This post is for you, the person who decorated the tree and set up a Nativity scene this month, put up Christmas decorations with your family around the house—together or in the distance—and may be helping the youngest one in the house to play the first chords to “Niño Lindo”. You know this season tastes like hallacas and you’ve noticed that it has a unique sound. This story, of how many of the Venezuelan aguinaldos were almost lost, is for you.
They were saved by the commitment of a master and his disciples in the first decades of the 20th century.
When I think of Vicente Emilio Sojo’s death, the first thing I recall is how my grandmother Dilia idolized him. That’s why, from a very young age, I knew of this almost mythical figure, his walrus mustache and his gaze lost in focus. That’s how Reinaldo Colmenares drew him, a neighbor and painter to whom my grandmother had commissioned portraits of my grandfather Víctor Guillermo, his brother Pedro Antonio Ramos and Maestro Sojo, this one of course between the other two, like he was an important member of the family. In the family library, I found a few books on his work and even a comic book about his life. He was in our family albums, too. I knew he was a musician, but his importance would be revealed little by little as I became more interested in my Venezuelan identity.
Vicente Emilio Sojo was born on December 8th, 1887, in Guatire. This place, known for the Parranda de San Pedro and its “cider chutney”, has been the cradle of poets, politicians and two characters who are key to understanding the country’s musical history. The first one was Pedro Palacios y Sojo, better known as Father Sojo, a priest who in the mid-1780 founded the Escuela de Chacao, where an entire generation of musicians experienced the end of colonial times and the birth of the Republic. The other Sojo, Vicente Emilio—although not related—embraced the triple task of safekeeping our heritage, bringing up a new generation of musicians, and modernizing Venezuelan academic music.
Maestro Sojo was brought up within a family of musicians. His grandfather, Domingo Castro was a soldier in the Federal War and wrote the song that said “¡Oligarcas temblad, viva la libertad!” (Tremble, oligarchs, long live freedom!), so heavily trampled in the last decades. Before he turned nineteen, Vicente Emilio left for Caracas to continue his studies at the Escuela de Música y Declamación.
The Aguinaldo: Between the Divine and the Profane
In December 1999, my father received a call from my grandmother asking him to go with her to the Vicente Emilio Sojo Foundation. They had just released the album Aguinaldos venezolanos del siglo XIX, a compilation of 28 songs recorded by the Lamas Orpheum under the direction of Maestro Sojo. I was able to listen to it with her, my father, and my uncles a few days later, songs I had listened to at school, on television. So I asked her, what’s so special about this record? My grandmother sat next to me, we opened the booklet that came inside the case and she began reading it to me. In a brief essay, musicologist Felipe Sangiorgi told us about how the traditional Venezuelan aguinaldo had its origins in Spanish Christmas carols, but took on unique patterns in the 19th century.
Aguinaldos took elements from dance and contradanza; they then bred with the rhythm scheme of merengue and guasa, integrating popular instruments. You can divide them in two groups: the divine, like “Cantemos alegres”, “Nació el redentor”, and “Espléndida noche”; and the profane or parranda, like “Si acaso algún vecino”, “Tuntún”, and “Parranda”.
The rise of the Venezuelan aguinaldo began in the last decades of the 19th century, thanks to compositions by Ricardo Pérez, Rogerio Caraballo, Ramón Montero, and Rafael Izaza. Although the authors of songs that would become as popular as “Niño Lindo” or “La Jornada” (Din, din, din, es hora de partir…) still remain unknown. Because, just like they had their heyday at parties in December, where bands would gather to play in squares and churches of our tiny villages, aguinaldos seemed to be out of place in the ever changing Venezuela of the 20th century. While the country was taking steps towards a desired modernization, on the other hand, its rural past was being disregarded.
In 1928, the excitement caused by the visit of a Cossack choir took Vicente Emilio Sojo, along with Juan Bautista Plaza, the Calcaño brothers and Moisés Moleiro, to create the Lamas Orpheum. In 1930, they had their first official concert at the same time they were founding the Venezuelan Symphonic Orchestra. In the first stage, they focused on playing musical pieces from the universal classical repertoire and some original compositions. By then, Sojo had already written songs like “Himno a Bolívar” (1911), the “Misa cromática” (1923), and “Palabras de Cristo en el Calvario” (1925), to name some of his most remarkable works. At the Escuela Superior de Música, he mentored the generation that produced works like La Cantata Criolla, by Antonio Estévez; Margariteña, by Inocente Carreño; and Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, by Evencio Castellanos. Musicians like Blanca Estrella de Méscoli, Antonio Lauro, Ángel Sauce, Gonzalo Castellanos, Teo Capriles, Víctor Guillermo Ramos, Rhazes Hernández López, and Pedro Antonio Ríos Reyna trained in the manor next to Santa Capilla. These musicians were part of the so-called “Escuela Nacionalista” (Nationalist School) in Venezuelan academic music.
How ‘Niño Lindo’ Was Rescued
It would become a bridge between tradition and modern times, but maybe Sojo didn’t have that in mind in 1937 when, along with his disciples, he compiled, transcribed, and harmonized popular Venezuelan songs from the 19th and early 20th century. With this labor, he saved around two hundred songs. Fifty of them were part of the aguinaldo repertoire. The mission was to keep them as close as possible to the authors’ original idea and to how they were played in their time. For this he leaned on his student Evencio Castellanos, who would point out details on the piano.
On December 24th, 1938, Sojo performed the first concert dedicated to the Venezuelan aguinaldos with the Lamas Orpheum. For two decades, three annual performances became a tradition: on December 20th at the Escuela Superior de Música, the other two at the Basílica de Santa Teresa on December 25th and January 1st. They also did special concerts outside of the capital.
After almost a decade of field work and revision of the manuscripts, Sojo published the first booklet of Aguinaldos populares y venezolanos para la Noche Buena (1945), with pieces collected in San Pedro de los Altos. The following year, a second booklet came out and the songs became hits, being played by new bands and solo artists, no longer forgotten and turning into a mainstay in the Venezuelan Christmas. This is why Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier said in 1951: “How lucky it is, for Venezuela, to keep a tradition that comes from so long ago, and having musicians who took it upon themselves to write down, harmonize, edit, what would’ve been lost by the weakening of oral tradition, as it irrevocably has in other countries.”
Going through photos in the booklet with my grandmother, we saw one that showed the entire Orpheum. You could see a young woman who resembled her in the second row. As it turns out, it was her. My grandmother Dilia was a member of the Lamas Orpheum for a short time, and it was there where she met my grandfather Víctor Guillermo. Maestro Sojo was the best man at their wedding. They always felt huge appreciation and devotion to him. Vicente Emilio Sojo, the double artist of music and living with dignity—as he was defined by Ramón J. Velásquez—had reached old age when he traveled to Europe for the first time, and in 1958 he was elected senator of the new democracy. He died at 86 years old, on August 11th, 1974. If what we heard in those songs as children is true, he probably spent that December dining in Heaven, invited by the Niño Lindo as a thank you for safekeeping the sounds of Christmas.
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