Music in Venezuela has evolved much in the same way as its neighboring countries with geographical and ethnic similarities and differences. Like many countries in South America, Venezuelan music combines varying degrees of Spanish, indigenous and African influences, and much of the country's music plays an important role in the community through its function.
There are three general ethnic areas associated with music in Venezuela: indigenous (with little Spanish influence or mestizo tendencies), Hispano-Venezuelan (including several traditional Spanish forms being included along with the mestizo forms) and Afro-Venezuelan (largely along the coastal region, and representative of numerous folkloric drumming styles). The Creole traditions emerging from older African-derived forms would branch out to neighboring Trinidad, and adapt the calypso and the steel pan into Venezuelan popular culture as well.
The indigenous music includes flutes and percussion instruments, and has maintained its more "organic" role in community life, from the supernatural and ritual to healing. Some of Venezuela's native populations include the Piaroa of the Amazon region, who emphasize the important role of the shaman in their community, each with his own musical repertoire. While many traditional forms were eventually replaced as these tribes absorbed the Christian faith (and music), there still remain a few native tribes who speak their aboriginal languages.
Hispano-Venezuelan music encompasses the rich traditions of old Spain as well as the newly formed mestizo genres, incorporating styles such as the malagueña as well as the central role of the guitar. Other stringed instruments of European origin were also adapted, including the bandolín (derived from the mandolin) and the bandola (derived from the Spanish bandurria, a lute-style guitar). Perhaps the most significant "offspring" in the guitar family is the Venezuelan cuatro, which serves as the premiere instrument along with the arpa (harp) in much of the inland styles. The indigenous instruments used in these genres include the maracas (typically smaller than other varieties), which are played quite vigorously.
Referred to as música llanera (music of the plains), this area of Hispano-Venezuelan music includes several rhythms and dances such as the joropo, which is the national dance, and features ornate harp playing. The term joropo became commonly used by the mid-19th century as a way to define the rhythm, the dance, the song and the actual event. It rose to prominence by the 1920s, and is played in a complex rhythmical structure combining 3/4 and 6/8 time.
One of Venezuela's most important artistic figures is Simón Diaz, who helped to preserve and popularize the country's folk music. A unique aspect of Hispano-Venezuelan music is its "functionality" on several levels. Many musical forms serve in religious or quasireligious celebrations (also referred to as "folk Catholicism"), such as the fulía (a devotional song in honor of the Catholic Holy Cross celebration) as well as an elaborate series of songs and dances in honor of St. James of Padua known as the tamunangue (which includes indigenous and African influences) from the Lara state in the northwest. The Hispano-Venezuelan tradition also includes children's songs (including lullabies) and work songssome dating back to old Spainas well as slave songs from the colonial era.
Afro-Venezuelan music features an array of drumming forms along its coastal area, and gave way to numerous folkloric styles primarily of West African origin, generally referred to as música criolla (Creole music). However, unlike Brazil and Cuba, where religious elements were retained through the drumming language, African-derived music in Venezuela did not maintain its traditional role. Instead, Afro-Venezuelan rhythms and dances became an added feature in Catholic celebrations, such as the style known as gaita (originating in the Lake Maracaibo area), which is associated with the Christmas holiday, and features a lively percussion-based music which serves as a social as well as political platform for Venezuelans. The group Guaco has been a frontrunner in the style since the 1970s, fusing modern harmony and contemporary instruments and arrangements into gaita music.
Other African-derived styles include the sangueo, the tambor San Millán and the culo e' puya, and each style has its own unique drums, dances and call-and-response singing traditions. One of the most important groups in the legacy of Afro-Venezuelan music is Grupo Madera, which avidly performed and recorded these styles with the hope of preserving the colonial-era music and dance tradition.
One of the more fascinating traditions in Venezuela incorporates all three of its ethnic ancestors: Spanish, indigenous and African. The quitiplás are bamboo stamping-tube instruments of indigenous origin, but the traditional style of music created when performing with them evolved into a tricultural blend of African polyrhythms and Spanish singing in call-and-response fashion. While the instruments are undoubtedly part of a more ancient practice, the Creole expression of this style shows a clear example of the ever-evolving traditions in Venezuela and throughout South America.
Since the 1960s, musicians in Venezuela have explored the wealth of the country's numerous traditional forms within a more popular context, as demonstrated by the group Un Solo Pueblo. Folk and popular musicians also joined the Latin American nueva canción movement, and by the 1970s had become important contributors to this vital form, including artists such as Soledad Bravo.
Also, Venezuela became an important player in salsa music, producing such legends as Oscar D'León, and becoming one of the musical genre's largest consumers in the latter half of the 20th century.
The country also boasts a remarkable music education program, offering all of its youth access to traditional Venezuelan as well as European classical music. The richness and variety of music in Venezuela continue to evolve today as young and old musicians take pride in preserving traditional forms while adopting more modern styles, from rock and jazz to hip-hop and beyond. Rebeca Mauleon