BAPTISM BY BEAT

Drummer manDown by the sea, the drums call. The villages of Barlovento spring from their sleepy states for the Fiesta de San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist) in late June.

In Caruao, 40 kilometres from the nearest piece of asphalt, two bars frame the 100-yard seafront wall. The one on the left is old and tall. It echoes with raucous laughter, raised voices and the splatter of phlegm. The other is more sedate with newer plastic tables. It's empty.

During San Juan, the tambor drums of Barlovento pound relentlessly, all day and all night, while the locals dance their sensual, slinky moves, fueled by firewater and rum. At some point, figures of the saint do get carried into the water, and children are baptised, but essentially, it's a good excuse for a party.

SLAVES FOR CHOCOLATE

Barlovento means 'windward', but you won't find it on the map. It refers to the stretch of Venezuelan coast centred on the inland villages of Birongo and Curiepe, and the coastal villages of Chirimena, Caruao and Chuspa, all east of Caracas. Not that far away, the country's greatest natural disaster swept away thousands of houses and lives in December 1999.

The people of eastern Barlovento, communities descended from black slaves, are only beginning to rebuild their lives. For a while, the drums of this strong and remarkably robust culture were silenced.

The region is synonymous with black culture and folklore, which combines elements of Catholicism with African voodoo and santería rituals. The settlements hark back to the glory days of Venezuela's cacao plantations: glorious for the Gran Cacao landowners, as they became known, miserable for the slaves from Central Africa who were shipped in to work the plantations. The first cacao plantation in Venezuela flourished in the lush valleys of Curiepe, and though slavery was officially abolished by Bolívar in 1823, it wasn't until 1854 that slaves were truly emancipated. Having nowhere else to go, they stayed on, often swapping chains and whips for debts and early deaths.

These communities formed relatively isolated settlements, and preserved their traditions which survive today. The main African influence come from the Bantu, Yoruba and Mandingo peoples. Only at weekends is their existence registered, when Caraqueño families descend in their obese four-by-fours to the beaches. Out come the kids, deck chairs, cool-boxes, beer bottles, stereos and plonk, sorted. If you can't sit a yard from your parked car, forget it.

PERCUSSION PENDULUM

There are two types of tambor. One stand-up, about waist-high and nearly two feet in diameter. The other long and tubular resting on the ground. It still has skin stretched over one end, like the other, but one side is flat - or has been flattened. That's where the drummers hit it with their inch-thick wooden sticks. About three or four men will crouch along its length, pounding. The drums' rhythm changes from one village to the next. The rhythm is mesmerising, oscillating between frenetic and frenzied and back again. A percussive passion-pendulum.

There are horns too, blown in staccato bursts on the off-beat, or whenever the blower feels like it. They're huge conch shells, held up high, with one end drilled out for a mouthpiece. They make a deep down bass sound which boom-boom-booms.

Everyone's black. All the drummers are men. The women egg them on and join in the chants.

PRO WRESTLING

The dances mimic the mating prance of birds. Tight, jigging movements, with all the emphasis on the hips. Pelvises move in taut, winding, concentric circles, knees bend and feet shuffle. Couples size each other up, with the man coming as close as he can to the woman. She ducks and dives in swoops and jibes, always eluding his embrace. The battle of the sexes, Afro-Caribbean style. It's also a bit like pro-wrestling, one dancer tagging another who then enters the fray with new vigour. Top of the bill tonight, Big Mamma takes on Mister Spindly-Legs.

An old woman starts to shout and reprimand the people for something. About twenty curlers knit into her hair, and she's wearing a flowing dress of far too many colours for it to be co-ordinated with anything but her wrath. Dancing shouldn't involve touching, she seems to be explaining, with plenty of hand flailing.

The music stops, for a while. Some out-of-towners look sheepish. They were responsible for the lewd displays. A drum cracks, then another starts up, the old woman retreats, and everyone starts dancing afresh. It seems like there's more to this jiggy business than meets the eye of the only whiteboy in town. I'm with a guy from the Andes. He sits in the Empty Bar with a beer, looking on from a distance. He seems even more out of place than me. Hard, but true.

One drummer strikes me. His skin is round midnight blue. Later, when the drums up camp to the beachfront malecón, a million droplets of sweat shine on his back and shaven head. They merge into coursing rivulets, or spring from his spine in the fast-fading evening light. His grin grits, flashes like a shark's. The muscles on his abdomen and arms, every last one, pulse and contract. He thrashes out this sound that goes right through you. Musical osmosis.

There's a strange mix on the seafront. The drummers, groupies and dancers will be getting to this frenzied, hyperventilating stage, and not ten yards away, old sea dogs prop up the malecón wall, beneath the shade of a palm or two. Their fingers clasp the neck of Polarcita beers which loll at 33rpm. Mothers sit on the tree-surrounds, chatting and watching their little-ones with half an eye. The older children make their own entertainment. They emulate the grown-ups and dance about each other. I laugh as I watch one push another into the melee, and see all the giggles and hands-on-mouths of eleven year olds getting it on.

One woman is stunning, with gold, dangling earrings and bright red lipstick to match her bikini top and shorts. The top was too tight, and looked uncomfortable, unlike her shorts which did very little to cover her buttocks. In fact, they did nothing at all.

STYLE MESSIAHS

An old man sways up at one point. Some younger women in their Day-Glo bikinis and cut-off shorts entice him in. He has a pair of shiny blue shorts on and a T-shirt with "Caruao" emblazoned in pink letters, and some very ordinary shoes with dark blue socks pulled up to the knee. On his head, one of those white-straw, poor man's Panamas: style messiah. His arms swing about a lot as he stoops dancing. He's pretty wasted. He doesn't last long with the women, and slinkers off to join his mates in the bar, chuckling to himself.

As the light finally gives up the ghost, it begins to spit with rain. Later, I was told it always rains when the drummers come out to play for San Juan. Without fail, all along the coast. It's joyous rain though, warm and welcome. We could do with some of that in England. I fear the drummers would be at a loose end however...

 
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