Cultural Selection

The Spanish Empire took pains to build a colonial system with no room for intellectual or industrial development. Everything was forbidden: gatherings, travel between provinces, free trade, printing, and above all, reading books. (There was no printing press in Venezuela throughout almost the entire colonial period – books arrived with chapters removed and whole paragraphs crossed out.) It was forbidden to make things and even to think of designing ways to make them. (Any resemblance to Cuba is mere coincidence.) Venezuela’s microscopic social mobility occurred only in military or ecclesiastical institutions, dialectical deserts. The university was a scholastic dinosaur, and law, the only viable career, could not be exercised because of procedural labyrinths. In every other province, particularly the viceroyships, Mexicans, Peruvians, Colombians found loopholes to be able to exercise that indestructible faculty: thought, whose freedom gives rise to arts and crafts. In Venezuela, a simple province, the relative poverty of the soil, the absence of minerals, the parched and indomitable natural world, barely allowed the survival of miniscule communities practically without schooling or industry. Fortunately for musical development here, there was no other way to exercise thought in the leisure hours. Music became the only spiritual source where development was allowed and even stimulated by very specific cultural and economic factors.

Our ports were the first stop on terra firma in the route of the trade winds, which meant that Caracas was the stopover for great celebrations just a few hours from the port of La Guaira, unlike Bogotá, which was located weeks or months of travel from Cartagena. Recently alighted travelers, rich or poor, had no option but to celebrate having survived the dangerous crossing; the circumstances obligated the unpacking of fine liquors, merchandise, and gifts. By good fortune, local society was perfectly trained to provide the greatest welcome and to consume the recently imported victuals. Music was the most important piece of this structure of taking advantage of the happiness of travelers, which lasted a few days before they landed in hard colonial reality. Once the victim was trapped, joyful noise, dancing, drunkenness, and seduction were the weapons of the Venezuelan after a long wait and the hurried organizing of a party to attract the traveler. The musical ingredients of mestizo culture were exquisitely honed by centuries of selection and experience in the development of the fiesta: joyful fandangos with harps and guitars, drums and antiphonal song, zapateo and proud verses, sentimental songs performed by beautiful women. Everyone knew the precise steps of a seduction that guaranteed, more than the passing consumption of perishable gifts, the consolidation of a community of selected immigrants who left the welcoming party immediately connected to social networks, measured and catalogued by their economic or political power. Venezuelan social spontaneity comes with music, with the fiesta of talented improvisers. No other province of the Spanish Empire had a confluence of circumstances so focused on perfecting the art of the party and selecting the greatest talents in the only free trade allowed: music.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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