On World Folklore Day, celebrated on August 22, Venezuelans took to the web to highlight some of the country's cultural expressions that they identify most with. Among these were dances rooted in African cultures that today occupy a special role as they have a large influence on Venezuelan identity.
One example was a video published by dance studio Camerino Company (via Drone Venezuela), which has nearly 300,000 views and numerous comments full of nostalgia from users who are a part of the recent Venezuelan diaspora.
The video features a so-called drum dance, which originated on the northern coast of Venezuela, and is possibly the most popular Afro-Venezuelan cultural art form among young people. Both on the coasts and in the rest of the country, it is common for parties to dedicate spaces for listening and dancing to the music of drums.
The choreography seen in the video above shows influence from a variety of styles that combine the traditional with the modern, a mix that may motivate a wider public to enjoy and even participate. Camerino Company's video is a strong example of how a cultural expression can have a place in dance academies while at the same time maintaining a link with popular celebrations.
Northern Venezuela is dominated from one end to the other by the presence of the Caribbean Sea. This fact has had very important cultural implications for the country.
Even before Spanish conquest, the vast coast was the scene of migration among indigenous peoples of the region, driven from one side of the continent to the other by powerful commercial and sociocultural dynamics. Since then, that flow has not stopped.
In 1498, during his third voyage, Christopher Columbus arrived at the Tierra de Gracia, or the “Land of Grace,” which was controlled by an indigenous people known as the Caribs. Thirty years later, Europeans began to bring over the first African slaves, who – along with the indigenous population – were used to construct colonial settlements in this part of the “New World.”
Even today, after all these centuries, the Venezuelan coasts remain a quiet testimony to the course of history. The significant number of Afro-Venezuelans who live there represent both the past left behind and the richness of their present. The cultural heritage that this community has preserved from generation to generation is incalculable. From the countless prohibitions in the time of slavery, a metaphorical language was born that hid the pain of forced uprooting within sad love songs. Work songs, on the other hand, helped ease the load of endless labor, and lullabies helped children go to sleep.
Both music and dance were a means of communicating with several gods of the religions that Africans had brought to the West Indies, gods who eventually would become a part of mestizo religious rituals as well as influence secular celebrations.
Instruments like the quitiplás (a percussion instrument), the marímbula (a plucked box instrument), or the arpa tuyera (a type of harp) are a few examples of the variety of the musical heritage that Venezuelans inherited from Africa and have occasionally transformed to make their own. In many parts of the country, these instruments continue to be played; the music, danced to; and the techniques, taught.
The dancers featured in Camerino Company's video are surely not alone in their admiration for the drums and dances of Venezuela's coast. They and others like them are continuing a tradition that unites Venezuela in all its diversity with the rest of the Caribbean, but at the same time doesn't forget the wounds of a painful past that time and memory are still trying to heal.