A Small Homage to Gaita

Time and distance stoke the flames of the family memories that Zulian gaita conjures. Gaita is the genre that ties Zulianos together

The largest folk-music orchestra in the world

I was born into a large familia gaitera.  I don’t remember the first time I heard gaita at home, or on the radio, or being sung at my grandparents’ house in Las Camelias, Maracaibo.  But I do recall it being a critical part of my upbringing, and it has remained an essential component of my identity and culture until today.

Back then, you could hear gaita zuliana randomly at any time of the day: in morning or afternoon gaitero shows; as part of any music selection in AM radio; or blasting from the speakers of street vendors or shopping malls alike. Gaita was omnipresent and could be played at any time of the year without anyone batting an eye. You could find gaita being played live every day at clubs and special shows, in popular gatherings, and even in the streets. It was a major part of being Zuliano, and I’m confident that remains the case, despite the many changes that have been made to gaita as a genre and popular tradition over the years (and, of course, the very challenging years Maracaibo and Zulia have experienced recently).

Growing up, it was standard for many families to pass on the tradition to their children. At some point, you grab a couple of sticks and learn to play tambora, you’re taught basic chords for cuatro at school, get a furro going (if you’re lucky to have access to one) or just grab a kitchen utensil and play charrasca following the rhythm as well as you could. Just as at some point you played ‘being the rock band’, many kids would gather randomly to play gaita, and back then, it was even common to see a couple of kids or young teenagers in the street playing gaita during La Feria or Christmas time.

And, yes, nothing could beat the magic of gaita during gaita season, especially in December. Every year there were new records, released by a wide variety of bands. For Zulianos, listening to the gaitas of the season involved being exposed to all kinds of lyrics: honoring Virgin Mary of Chiquinquirá, celebrating Christmas, cherishing family or friends, expressing love, protesting against the government, and so forth. Anything, really, from onomatopoeia to singing back to the beauty of gaita itself. Nothing is out of bounds.  

This is especially the case when gaita conveys deep popular sentiments, troubled realities, or serves to point out social injustices back to us. For example, take the wonderful Santanita classic ‘Amor Marginal’ (1976) by the late Gladys Vera (and penned by Zulian poet and gaita lyricist Victor Hugo Márquez). In it, Gladys Vera channels the painful life of many single mothers living in very challenging circumstances, but who stand with dignity as true heroines in an unequal country.  Listening to it still makes me tear up—I can’t think of many songs in Venezuela (or elsewhere for that matter) that can address such an important issue with so much empathy and compassion.  

Which takes me to what is, perhaps, my most important point: as much as gaita is a key part of our identity, it’s also an integral part of our collective voice.  Zulianos speak through gaita, to themselves and to the rest of the country.  “This is why my folklore is so important, and it shall never be silenced,” says  Ricardo Portillo’s “Somos la gaita” released in 1984.

Needless to say, it’s also an enjoyable genre to play, sing and dance.  That’s my most cherished memory when I think about gaita: a gaita band, my beloved family, friends and everyone around singing, raising their voices, laughing together. That memory has kept me warm and emotionally nurtured in the distance, when I haven’t had the chance to be with my family for Christmas, and during these harsh times we’ve all experienced. Gaita has been there in bad and good times. It’s a home away from home, whenever and wherever you play it.  Gracias, gaiteros.

“Tu Pueblo te pide ahora
Madre mía le ayudéis
Y que fortuna le déis
Con mucho amor te lo implora”

(Ricardo Aguirre, La grey zuliana, Conjunto Saladillo, 1968)