The sound of Venezuela is a bright chorus wrapped in the sun’s rays. Sometimes it’s a voice that lulls you to sleep, like the ebb and flow of the sea. Almost always it’s the bigger tone of a happy melody. It is the forest where you dance and sing; the resounding vibrations of the drums, the magnetic strum of the guitar, the hiss of the maracas, a frenzied harp. It’s the sound of dances like tonada, merengue, joropo, calypso and waltz, but also a harmony crossed by brasses and the tumbao of guaguancó.
Here, in this corner of the Caribbean, there are many dedicated to converting sound into music. With effortless ease and ‘guataca’: a unique ear, almost like a super power, these musicians require no sheet music to create melodies and harmonies.
It’s called playing by Guataca.
Ten years ago, composer Aquiles Baéz and entrepreneur Ernesto Rangel were convinced Venezuela sprang not only oil, but talent. They decided to build a non-profit dedicated to helping emerging artists gain exposure, especially those dedicated to traditional music. They called it – what else? – Guataca.
Baéz and Rangel knew music and musicians needed space, a driving force and someone to believe in their craft. Guataca offers musicians the chance to realize projects like releasing albums and giving professional concerts.
On Monday or Tuesday nights they held intimate, improvised concerts in Rangel’s apartment, a penthouse on the hill of Avila where you could hear toads croaking at night. Musicians appeared with their instruments – guitars, harps, basses, flutes, and trumpets spilling out of the elevator in Rangel’s apartment building. They wrote and shared songs with strong, ambitious lyrics.
“The old music lovers knew that something important was happening. Free music cried out for its spaces and it would be difficult to stop it,” writes César Miguel Rondón in the prologue of 10 Years of Pure Guataca, a recently published book that gives an account of the movement’s long stretch.
Baéz and Rangel created the Guataca Nights concert series. Originally, they were nocturnal affairs, but as Caracas became less safe the nightlife died out and the concerts were moved to Sunday mornings. In a room with warm lighting and a black curtain, musicians alone or in groups sing and play violins, mandolins, guitars and drums. The audience applauds, and everyone smiles.
Those intimate recitals have been Guataca’s main task. It aims to share, spread and record this moment in Venezuelan music.
“Guataca has been a form of cultural resistance. It has shown that yes, we can, that we have what it takes. Our path points to the organic in a world where everything is so banal and where apparently what triumphs is the commercial. Venezuelan musicians are a miracle, it is one of those wonders that you have to cling to,” said Báez.
Báez had been living in the United States for 16 years before Guataca was formed. The book 10 Years of Pure Guataca begins with the moment he had his epiphany.
“I was in Holland, in the middle of a tour. I was established in New York, I had a busy work schedule, I lived on music, but I paused for a moment to think, ‘What am I doing for us, for my country, for my culture, for my people?’”
Despite the devastating crisis Venezuela has experienced the last decade, there have been many milestones Guataca has achieved like producing, distributing and sponsoring 20 albums. The Guataca Nights showcase concerts have spread to other cities such as Valencia (Carabobo) and Lechería (Anzoátegui). And in tune with the Venezuelan displacement, Guataca has found homes in New York, Miami, Panama, Madrid and Barcelona. Combined it shows a sustained rhythm that adds 200 concerts a year, as well as the Caracas Offbeat Festival, a week-long party where traditional music occupies theaters and public spaces. In four runs, it has gathered more than 2000 artists in Caracas and venues in the Venezuelan interior such as Valencia, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto and Margarita.