with heavy political messages either praising, mocking, protesting or even wishing death upon political figures. 

This proves that gaita has been composed for purposes other than religious veneration for at least two centuries, and that it has long been used as a means for political action by the Zulian people, which shows the wide lyrical variety and adaptability of the genre.

A Diverse Array of Lyrics 

This brings us back to the three main thematic subgenres of gaita, which are, as noted before, religious gaita, protest gaita and costumbrista gaita. But it doesn’t end there. Religious gaita has branched into Our Lady of Chiquinquirá-themed gaita, Santa Lucía gaita, Santa Bárbara gaita, Saint Benedict gaita and so on. Every famous gaitero has many religious gaitas in their repertoire.

Protest gaita, for its part, is itself a branch of the wider political-oriented gaita that also includes songs that pander to power. The politically-themed gaita is an ever-evolving tradition that began with simple and usually pretty blunt verses that either praised or criticized 19th-century caudillos, over time becoming more complex with the use of euphemisms, wordplay, humor and drama to convey strong messages against authoritarianism, corruption and mismanagement.

Even though most Zulian politicians commission gaiteros to compose campaign gaitas exalting them and that some gaiteros side with power through their music, most political gaitas, from the 19th century to the present day, protest governments, mock political leaders or complain about poor living conditions.

This has always been bothersome to the political establishment: in the late 19th century, Maracaibo authorities deemed singing protest gaitas in nocturnal gatherings as an offense punishable by prison, or, in more recent, chavista times, vetoing protest gaitas from radio stations to the point the subgenre has disappeared from radio dials.

On the other side of the spectrum, costumbrista gaitas are the purest expression of local folklore, as they touch on daily life, anecdotal and light-hearted issues of the Zulian experience. This subgenre teems with songs like the ones that tell the story of a family-home-turned-multipurpose-business, or a popular bar, a coastal market, a famous neighborhood barber or even about a goat that lacks horns, ears and a tail. The undisputed king of costumbrista gaita was the great Astolfo Romero, “El Parroquiano”.

But the lyrical diversity of gaita enables it to be romantic as well, narrating love stories or praising true love, singing to broken hearts and trying to grasp the concept of happiness. It can sing to other kinds of love, those gaitas that pay homage to a mother’s love are particularly famous. It can also be all about partying, enjoying festivities with friends and drinking, always drinking.

Regionalist and localist gaita is another popular subgenre that has gifted us with pieces that praise the state of Zulia, its capital Maracaibo, cities like Cabimas and even small, little-known villages like Ceuta, Paraguaipoa and Bobures. Gaitas can even be history lessons about the horrors of 19th-century civil wars and 20th-century urban reforms.

And of all its subgenres, the most peculiar is by far what I like to call meta-gaita. These are songs about gaita itself, about being a gaitero, almost at a reverential level. It’s gaita honoring and exalting itself. You can hear gaiteros singing about their love for the genre, for the gaitero way of life, praising the legacy or mourning the death of a particular gaitero, or singing about preserving gaita’s traditional form and even wishing to be a gaitero again if they are ever to be reborn. You can’t get more meta than this.

Gaitas tend to be poetic compositions that heavily rely on literary language and imagery but can also be very colloquial, funnily vulgar or even in no need of actual words to convey good vibes and fun. There are gaitas that have become anthems, gaitas that are recited like the finest poetry and then there are those that haven’t stood the test of time, with racist undertones or even almost apologetic to harassment and genocide. Different strokes for different folks.

The Different Rhythms of Gaita

The diversity of gaita isn’t just a matter of lyrical themes but also of rhythm, melody and harmony. There are various types of gaita differentiated by their musical structure, the preeminence of a particular instrument over the rest, the presence of a different instrument or characterized by a unique dance style. In this sense, gaita can be neatly divided into two main categories: gaita de furro and gaitas of African tradition.

The gaita de furro or gaita maracaibera is the most popular and standard form of this musical genre. If you’ve heard a gaita before, chances are it’s a gaita de furro. It always uses the five basic gaita instruments: furro, cuatro, tambora, charrasca and maracas. As its name suggests, this type of gaita finds its origin in Maracaibo, the main hub of gaita as a whole, and the furro is its core instrument. It sets the tone and the whole song revolves around it. The other four main instruments are essential for a piece of music to be considered a fully developed gaita, and this genre has gradually incorporated other instruments in different degrees of frequency, such as electric bass and guitar, keyboards and congas, but a furro suffices for a gaita maracaibera to be played. For instance, amongst the street celebrations held on the eve of the day of Our Lady of Chiquinquirá, it’s quite common to encounter small groups of people around the Virgin’s Basilica singing gaitas only to the rhythm of a furro.

The second group of gaita varieties doesn’t comprise a single and homogenous musical genre, but a set of different classes of gaita that have common ground. They all stem from a shared Afro-Zulian tradition, heavily reliant on the drum beats of the bigger tambora and the smaller tamborito, and being lyrically similar, usually composed as pieces of devotion to Saint Benedict of Palermo, who has a long-standing cult among Zulians of African descent.

These gaita subgenres are gaita de tambora, originated in southern Zulia, gaita tamborera, originated in eastern Zulia and influenced by other Caribbean genres like salsa, gaita perijanera, born in the farmlands that lay at the foot of the Sierra de Perijá, where its popularity is largely confined to, and being part of a larger musical suite that has a particular form of group-wheel-dancing, and northern Zulia’s gaita de Santa Lucía

Survival Through Conservation and Change

The popularity of gaita has been nonetheless jeopardized over time. Every time a new instrument is added to popular gaita compositions, they make a big fuss about how the genre is gradually dying, but experimentation isn’t necessarily a bad thing and there are always gaita groups that help keep the traditional style and structure of the genre alive.

Problems arise when gaita is replaced or gets overly distorted in those spaces where it’s supposed to have a central stage. The most common examples are amaneceres gaiteros and the non-Zulian tradition of the intercolegiales de gaita.

Amaneceres gaiteros are traditionally massive music festivals held during the Feria de la Chinita, specifically on the night of November 17th, the eve of the festivities for the Virgin of Chiquinquirá. It lasts until the morning of the 18th. Those events, usually organized by big associations, businesses, clubs, hotels and even local government, are supposed to focus on gaita artists, with additional performances by non-gaita guest musicians in order to make them more diverse, fun and complete. Over the last two decades or so, most of these big festivals have become less and less focused on gaita, giving way to line-ups dominated by vallenato artists, a Colombian music genre that is increasingly popular in Zulia, making gaiteros mere supporting players of what’s supposed to be their big yearly event.

Another interesting case of gaita replacement happens in the intercolegiales de gaita, competitions annually held among middle to high class schools of central Venezuela, especially Caracas, born from the popularization of the genre outside Zulia over the decades. While the concept is compelling and it should play a role in the growth of gaita in the places where they’re held, these competitions are more about choreography and showcasing costumes and less about gaita. Musically, they’re structured as potpourris of various Venezuelan and Caribbean musical genres, including but not limited to gaita, which often plays just a minor role.

These instances show the ever-growing and inevitable intertwinement of gaita with other musical styles as it has abandoned its confinement to Zulia and as the state embraces other genres. Gaita will always continue to evolve and absorb outside influences. The correct answer to this isn’t whining about it or adopting a retrograde and closed attitude toward change. New sounds should be welcomed if they don’t shadow gaita’s main structure. The expansion of gaita’s lyrical diversity is necessary for it to include current generations’ concerns and interests and to not get repetitive and outdated. Change should be embraced insofar as it doesn’t degrade gaita’s core elements and traditions.